Is networking like marmite? The very mention of it seems to send folks either gushing about the number of networking breakfast and lunch groups they attend, or you get the ‘not for me/ I did it once and it didn’t work / I’m far too busy’ people. I worry about this latter group; that they are left out in the cold whilst avid networkers are having a great time linking up at meetings and events, connecting online, and generally seeking out ways to do business and support one another.
So, do people who commit to formal networking experience greater success in their businesses than those who don’t? I have no definitive answer, nor is there any evidence to suggest that businesses that shun face-to-face networking achieve any less success via social media. I only know that the business partners who we do most work with are networkers (by their own admission), and the more successful of our business contacts are networking professionals. What I mean by professionals are people who are actively involved in organisations like the Federation of Small Businesses, Institute of Directors and other organisations and local business groups. These folk have a greater standing in the business community, are better connected across the small-to-medium business sector and attract interest from larger organisations.
My personal interest in networking started around eight years ago when, in a business development role with my present company, I wanted to try a new approach to attracting business. This was 2005 and very much pre-recession. I joined several different networks, aware that they would be mostly attended by small businesses i.e. too small to be clients for us, but likely to have connections to the type of business we seek. I had to carefully manage my time and budget so that even a small success would be cost effective. Indeed, success came fairly easily and in ways that I couldn’t have achieved by cold-calling or running email campaigns. I was particularly drawn to the mutual support aspect, and the satisfaction of helping other businessfolk and sharing of ideas; an aspect of networking that some businesses just don’t ‘get’ or throw in the towel too early to experience.
I was sufficiently inspired by one particular networking organisation for businesswomen, the Athena Network, to buy a franchise which I ran for almost five years. which included training to network more effectively. The start of the recession convinced me even more that networking is the right way to secure business and the old adage of people buy from people is more relevant than ever. The support that networking can offer in delivering advice, securing strategic partnerships, and giving referrals is invaluable and helps small businesses maintain a competitive edge.
My own experience of running a professional networking organisation was like being on a five year multi-disciplined business seminar where I learned more than I could ever have done simply by continuing as a business development director. I have applied everything I have learned, which includes personal development, home management, fashion and style advice, as well as business savvy. My primary business and my relationships are all the better for it!
I met some truly inspiring businesswomen, some of whom I am privileged to call friends. I have great contacts and continue to build on these relationships, casting my net even wider. The professional networks I now belong to are populated by people who, on the whole, understand the principles and etiquette of networking, evidence that it has evolved over the years and is all the better for it. They are generous in their advice and work on building relationships with their co-networkers and they genuinely enjoy the process of networking. I have had some great follow-up meetings and have met people I have done, and want to do, business with.
Technology and the recession has forced networking to become a slicker, more relevant function in business development. Face-to-face organisations use social media tools, to continue to add value and people who network are enthusiastic and optimistic folk. Why any small business would not want to give it a proper go concerns me, particularly since there is less public funding to support this sector.
If you are reading this and want to attend a networking event near you visit: www.findnetworkingevents.com
Go on, give it a go!