The Art of Business Networking: Forging Influential Contacts

On airplanes, the luck of the draw determines who sits next to you. Whether you’re on a plane or train, or in a cafe or waiting room, these people can be an important captive audience.

Networking allows you to see potential in any social situation. Putting on your best face pays off – you never know where you’ll meet a business contact.

Local chambers of commerce and industry organizations have provided many business introductions. They are a good place to start for small business. According to Dave Owens, educational programs director of the Greater Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce, networking is the No. 1 reason cited by small businesses to join local chambers.

Chamber successes
Mary Bonparger, executive vice president of the Greater Des Moines Partnership, notes several small business owners who succeed at chamber events.

After monthly breakfasts to induct new members, Bonparger often notices groups of people breaking off to meet one-on-one, making deals. And at another popular chamber event, small business owners mingle with purchasing decision-makers of larger companies, allowing them to get a foot in the door.

Ande Weinstein, director of operations and principal at Tin Box Studio, a graphic design firm in Cincinnati, has used his local chamber events to his advantage.

“Chambers have helped a lot of people make a lot of contacts, though not necessarily resulted in business,” he says.

Weinstein recommends getting involved more than just being a member. “Positive results don’t come from attending events, but from becoming a volunteer and doing something with the chamber,” says Weinstein. “People learn how you work, how well you interact with others, how well you actually do your job. That’s when business can get done.”

Going beyond organized networking organizations, even everyday events and social situations can bring about influential contacts. For Andrea Learned, creative director and co-founder of Reach Women, a marketing consulting firm that focuses on reaching women consumers, her job depends on networking. She finds that networking can occur unexpectedly – even at the grocery store or health club.

“It’s much more informal than people think,” she says. “Be relaxed, make friends, and be really psyched about what you do.”

Making contact
Although there is no strictly defined strategy to networking, keep the following ideas in mind to improve idea exchanges.

  • Organize your efforts. Examine the possible ways to meet people including associations, personal databases, industry events, trade shows, business clubs, Internet communities and social gatherings. Try them all to find your most successful venue.
  • Zero in on your prospects and determine where you’ll find them. Where do they live? What activities do they enjoy? Do they frequent particular events, performances or recreational facilities? Network in places and at events where your target market goes – not where your peers or buddies go.
  • Get involved in business organizations. Get to know people, and tell them about what you do. Volunteer for committees, attend conferences, and increase opportunities that might spin off from the formal sessions.
  • Focus on a few people at each event. Get to know them well enough, so that either of you might suggest a future meeting before the event ends. Master the art of small talk. Prepare topics in your mind – current events, sports, vacation plans. Ask open-ended questions, and remember that having a good conversation depends on being an active, courteous listener. When attending an event, don’t spread yourself thinly. Recognize that quality beats quantity, and there’s more to networking than meeting hundreds of people.
  • “Don’t think of it as selling yourself,” Learned says. Networking is not a sales call. Instead, look at it as a learning opportunity. Since most successful businesses grow by referral, be the person who does the referring. The fastest way to get referrals is to give them.
  • “Don’t expect a direct hit from one contact,” Learned adds. In fact, referrals are rarely direct. More often, the actual referral comes second- or third-hand. The wider your network, the more people you have working for you in your marketplace.
  • Do something constructive with the names and information you’ve gathered. Stay in touch with the most meaningful contacts. Whether you do business with them or not, a contact is valuable. Not only should you refer others to your contact, you also should maintain the contact. Referrals, introductions and contacts that simply come by chance are like gifts. Thank anyone who helps you network.

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