Opinion: How to make networking part of your business planning

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8 tried-and-true tips for small business owners

Are you one of the people who contribute to the 34 percent of GDP that comes from small businesses in this province? In a recent article, “Go Figure: The big impact of small business,BCBusiness reinforced the importance of small business to our province’s economy.

Having been a small business owner with both Cookies By George and O-Tooz The Energie Bar, I understand the challenge of finding the time to work on the business, not in the business. Getting out and networking raises your profile, and meeting new people brings new opportunities. People do business with those they know and like, and people recommend people they know and like. But that takes face-to-face networking—and time, which is often in short supply.

That’s because the best-laid plans of a small business owner often get derailed by daily surprises: staff not showing up, shipments gone astray and operational glitches. As a result, you cancel the networking event you had planned to attend that day. Pretty soon a year has gone by, and all those you thought about attending have taken a back seat to the daily demands of your business.

The best way to avoid this scenario is to put together a networking plan. Here are eight ideas to consider.

1. Put networking into your business plan

Include in your annual budget the cost of memberships in organizations as well as purchasing a certain number of tickets to luncheons, breakfasts and speaker events. Should you be sponsoring a table, what’s often referred to as buying a table, to raise your company’s profile? Should your firm be attending charity functions or marquee events that you haven’t been to before? Is there a conference you’ve been thinking about going to but always run out of time or money? If you budget for it and book it, you’ll go.

2. Assess your network and fill gaps

What’s the size and quality of your network? Size does matter: do you have 1,000 contacts, 5,000 contacts or 500? How diverse is your network? Closed networks know the same people you do, and they’re important to get things done, but open ones reach out and diversify your contacts. For example, if you’re a woman, are most of your connections female? If you are in the tech industry, are most of your contacts other techies? Figure out where the gaps are and take action to start meeting those people.

3. Commit the time because you understand the potential

“There’s a networking event on Tuesday. I’ll try and go.” Rather than this ad hoc approach set specific goals when building your network. For example, resolve to attend one event a week. That’s 47 a year—with five weeks off for good behaviour. Make seven good contacts per event, then do the arithmetic. At the end of the year you’ll have 329 new connections, but it’s the exponential power of those 329 connections that makes building a network so effective. It’s not just those 329 connections; it’s their connections. Imagine the opportunities, because you’re one handshake away from the networks of each of those individuals.

4. Invite someone so you must go

If you want to stick to your networking commitments, it helps if you invite someone—a customer or potential customer—to attend. By going with a tag teammate (it’s in your budget to do so!), you can introduce them to the people you know at the event, and they can introduce you to their network.

5. Look for opportunities for other brand ambassadors

Are there other people in your company who should be attending networking events or becoming members of different organizations? Do they know they have a budget to do this? Do they have key networking skills? Do they know how to walk into a room solo, make a good first impression, engage in small talk and carry on a conversation? Does your team know how to explain what your company does without it sounding like a sales pitch? These can all be learned, so send people out prepared.

6. Send them out to build relationships

Most people are uncomfortable with transactional networking. Instead of saying, “I want you to go to this event, meet as many people as you can and bring back some leads”, explain that you’d like them to “go to the event, meet some folks, learn something about them and come back and share what you’ve learned.”

7. Ask, “What happened?”

You or your employee spent precious time attending a networking event or conference, so debriefing is important. The questions to ask include: What should you do next to advance the relationship with the people you have met? Should we be more involved in the organization that hosted the event? What’s our next step? Our Shepa Learning Company Follow-up Checklist is a helpful tool.

8. Measure the results

Most important, throughout the year and at your fiscal year-end, assess what has happened as a result of putting networking into your business plan.

“If you can not measure it, you can not improve it.” ?William Thomson, Lord Kelvin, mathematical physicist

Gayle Hallgren-Rezac, Judy Thomson and Darcy Rezac, principals of Shepa Learning Company, are keynote speakers and authors of Work the Pond! Use the Power of Positive Networking to Leap Forward in Work and Life (Penguin/Prentice Hall). They teach the skills of networking and communication to corporate clients, universities and business associations. Please sign up for their free weekly networking tip; it’s always under 200 words.