How can I build sales through networking?
Q I run my own business and have a loyal base of regular customers. I would like to find new customers to build sales. Other business owners are my main target – do you think business networking is a good way of finding them? A Business networking can be a powerful business development tool that helps to increase sales. However, it tends to reap rewards in the long term because it is about building relationships and trust. This means the sooner you start the better, and I would give you the following advice to help make your networking productive.
HAVE A STRATEGY. Effective business networking does not just happen through having a presence at events – it requires a strategy. Identify who you want to meet and why and then think about the best way to do it. This means looking for networks that your targeted contacts are most likely to use and presenting yourself in a way that will be most effective. You need to give people a good reason to want to know you and your business. Draw up a list of companies and company types you would like to know and write down the key reasons why they would want to meet you. Look at your existing network of business contacts and identify the most influential people, in terms of their contacts and presence. Build them into your network strategy and ask for introductions.
ALWAYS BE PREPARED. Always carry a business card and/or brochure/marketing material, and be able to sum up your business in an appealing way in one sentence. While it is important to have a strategy, you should always be prepared to network as you never know when or where the opportunity might arise – on a plane or doing the school run.
Put yourself out there. There are many network events from which you can select those that best fit in with your networking strategy. Look at your local chamber of commerce (www.chambers.ie), the county and city enterprise boards (www.enterpriseboards.ie) and professional networking associations such as BNI Ireland (www.bni.eu/ireland), as well as networks specific to your industry and/or geographic region. Remember it is not just about collecting business cards; it is about attending the type of events that your targeted contacts attend, meeting them and presenting yourself effectively, asking questions with interest, listening carefully and following up in the most appropriate way. A follow-up does not necessarily mean a full-blown sales pitch; it might mean an informal meeting or an offer to include your new contact on your marketing database, for example.
HAVE AN ONLINE PRESENCE. Social media networks provide a great way of staying in touch with existing contacts and finding new ones, with www.linkedin.com one of the best for online business networking. If you haven't started yet, it is easy to register and to search for contacts using your email database. As you build your LinkedIn network, you can see into your contacts' networks and request introductions and recommendations. The site cleverly quantifies the power of the online network, stating that your network of X contacts (your direct contacts) links you to Y professionals (your contacts' contacts), with Y being a much larger number than X. Sites such as Twitter and Facebook are also good, but beware of combining business and personal communications. You really need to keep them separate so that you can link everything together from a business perspective. Create a professional username for all social media sites – one that clearly links with your real world business to make the most of branding – and use it strictly for professional networking. There are free software platforms, such as TweetDeck, that allow you to view and post messages on different social media sites simultaneously. You can also see any messages directed at you, making it easy to respond in a timely manner. This is important, because if you are going to use online networking you need to find an efficient way of managing what can be a large volume of online chatter. There may also be online networks specific to your industry that you should consider.
BE PREPARED TO GIVE. If you listen well to new contacts when you meet them and keep a note of what you hear, you should know enough about their business to be able to give relevant information or make useful introductions to other people in your network. This will show your worth as a contact and is likely to earn you a favour in return. Jim Doyle ACMA QFA is a partner in RDA Accountants offering full accountancy, business advisory, tax advisory and financial services. RDA Accountants | 5 Upper George Street, Wexford | Louisville House, Waterford Road, Kilkenny | 053 91 70507 | www.rda.ie