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How to make networking work for your business

  • Article

COVID-19 has altered many aspects of the landscape businesses are operating in. One thing that hasn’t changed, says Helen Bennett, Owner of The Business Network, is the value of connections. With 26 years of experience, she shares insight into how you can make the most of networking through the pandemic and beyond.

Ask yourself this question. What is the value of a single contact to my business, maybe a business-owner or director who, over time I have got to know? And now let us look at some of the possible answers.

Obviously, this contact could be a potential customer – but they could also be a source of useful information; a ‘sounding-board’ for your ideas; someone to offer encouragement and emotional support; a supplier, either to you or one of your clients; they could refer business to you; they may offer complementary products or services that could add value for your own customers – a collaboration that may even allow you to trade in different sectors or with larger organisations. All this from just a single contact – and the great thing is, this one contact is looking at you and seeing exactly the same value.

The point of networking is to establish such relationships – a business-lifetime of connections, all contributing to an invaluable ‘support-network’ of contacts.

Pros and cons of socially-distant networking

COVID-19 has changed everything. It has resulted in a fundamental shift in how networks operate. Technology has stepped in to allow virtual meetings to be held via video platforms such as Zoom, TeamViewer, BlueJeans and the like. Although a generalisation, there is an irony in the fact good networkers are ‘people people’, and now they are required to leave their comfort zone, adopt new technologies and learn new skills.

One benefit that has arisen from the crisis is that now the geographical barriers to networking have been swept aside. I have personally been organising monthly events in Exeter, London and Manchester for many years. During that time if members wanted to access another marketplace and establish contacts in that location they needed to travel. Now we link members via a Zoom event, bringing together 100 senior decision-makers without them needing to leave their working environment, saving time, money and the planet!

As we start to recover, networking will play a vital role for small businesses

A support network for recovery

To survive the current crisis, businesses need to adapt, be flexible and plan for a very different business landscape. Without having ready access to a ‘support network’ of contacts, that can offer advice on topics such as funding, HR, legal, technology, cyber security, a business is going to be at an immediate disadvantage.

As we start to recover, networking will play a vital role for small businesses, and it is equally true to say that if you didn’t have an established network of contacts pre-COVID-19, it is going to be a little harder for you to build the contacts now. Why? On an emotional level, meeting face to face offers the advantage – connections are built on trust and it is more difficult to replicate this in a virtual environment. In fact, businesses will need to work harder at both generating and maintaining their networks – it is now even more important to pick up the phone and engage with people.

Helen Bennett’s top tips for successful networking

  1. Be focussed. If you take a scattergun approach, flitting between groups and attending (even virtually) every event you can, you risk not engaging with people on a deep enough level.
  2. Attend regularly, so you can develop relationships and not be a stranger. Taking time to build relationships becomes even more important when you’re not engaging face to face.
  3. Follow up and arrange further meetings with those contacts you identify as offering a potential alliance.
  4. Take the opportunity that virtual networking presents to make connections with people in possible new marketplaces.
  5. Don’t use the meetings as an opportunity to ‘sell’. Instead, spend the time asking questions, learning about others’ companies, and be genuine in your willingness to look for ways in which you can be of value to them.
  6. Start with a desire to help. There is reciprocity to networking – you have a group of contacts all acting on each other’s behalf when opportunities arise; buying from each other when the time is right, referring leads, offering advice when required and exchanging best-practice. Creating a support network could help boost your recovery.
  7. Ensure the network you’re exploring offers the right level of engagement with the right people. Networks will work best for business owners if they are meeting other decision-makers, people who can say, ‘actually we need what you do’.
  8. Don’t underestimate the personal touch, even at a distance. Social media is great for awareness and profile but shouldn’t be used at the expense of other activities that offer a more personal one-to-one experience. Picking up the phone (with video if preferred) is essential in building and maintaining those all-important relationships.

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