Friday, May 08, 2009

CONNECTING IS NOT ENOUGH: The Importance of Networking in a Recession

This article originally appeared in The National Networker

We may be facing tough times, with businesses going to the wall, budgets being slashed and thousands of jobs being lost. There are things we can do, however, to give ourselves the best chance of surviving, and even thriving in this crisis.

The ‘dog-eat-dog’ world of business painted by TV programmes such as The Apprentice is not necessarily the way forward in business today. Instead businesses are more likely to achieve positive results through collaboration. Sharing experiences, expertise, ideas and contacts is essential to business success.

In short, networking is vital. It helps businesses become better known, better equipped and achieve better market penetration than they could manage on their own.

So, how can networking help you get the edge you need to succeed and overcome the current recession?

First of all, networks can help you to build your profile and your reputation. We all know the phrase ‘It’s not what you know, it’s who you know’. Well, more important is who knows you….. and what they are saying about you.

A lack of profile will not help any business succeed. Whether that profile is widespread or among a very closely defined group of people, your reputation counts.

The most traditional way of raising profile, particularly for bigger companies, is through advertising and sponsorship. Yet for so many people, particularly in the current economic climate, such opportunities are out of reach. Instead, networking plays a key role.

Successful businesses recognise the value of having a team of people talking about them and associating them with excellence in their field. More than ever we are inclined to listen to our peers when making buying decisions, and a strong reputation can prove to be the right foundation for building a business.

Understand where you want that profile to go and pick your networks accordingly. Are your potential clients based in a geographic area, within one or more industries? Do the people who decide to use your services tend to be from one or two key roles within organisations, such as Sales Directors or Heads of HR? Wherever you need the word spread, understand who those people will be talking to, where they are most likely to hear about you and network accordingly.

The growth of online networks has made it even easier to raise your profile and spread the word. Clearly, online networks are a much easier way to reach a wider audience and grow a global reputation, but there are also a large number of niche networks on the internet, serving different industries, interest groups and locations.

A word of warning here, it is one thing to spread the word about your business, online or off. It is quite another to manage what is being said about you. It is important that you have a clearly defined view of what your message is and what you want people to say about you.

Attending networking events and continually moaning, whether about the state of the economy, other people in your network or even the quality of the food on offer, is not going to endear you to others. Nor is it likely to encourage them to talk about you positively.

In a similar vein, simply being seen is not enough. Sure, the more people you connect with, the more will be aware of you. What will they think of you though? What will they be saying to others?

Managing the message that others communicate on your behalf is the key to developing a strong reputation networking strategy. Ask yourself the question before you connect with anyone else as part of your business strategy, ‘After someone has met me, how would I want them to describe me to someone else?’

You can be in control of what others say about you, the key is to think about it in advance. Picture the impact you have on others, does it reflect how you would like to be seen? Do people understand what you do, who you do it for and why others would want to know about you?

Naturally there are other dangers, much talked about elsewhere, to your reputation from social networks such as Facebook. It can be easy to be drawn into arguments or banter with other people in your network and forget that this is a window to the World. Have fun, show your personal side by all means, but it is important to ensure that you have your professional image in mind at all times.

Apart from profile building, networks also act as a very powerful self-development tool. As John Donne said, ‘No Man is an Island’ and this is particularly true now. We need to learn from others, benefit from their experiences and expertise and open ourselves out to new ideas if we are to achieve as much as is possible.

Our networks can provide a lot of that support, both formally and informally. There is a good chance that you already have a network of people who want you to succeed and have already been through the challenges you are facing. Have you asked for their advice? Have you sought their support?

If you don’t have the relevant experience in your immediate network, or if you don’t feel comfortable asking the question, there are many networks set up specifically to provide those resources. From the blogs and clubs on social networks to events with speakers, the support is there, you simply have to seek it out.

Many people attend networking events with speakers without any concept of what they want to gain from the talk. Next time you go to such an event have a look around the room and see how many people are not taking notes, or are checking their phones for the latest emails!

Instead, outline your key self-development or business-development needs and seek out the events with speakers who address those issues. Set out a list of questions in advance that you would like answered and listen carefully for the answers to those questions during the talk. You’ll be amazed at how much more you can get from such an event when you have a greater degree of focus.

In addition to listening to talks from experts in their field, there is much you can learn from other people in similar positions to you. One growth area in networking is peer-support, or ‘Mastermind’, groups. These range from formally organized membership groups to many independent meetings, business people at a similar level to each other meet regularly, share their challenges and offer their feedback, advice and suggestions. In the best groups they will also hold each other to account for their actions.

Additionally, you can gain a lot of the knowledge and skills you need from industry associations and networks. I developed my speaking business through lessons learnt over six years of membership of the Professional Speakers Association (PSA). I only did so by attending a large number of meetings and conventions, listening to the speakers at those events and interacting with many fellow members.

A lot of the people I learnt from in the PSA were, and are, on one level competitors of mine. Yet we have a culture of sharing, one that recognises that there are enough opportunities out there for all of us but we stand to make much more of those opportunities if we work together and are prepared to help and learn from each other.

The third way in which networking is a key activity in difficult times is probably the most obvious, and that is as a referral-generation tool.

Please note, I didn’t talk about sales, but referrals. Networking is not selling and should never be treated as such. The people who will really benefit from their networks at present are those people who have been building their relationships over a long period of time. As the old adage goes, ‘making friends while they could, not when they need them’.

You need to be patient if you are to build a referral network. People refer others who they know, like and trust and that doesn’t happen overnight. During tough times though, those referrals are invaluable, opening doors that have been slammed shut on vendors generally and bringing your business to the top of the pile.

It’s not just businesses who depend on referrals. With the number of redundancies being made at the moment, any good job being advertised will be swamped by high quality applications. Yet I would venture that in most cases the job will have already effectively been filled beforehand, by someone who was recommended to the recruiter.

For people to refer you, two things need to be in place. And both have been discussed in this article.

First of all, they need to trust you. You might get introductions from people you have just met, but the better someone knows you and the more they have belief in you, the more likely it is that they will go out of their way for you and offer a strong referral.

They also have to understand your business. They need to be able to recognise your prospects and the problems those prospects have that you can resolve. Above all, they have to be able to convince that person that they want to speak to you and find out what you can offer. That also takes time to develop.

If you surround yourself with people who do have that level of trust and understanding in you, you can ask for the connections you need to drive your business forward in good times and bad. Doors will open for you that others will be struggling to break down and you can manage the quality of business you attract.

Times may be tough, and they may get tougher yet. There is no denying, however, that there is still something you can do about it. Build a strong network and work with that network to ensure you are better known, better equipped and have better market penetration than you could ever manage on your own.

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