Network with Other Small Businesses

Networking with your peers — whether it’s in person or online — is a skill that’s honed and developed just as any other skill is: with practice, practice, practice. For the small business owner, networking online today isn’t just a social nicety, it’s a professional necessity! It no longer means simply keeping track of business contacts or chamber of commerce mixer dates. In most industries, if you’re not online these days, that translates into “not up-to-date.” If the offline guy or gal is you, that’s bad news for your business, because networking is the key to new business. For your competitors, that new business contact may well be your current customer! So don’t underestimate the importance of this skill.

In essence, networking is making the best use of professional contacts you’ve already made, by allowing them to make new contacts on your behalf. usually, new contacts that you would not or could not make on your own without a “cold call.” In Victorian times, the protocol required that young men and young women produce a formal Letter of Introduction, written by a mutual friend when calling on strangers at their homes. Your network contacts are your means of introduction to new, potentially profitable clients and customers. Treat them all with consummate respect!

The presumption in an effective network is, of course, that the favor of an introduction or an open gateway is always returned. Constant contact keeps networks on the move and networkers on the prowl for new contacts.

In today’s hyper-connected business environment, networking online isn’t just mandatory; it’s also easy and effective if you know where to go and what the rules are. Here’s a quick course for the uninitiated:

1. If you don’t have a company Web site, get one up.

It’s well worth the investment. In the meantime, use your computer, the Internet, and e-mail to make your online contacts and maintain a network database.

2. Start with what you know.

That’s your business and your industry. That’s also your suppliers and customers, and their industries. Keep scrupulous track of names (proper spelling is an absolute must), addresses (on- and off-line), phone, fax, and pager numbers, business information and details about their business and contacts you’ve made-or would like to make-through them.

And ALWAYS check gender with the contact who’s opening the professional door for you. There’s nothing worse than sending a cheerful e-hello to Mr. Leslie Greene, only to discover she’s the mother of four!

3. Use existing professional organizations as links.

Everyone from the Small Business Association to the Better Business Bureau, from the local Chamber of Commerce to the neighborhood homeowners association, are likely to have Web sites these days. Use them. Read them. Take their online courses. Offer to teach an online course in your specialty. Check out who they’re linked to, and add the links to your database. Check regularly with your friends and associates to discover who knows whom and what that means for your business. A weekly new business meeting is an opportune time for you and your staff to exchange notes.

4. Join online user-groups in your industry or interest.

Run a Google search on keywords in your business to find out who else and what else is out there in cyberspace, doing what you do, looking for business where you could be looking for business. Join e-mail lists, and sign up for newsletters. Make it a point to read discussion forums and get to know the participants.

5. Learn how to describe your business, service

Product or specialty in one or two hard-hitting sentences that communicate exactly what you want people to know about you. That’s what your contacts will be sharing with their contacts in the network, so don’t take this step idly. And be consistent — don’t vary your description from contact to contact.

6. The more, the merrier.

You should make at least as many contacts online as you have in the “real world.” Some will produce for you; many will not. The more contacts you have, the greater the chances that something will pan out in terms of new business.

7. Explore each online contact for such connections as shared goals, challenges and interests.

Keep the probing as light and general as possible in the early days in order to avoid leaving the impression you’re overeager or, worse, not what you say you are. Ask your questions and share your information professionally. Don’t ever pry for business information or personal information, and resist all impulses to share your own personal information online.

8. Work extra hard online to make a good first impression.

Remember, your contacts won’t always know you have a dazzling smile or a firm handshake or a quick wit. It’s harder to earn a contact’s trust online, so don’t be lazy and rely on your natural charm and good looks!

And don’t ever come across as rude or petty or crude, in your e-mails, IMs or e-letters. Remember that communications spread on the Internet like wildfire. So never write or send anything that you’d be ashamed to have discovered by a business associate or a new business contact!

And finally, remember that great online networkers are made, not born. If you’re not accustomed to online communications, you’re going to be ill-at-ease chatting away with virtual strangers. But remember, the more you do it, the better you’ll become. That beginner’s discomfort is guaranteed to vanish when you make your very first successful and profitable online connection!

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