Whatever big goals we are working to accomplish, we can’t do it alone. In the interactive team building sessions I facilitate, I see it repeatedly - participants quickly realize that it’s possible to reach bigger, more innovative goals faster, and have more fun, when they work together.
As small business owners and entrepreneurs, forming strong relationships is absolutely critical whether our businesses are just getting started, growing, or in transition. Our connections will become our clients, team members, strategic partners, mentors, and advisors.
Whether you’re a company of 1, 10, or 100, your business will only continue to grow if your marketing plan includes a proactive plan for networking and building those relationships. You’ve heard it before – we do business with people we know, like, and trust. How are you connecting with influencers in your industry and getting them to know, like, and trust you?
When struggling with a difficult challenge, do you ever wonder if it’s time to pivot directions or just push harder and stay the course? A colleague with experience, wisdom, and objectivity can offer insights and experiences to propel your business forward.
So, how do you form and cultivate these relationships? Here are 5 steps that you can implement immediately to expand and nurture your network.
1. Attend Networking Events – Duh, Right?
Get out and meet people – in person. Visit networking groups, meet-ups, and events in your industry - or other industries you’d like to partner with for potential clients. There is no shortage of events you may attend – try business networking groups, chambers of commerce, association meetings in your field. Attend expos and conferences. When you’re an audience member, don’t just sit and listen to the speakers, talk to the person sitting next to you, talk to the speakers and exhibitors. You already have something in common – you’ve attended the same event. Start there and make a connection. You never know where you will meet someone who may be influential in your business – perhaps years down the road. One of my biggest early contracts, as I transitioned to working as a professional speaker, came from a conversation with my local bank manager!
2. Ask Questions and LISTEN
Ok, networking events can be awkward. Do you ever feel like you just don’t know what to say? Next time, have some interesting questions prepped in your arsenal. The tweak can be as simple as NOT starting with “What do you do?”, but instead trying: “What brought you to this event?” or “How do you know (the host)?”
Get a conversation started by asking smart, thoughtful, interesting questions – about business or personal interests. Remember, this is another human being you’re speaking to who has interests and passions! See if you can connect on a personal level:
- “Have you traveled anywhere fun recently?”
- “What are your favorite hobbies/ volunteer activities/ restaurants?”
Keep notes. They may share stories you can reference later for a personal touch. Or, when appropriate, you’ll be able to send a small (but super thoughtful) thank you gift from their favorite bagel shop!
As you get into conversations around business, try questions like this that will spark a discussion:
- “What project are you most excited about right now?”
- “How did you get into your current role / line of work?”
- “Have you ever thought about trying this (insert any idea you’ve explored – outsourcing, video marketing, team retreats, etc.) at your company?”
Then be present, LISTEN to the responses, and learn. Many of us fail to listen because we are busy formulating our next thought. We all have our own agendas, are excited about sharing our business projects and launching into our elevator pitch – but don’t do it! Wait for the right moment. Don’t force it. Let the interaction evolve organically or it’s the fastest way to turn someone off. Something they say will connect to an experience you’ve had. Then you can share an interesting story about a recent business project. People remember stories.
3. Offer Value
GIVE first. Ask how you can be of service to this person. What are they excited about? You’ve learned to listen, and now Step 2 is to offer ideas on how you might help with one of their current projects.
Maybe you don’t yet have the resources to help them. Perhaps someone in your network does. Who can you connect them to? Find out what type of professionals they’d like to meet. Who can help their business?
Offer ideas. Give them a shout-out on social media. Write them a LinkedIn recommendation. Share a connection. Get creative. Show genuine interest in serving others first, and the universe will start sending help your way.
4. Be Authentic
Be Real. Don’t pretend you’re something you’re not. People will see through the fake pretty quickly, immediately jeopardizing the establishment of that critical relationship building factor – TRUST.
Share something personal. As the relationship develops, be honest about your business goals and challenges. Share your fears and concerns as appropriate. Ask questions, listen, and be open to new ideas, yet also stay tuned into your own priorities to know which suggestions aren’t a fit.
5. Follow Up
Consistent follow up is absolutely key to nurture these important relationships, foster stronger connections, and stay top of mind with your colleagues. It can be difficult to make time for follow up, because as entrepreneurs, we’re all working hard on a zillion different active projects!
There are many tools available to help automate the process. Use a CRM (Customer Relationship Manager) to keep track of correspondence, personalized notes and facts, events, possible business connections, and referrals. These connections are your pool of current & potential future customers, team members, strategic partners, and advisors.
Create a system that establishes a timeline of regular follow-up. Sharing upcoming events, new content, social media posts, blog posts, etc. is a great excuse to check in. Set reminders to send a personal note when it’s been a while.
BONUS TIP - Be nice and SMILE! A genuine smile is your magical secret weapon, helping those you interact with to relax and connect.
Will you make it a goal this week to reach out to at least 5 people in your network (check in about the last time you met, ask about one of their current projects, etc.) AND make 5 NEW connections by attending an event or asking for referrals? Your network will begin to grow exponentially, and new business opportunities will begin to manifest.