When a business owner asks something like “I need help growing and marketing my business. What should I do?” he or she probably expects to hear something along the lines of SEO, content marketing, conferences and other common tactics to foster growth. They would probably be surprised if they were told, “Go ask your friends.”
That doesn’t sound like very strong advice on the surface, does it?
And yet, as bizarre as it sounds, it’s actually one of the best ways to grow your business. What gets lost in the rush to find the most up-to-date marketing tactics is the fact that as a business owner, one of your most potent resources is your own personal and business network. Sure, there is a host of valuable information that you can find in online articles, books, trade publications and other sources, but getting advice tailor made for you from people you know and respect may be the most powerful way to gain insight and direction for business growth.
Growing and maintaining a close-knit network of knowledgeable individuals, then, can be one of the best investments you can make as a business owner. The major benefits of having a strong network are knowledge and referrals. Being able to mine your network’s collective intelligence when solving a business problem can be the difference between success and failure, and providing value back to your contacts can cement your place as a trusted ally making them more likely to send business your way if they can.
It should be noted, though, that networking takes time and patience – that’s why we called it an investment. The results of networking can be life-changing, but you shouldn’t expect them to come overnight. Moreover, being a bad networker can actually hurt your business. As it is with your personal relationships, business relationships must be skillfully maintained and handled if they are to bear fruits for everyone involved. Here are some ways to invest in and maintain your network for the purpose of growing your business.
Go in with a giver’s mentality
The first major rule of networking is understanding that other people don’t exist just to serve your purposes. A network can function at its highest potential only if all of its individual nodes are contributing to the rest of the bunch. Entrepreneur Magazine wrote that you need to build up some social capital before you start asking for favors. Trying to get something before you’ve given anything is like trying to make a withdrawal from an empty bank account.
Start by offering some help to someone that could be a valuable connection for you down the road. You don’t have to do them some huge over-the-top favor. Just introducing them to someone that might be able to help them, or sending them an informative and interesting article about something related to their space, could be a great way to break the ice and provide value – anything that proves that you are someone worth connecting to.
But don’t just be a giver for the sake of getting something. Most people have been around the business world long enough to tell who’s being disingenuous. If you have a hidden motive, it’s likely that your contact will root it out and probably take offense to it. You need to give freely and without stipulations.
Build your network before you need it
Duct Tape Marketing suggests looking at your business goals on a timeline and seeing how your network could fit into it.
Be realistic. If you need help for a business project that needs to be completed by next week, don’t expect people in your network to just drop what they are doing to go assist you.
This is why having a strong network already constructed is key. A network takes time to build and develop into something useful. You have to get to know everyone, establish yourself as a giver and gain their trust before they’re going to take the time to solve your problem. If you have a certain goal you want to meet within a year and you know someone in your network can help you with it, take the time to build that relationship so it can pay dividends when you really need it.
If you haven’t started building your network, start now. As the old saying goes, “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.”
Stay in your contact’s wheelhouse and be specific
Eventually, after you’ve created value and established your place in the network, you can begin looking to others to lend you their expertise.
First, don’t try to get someone to do something that’s clearly not in their area of expertise. This sounds fairly obvious, but as Entrepreneur noted, its a common mistake for rookie networkers. Asking your contact to go out of his comfort zone to help you will likely make him hesitant to do it again another time.
Second, be specific. Don’t ask general questions like “What should I do?” These questions are nearly impossible to answer effectively. Ask specific questions like “Here are my options. I’ve read that Option A is good, but I wanted to get your opinion on Options B and C too.” The narrower your focus, the more likely you are to get a good answer while avoiding the prospect of wasting their time by making them try to answer a vague question.In that vein, don’t ask for general favors. The more specific the favor, the more willing your contact will be to lend a hand. For example, if you want an introduction to someone in a specific industry, find out how your contact is related to them and ask them to introduce you to a specific person. Don’t just ask, “Can you introduce me to people in X industry?” By making less work for the people in your network, you show that you’re doing all the legwork and they just need to fill in the gap.
Think about some of your business goals and how your network can help you. How can you leverage your existing contacts to get insights and help on your projects? If you don’t have a strong network, how can you build one to advance your business?
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