For a 'born socialiser' networking - making the most of meeting people, expanding our circle of contacts and building on those relationships - is effortless.
But not all of us are quite as confident at 'working a room'. However, networking is a vital part of business success and thankfully a skill that can be developed.
There are two big advantages to networking - knowledge exchange and creating business opportunities.
The exchange of knowledge with other business owners is extremely important, particularly when you're starting or running a small business, as the wisdom of someone who has been there and done it can help prevent you from making the same mistakes.
There are few business problems that someone, somewhere, hasn't overcome - wouldn't you appreciate a word with an entrepreneur who has been in the same position and solved the problem? In turn, sharing your knowledge builds a good reputation for you.
Word of mouth should never be underestimated, you may think you don't have a sales force, but every time you make a new contact you have the chance to turn that contact into a business lead and for them to pass on word of your services to others.
Remember, you don't get a second chance to make a first impression - research shows that it takes only a few seconds to form a very detailed opinion about someone - and every new contact you meet could mean new business.
So how do you maximize your networking opportunities?
Do your research
Find out which organisations offer you opportunities to contact the people relevant to your business.
This doesn't just mean events, like enterprise agencies and chambers of commerce often organise, or exhibitions, it can be, sports clubs, gallery openings and online business forums.
It is true that a lot of business is done on the golf course, widening your hobbies and interests can open doors to other business people and possible business.
Prepare to engage
With little time to make an impression, get it right first time - not just what you're going to say, but how you look and behave, and how you react to the people you meet.
It's essential to think it through and practice - if you're not sure how you come over, ask someone you trust and listen to their ideas. Being fully prepared helps build your confidence before the event, and the more you practice, the easier it gets.
Work on a pithy and interesting definition of what you do. No one wants to hear a rambling story. Think about how to encourage people to describe what they do. Learn about them and introduce them to others.
Look and learn
Take time to observe how other people 'work the room' and how the people they meet respond.
Break down what you see - what's being said, how it's delivered and received, the body language, how people move on to the next person and so on. Who is creating relationships and who is just dishing out business cards?
Organise your contacts
So, you've 'sold yourself' at a business breakfast or exchanged advice on an online business forum, you now need to make sure that you capitalise on those contacts.
Organise those business cards and emails, make notes about the people you met, and follow up contacts, even if it's a short email - always say where you met and include your full business contacts.
Don't dash off the email, plan it and check it - sloppy emails are disrespectful and can harm your reputation. The same goes for calling - plan, don't just grab the phone when you have a moment, because you need to maintain and build on the good impression you've made.
After all the hard work you have put into finding the right people to network with and presenting yourself in the best way to them, maintain these important contacts, try to get involved with as many networking opportunities as you have time for - and remember, away from organised activities, you never know who you may meet, so use your skills to raise your profile at every opportunity.
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