Networking is one of the most powerful business tools, and if you are a small business owner, you are constantly out there trying to build your company’s client base. The end of the year is no different – in fact, the holidays often bring additional networking opportunities for entrepreneurs. It is the perfect time to introduce yourself to new contacts, or share a friendly conversation with someone you already know. For professional networking tips we spoke with Melissa Willis, a networking expert, long time member of BNI, and owner of the Referral Institute in New Orleans, on how to make the most out of networking during the holidays:
How should business owners decide where to invest networking time?
“You want to make sure that you are networking with people who either are in your target market or they have access to your target market, i.e. if you are a person who has a product that is perfect for dogs, you are not going to go to a networking event that is all about cats and cat enthusiasts. So as silly as that sounds, you just want to make sure that the folks that you are building relationships with are the folks who can help you to build your business, and you want to be able to offer something as well”
No events to attend? Remember that one of the best ways to begin networking is to start within your community and getting to know other local small business owners. Try to encourage local support and partnerships around the holidays. A great example is the NOLA Small Business Saturday, which is a direct response to Black Friday and has become a sales powerhouse for local and small businesses. You can also join local professional groups and communities. Look for events by local chambers, such as as the New Orleans Chamber of Commerce or the Jefferson Chamber of Commerce. There are plenty of other organizations that promote economic development in your area as well. Check out the Greater Mid City Business Association, the ABWA Crescent City Connections or BNI Louisiana. And don’t forget to look for Local Holiday Events around your city where you can network while enjoying some holiday cheer with friends and family.
Unfortunately for most people the holidays are also the busiest time for friends and family and many small business owners worry that networking will consume too much of their time. We asked Melissa:
How much time should business owners spend networking?
“Often times we feel that quantity is more important than quality, when sometimes it’s better to maybe meet 3 new people and focus on forming a friendship with them or building a relationship with them, instead of trying to meet 30 people and trying to juggle all of that”…”Where networking events are concerned, size does not always matter. If you have a room of 100 people it’s going to be very challenging to meet everybody in the room or try to meet everybody in the room. It is more manageable sometimes to go to a smaller event, because you can really get a chance to talk to people, and you are not thinking – Oh, I’ve got to meet everyone in the room!- And you are not focused on the person that you are talking to right then and there.”
A recent study found that today 43% of small business owners spend 6 or more hours per week on social networks, and that amount of time has increased over the last year. Some may consider that time ‘networking’, but if you are posting offers on your Facebook page that time should be allocated to marketing and not networking. We asked Melissa:
What networking tips can you offer about using social media platforms?
“I’m a big fan of Facebook. I find that Facebook is one of the more user friendly platforms, and that anybody can get on Facebook and navigate it pretty easily. When I use it for networking, I’m usually inviting people to an event or I’m sharing an event, I’m not necessarily selling on Facebook, so there is a difference there.”
“LinkedIn is also good too because you can publish articles on LinkedIn, you can share events on LinkedIn, and LinkedIn as you probably know is going to have a very different market than the Facebook market”
Remember that networking is not about selling but about building new relationships based on trust. People buy from people that they like and trust, so it is important to keep in touch and follow up on new contacts as soon as possible. But how can you build new relationships without coming off too strong? We asked Melissa:
How do you go about following up?
“You sometimes have to take that on a case by case basis. Let’s say for example you meet someone who owns a restaurant at a networking event. A very easy way to follow up is to go and have a meal at their restaurant, go and have a drink at their restaurant, just maybe pop in to say hello”…
“If you’ve made a connection with someone and you’ve decided that you could really help each other, you could set a meeting at the networking event, and then your follow up is obviously going to be going to the meeting. An easy way to follow up if you are not sure if there is a connection, but you might want to check it out, is just sending a little note in the mail, i.e.- Hey Sally it was great to meet you at the Chamber event, hope to see you again soon! – and you can enclose your business card and put that out in the mail. Very few people are sending personal cards in the mail anymore, so it really allows you to stand out!”
Holiday Networking Tips – Do’s and Don’ts:
- Avoid drinking too much: It should go without saying, but in order to maintain professionalism, always avoid drinking heavily.
“My number one piece of advice for holiday networking is: Don’t drink too much!! You get to the event and it’s festive, and it’s holiday time and you think – well I’ll just have one more – and that’s when things can go particularly bad depending on the person”
- Focus on Reconnecting with people: The social and relaxed atmosphere of holiday parties makes it easier to reconnect with someone you haven’t seen in a long time
“There’s those people in your life that you really only see around the holidays, so focus on reconnecting. Find out if they’ve had a job change, find out what changed in their business, ask how you can help them, ask if they are having any business challenges. If you can be the person being of service and trying to help you are going to make greater strides than if you are the person who is trying to sell at the event. And also too for those people that you see once a year, if you really feel like you have a connection and you can help each other, then set an appointment for January”
- Don’t approach networking as a sale opportunity: Avoid talking about your business all the time and try to learn about various aspects of people’s life on a personal note.
“One of the biggest networking mistakes I’ve encountered has been the people who are selling at the event. Let’s say I just met you at the event and say- “Oh it’s so great to meet you, let me tell you about this product that I sell” – It’s a little bit off putting, you know? Hey we just met, why are you trying to sell me something? So I think that’s one of the biggest mistakes”
- Do not discount people: Never assume that certain types of business people won’t know someone who may be interested in your products or services.
“Sometimes people are just disregarding of other people, i.e. if I meet someone and I just immediately think that they’re not going to be a good connection for me, I’ve heard of people literally turning their backs on people and walking away!”…“I think that we all know that New Orleans is a city that’s very well connected, everybody kind of knows everybody, and it’s one or two degrees of separation. To disregard someone because you don’t think that they can help you, first of all is rude, and second of all you’re not seeing the bigger picture”…
“Sometimes we have to take ourselves out of the equation and just try to be of service to other people. I don’t know why anyone would take the chance of leaving a bad impression with someone in a city like this, because word gets around quickly.”
Make sure to remember these simple networking tips:
As a final piece of advice Melissa Willis gave the following;
Focus on building the relationship vs. making the sale.
“Even if you don’t form a business relationship, you might just have something in common, You might build a friendship from a networking event”
Focus on helping others and serving others vs. being all about you.
“Ask a lot of questions, find out about other people. People will remember you if you let them talk about themselves, so definitely focus on serving others. If you come from a place of being helpful and a place of service, I think just karmically speaking everything just turns your way. When you focus on other people you’re taking the focus off of you. And I think people recognize that, and they see that, and they sort of naturally want to help you in return. But that’s not why you do it, you do it just to be of service to other people.”
Holiday parties and industry social events are a really good way to network because people are more relaxed and receptive to conversation. Even if they’re not in the market for what you have to offer right now, the seasonal mindset is likely to make them more receptive of what you have to say. Remember to not oversell your product and take a genuine interest in others. Plan ahead, set goals and keep your connections alive by reconnecting and setting up meetings for the new year. This may be a busy time of year, but with a little planning, and these networking tips, you’ll not only get the most out of the holiday season, you’ll lay the groundwork for a prosperous 2016.