04/11/2010

By Andy Lopata

Networks and networking, are thriving in these tough times. More than ever people recognise that they need to look to others for support if they are to achieve their career and business goals.

The ‘dog-eat-dog’ world of business painted by TV programmes such as The Apprentice is not necessarily the way forward in business today. Instead businesses are more likely to achieve positive results through collaboration. Sharing experiences, expertise, ideas and contacts is essential to business success.

It’s great to see this growth in the popularity of networking. There is a danger as well, however. Many people still network because others suggest it and join those groups and online networks recommended by their friends. Such an approach can often lead to disappointment, as one person’s needs are different from another’s and not all networks cater for all requirements effectively.

Besides, if you don’t know what you want to achieve from your networks, you will struggle to achieve anywhere near the potential they offer.

In general people network for one, or a combination of three reasons. We network to become:

- Better known (profile building)
- Better equipped (brain building)
- Better connected. (referral building)

If you understand how each of these areas are relevant to your business you can look to networking events and networks and ask how they can then help you overcome your challenges. Your networking strategy can then be built around your individual challenges and how each network might help you overcome them.

Different people will join networks for different reasons. For example, for me LinkedIn is a referral-building network (helping me become better connected). Through the viral nature of retweets and the ability to educate my network about my business, Twitter helps me build my profile (becoming better known in the process); while Mastermind groups I join help me overcome my challenges (better equipped).

Someone else may use LinkedIn to raise their profile by contributing to discussions in groups, connecting more broadly and responding to questions, Twitter to learn more about their customers and marketplace by monitoring conversations around their brand or area of interest and join a network like BNI or BRX to generate referrals.

That doesn't mean that I won't get other benefits from each of the networks I join, but I do understand my primary reason for being there. Before joining any network, each of us needs to have a clear idea of what we want to achieve from membership, how that network can help to deliver that outcome and the commitment we need to make to the network to achieve the end result.


Better Known

If you join a network to become better known, understand where you want your profile to be strong and pick your networks accordingly. Are your potential clients based in a geographic area, within one or more industries? Do the people who decide to use your services tend to be from one or two key roles within organisations, such as Sales Directors or Heads of HR?

Wherever you need the word spread, understand who those people will be talking to, who influences them, where they are most likely to hear about you and network accordingly.

The growth of online networks has made it even easier to raise your profile and spread the word. Clearly, online networks are a much easier way to reach a wider audience and grow a global reputation, but there are also a large number of niche networks on the internet, serving different industries, interest groups and locations.

A word of warning here, it is one thing to spread the word about your business, online or off. It is quite another to manage what is being said about you. It is important that you have a clearly defined view of what your message is and what you want people to say about you before joining a network.

Managing the message that others communicate on your behalf is the key to developing a strong reputation networking strategy. Ask yourself the question before you connect with anyone else as part of your business strategy, ‘After someone has met me, how would I want them to describe me to someone else?’


Better Equipped

As John Donne said, ‘No Man is an Island’ and this is particularly true now. We need to learn from others, benefit from their experiences and expertise and open ourselves out to new ideas if we are to achieve as much as is possible.

Over the years I have learnt a lot and developed many skills through my networking activity. I have a network of people around me who I feel confident turning to and asking for advice. As a result I rarely have to face a challenge for the first time without any help from people who have been there before.

I’m not alone in experiencing such benefits from my networks. However, many of us tend to get such support almost by accident rather than design. What difference would it make to your business if you were surrounded by people who possessed the skills, expertise and experience you lack and who are willing to share those with you?

Professional associations, mastermind groups, industry networks and many small business networks all offer us access to peer groups, subject-matter experts and support that can make all the difference to our business. Build strong relationships with the people with whom you network and will be able to turn to them for help and advice as well as referrals.

If you don’t have the relevant experience in your immediate network, or if you don’t feel comfortable asking the question, there are many networks set up specifically to provide those resources. From the blogs and clubs on social networks to events with speakers, the support is there, you simply have to seek it out.


Better Connected

Many businesses think primarily of networking as a route to more sales. There is nothing wrong with that, almost all of the business that we generate comes through my networking activities. However, I don’t look to sell to my network.

This is an important distinction. Networking isn’t selling. Picture a typical networking event. How many people do you think have come there primarily to buy? And how many are there to sell?

Most people attend networking events (excluding those with a clearly stated alternative purpose) primarily to sell. But is there a worse place to sell than a room full of salesmen? A different approach will pay huge dividends.

Instead of looking at the people you meet as potential clients, look to develop a relationship with them. Yes, you can let people buy from you if they are interested, but wouldn’t you prefer them to refer you five times than buy from you once? After all, if they trust you and understand enough about your business to refer you, if they need your services personally where else will they turn?

You need to be patient if you are to build a referral network. People refer others who they know, like and trust and that doesn’t happen overnight. During tough times though, those referrals are invaluable, opening doors that have been slammed shut on other vendors and bringing your business to the top of the pile.

If you surround yourself with people who trust you and understand how you help your clients, you can ask for the connections you need to drive your business forward in good times and bad.

To achieve such referrals, join networks where you can build strong relationships, develop trust and educate your connections about what you do and who you do it for. Look to see how the network will help you do just that and, again, what you have to commit to develop that trust and understanding.

It is great to see networking being embraced by so many businesses of varying sizes and in a wide range of industries, as well as by individuals looking to further their careers. A strategic approach to which networks they join and how they participate within those networks will have a huge impact on how sustainable the growth of network is, and just how successful those new networkers can be.

To find out more about how to pick the right networks, implement a successful networking strategy or how to generate more referrals, please visit our website www.lopata.co.uk or contact us at Harvey@lopata.co.uk / 01992 450488.

For a webinar on how to use LinkedIn as a Referral Tool please click here.


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