The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Networking

By Marcia Hall
Have you ever thought, “I don’t know what to talk about when I meet people”?

While business owners may be passionate about their services or products, for some the prospect of networking can cause anxiety. The success of your company, however, depends on attracting new customers or clients and then building on those relationships. The key word is relationships, because that is what networking is all about.

Some people think networking events are a time to “make the sale,” and if nothing happens immediately, the experience was a failure. But networking is not selling. It may set the stage for future sales, but really effective networking is all about relationship building.

Successful entrepreneurs map out a networking strategy. They realize time must be devoted to developing and nurturing their people network.

Investigate Potential Groups

One of the first steps is to determine or reassess which groups to join. There are many organizations available to entrepreneurs, such as Chambers of Commerce, the Entrepreneur’s Exchange, network referral groups and other leads groups. There are also industry trade associations that might be appropriate to investigate. But business people often make the mistake of joining groups without checking them out first.

How do you find just the right organization for your purpose? Ask colleagues, other people you know in the same industry, or those who are successful. Ask your customers/clients about the groups to which they belong. You want to be where your target markets get together.

Attend as a guest and see if particular groups meet your needs. Talk to members and read the organizations’ newsletters. Are the leaders and members excited about the groups? Are they welcoming? Are their programs of interest to you?

Once you have selected groups to join, avoid the second mistake business people make, which is not to participate actively. To build relationships you need to attend on a regular basis, so that people get to know what they can count on you for and you can learn how to assist them. Networking events are the place to establish your reputation and to exchange helpful resources.

Concentrate on Learning Networking Skills

How many times has someone asked you, “What’s new?” and you answered, “Not much.”

People respond with similar rituals all the time. But those comments are conversation stoppers and don’t further the relationship. Instead, think about what information, resources or tips you can give to others and what knowledge, help or skills you need—before you attend an event. Networking experts Anne Baber and Lynne Waymon of Contacts Count call this exercise creating your “Agenda.”

Prepare some conversation openers as well. This is helpful when the person to whom you are speaking is not responsive. Asking interesting questions can move the conversation and relationship in the right direction.

Simply inquiring about what a person does in a typical day or why he/she attends a meeting can start things off. Then, if you listen intently, follow-up questions will occur to you. As the conversation moves forward, you can talk about your interests as well.

“I have a home-based business, and I’d like to find a good accountant,” you could say. People love to make referrals and introductions, so stating what you need will deepen a relationship.

Another very important skill to cultivate is learning people’s names and teaching them yours. Linger over introductions and really concentrate on names by repeating theirs and then stating your first name twice. “I’m Claire, Claire Johnson.” It will do you no good if you forget a name 10 seconds after hearing it, particularly if you want to introduce that person to someone else.

Describing what you do, rather than stating your title or occupation, is also a technique to use. When developing your message, consider how you help or promote customers/clients. Follow that with a specific example that differentiates you from other people in the same industry.

If you need to brush up in any of these areas, there are courses in networking, such as those offered at Anne Arundel Community College.

Networking opportunities are around you everywhere-from the formal business venue to the backyard barbecue. Relationships develop with each exchange you have, especially when you put the emphasis first on how you can help others. People, in turn, will want to reciprocate once trust is firmly in place.

A solid network is a valuable tool to bringing in, keeping and growing your customer base.

© 2010, Marcia Hall

Marcia Hall is the founder of Reputation COUNTS, providing workshops and training in business networking and workplace skills.  She is a Certified Contacts Count presenter and an adjunct faculty member at Anne Arundel Community College.


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