August 23, 2015
Q: I've been told I need to network more in order to grow my service business. How does one go about it?
A: The most effective form of marketing is word of mouth. But people can't spread the word about you and your small business if they don't know you.
That's where networking comes in. Whether it's through a professional association for your industry, a chamber of commerce or another local business group, networking offers a valuable forum for prospective customers and colleagues to learn about you and the services or products you provide.
Successful networking is more than simply exchanging introductions and business cards, then waiting for someone to call. In fact, Nelson Farmer, a marketing expert and SCORE mentor, says people waste the few precious moments they have with new and existing contacts by focusing on themselves.
"It's better to spend most of that time asking questions and collecting information," he says. "Then you can make quick assessments as to whether they would have any interest in the solutions your business provides."
Farmer recommends that every entrepreneur have a succinct "elevator speech" - a 30-second description of the problems the business solves. After that, the focus of the networking conversations should be entirely on other people: their primary business concerns, problems they want solved and unmet business needs. As the conversations unfold, you may find areas that overlap with the solutions you provide.
"If not, you can still make an impression by referring them to other people in your network who can help," Farmer says. "They'll see you as a problem solver, and be more likely to provide you with referrals in return."
Networking also doesn't end with the conversation. Farmer recommends maintaining a data file of networking information and updating it as soon as possible after every contact.
"Make note of their interests, what you've shared with them, and when to contact them next," he says, adding that regular follow-ups are essential. "People have short memories and may forget that you exist and more importantly, that you're the best person to help them with their business needs and problems."
Finally, while valuable business contacts can happen anytime and anywhere; don't leave your strategy to chance.
"Identify the people you want to make contact with, whether prospects or potential marketing alliance partners, and make carefully researched efforts to build relationships," Farmer says. "This approach takes more time on your part, but it gets results."