Some business owners love to get out and meet new people. Others dread it. They would rather spend time working on their business than making small talk with people they barely know.
Dread it or not, there’s no question that business and job networking is a key to being successful in business. The larger business network you have, the more potential customers, suppliers, evangelists and go-to resources you have. This year, resolve to make business networking a higher priority. Here are five ways to kick your networking skills up a notch:
1. Make a list of people you want to meet
It’s all in the planning. Instead of waiting for the right networking opportunities to come along, be proactive: Who — or what types of people — do you want to connect with in 2015? Are there particular people who could help you grow your business?
Use a planner or organizer to create a list of the people you want to meet with, and then figure out how you’ll meet them this year. You might attend a conference they’ll be attending, or just send them an email and introduce yourself.
2. Attend conferences with a different game plan
The usual conference routine goes something like this: Grab the agenda, go to a few sessions, meet a few people, exchange business cards — and never talk those people again. Aim to get more out of your conference experiences. Be proactive about introducing yourself to people you encounter.
Make sure you have enough business cards to give out so that you can extend the conversation after the conference. Find out who’s attending or speaking at the conference and arrange in advance to grab coffee with people you want to meet, writes Dave Kerpen, CEO of Likeable Local, a social media software firm. Kerpen recommends avoiding casual small talk and asking deeper questions, such as, “What are you most passionate about?” or “What are you trying to get out of this conference?” “That way, you get people talking about something they really care about, and you can form a more meaningful relationship faster,” Kerpen adds.
3. Help others first
Business owners too often think about networking from their own vantage point: What of value can other people offer me? But you can build more enriching relationships by first considering how you’ll help other people. That could mean emailing a connection an informative article you read, asking if they need help with anything or offering advice on a topic you know they’re grappling with. “When people ask you for favors, do them if you can,” advises executive coach Christine Comaford on Forbes. “Do them if you have the resources, the time and the ability. Know that you’ll get favors in return; just don’t stress out if they don’t come from people you’ve helped.”
4. Get involved with an organization or cause
When business is booming, you may think networking is a waste of time. But things can change quickly. Keep your network strong by joining a business-networking group or a professional organization devoted to your industry — or even join the board of a cause that you’re passionate about. Being on the steering committee of a nonprofit can be an excellent way to branch out your network, writes Ivan Misner, CEO and founder of business networking group BNI, on Entrepreneur. “You start out talking about the project and next thing you know you’re talking about any number of topics,” Misner writes. “These can be effective opportunities for meeting new people — many of whom could be future clients.”
5. Set aside time for business networking
Networking won’t be given the energy it deserves unless you devote time to it. That could mean spending an hour every Friday morning sending emails to two — or four — people you’ve met recently or reconnecting with valuable contacts from the past. Even if you actively reach out to one person a week, it might just end up leading to the most valuable connection you’ve made.