Just because you're self-employed doesn't mean you have to go it alone in business. Joining or building a network of fellow professionals can be hugely beneficial to you for a number of reasons.

Despite this, many people still shy away from networking events. Some common excuses for this include…

  • I'd feel awkward
  • I wouldn't know what to say to anyone
  • The people there aren't my target customers
  • The people there aren't in my line of work
  • I'm too busy, it would be a waste of my time
  • It would cost me money as I wouldn't be working
  • I'd rather spend this time on marketing
  • I do all my networking on social media

So what are some of the benefits of networking?

  • Building relationships
  • Increasing visibility
  • Becoming known as the go-to person in your own line of work
  • Giving and receiving advice
  • Being around others who know what it's like to run your own business
  • Reducing feelings of isolation
  • Leading to sales and other opportunities
  • Social events and friendships
  • Cross promotion and collaboration

In this episode we're taking a deep dive into business networking. We'll be hearing the opinions and experiences of our returning friends Laura Lucas, Alison Colley, Chris Marr, Julie Christie, Andy Brown, Patricia McGuire, and Pete Matthew.

On top of that we're joined by business networking expert Stefan Thomas, author of the Business Networking for Dummies book. Stefan brings a wealth of knowledge and advice on his specialist subject, and I'm certain you'll hugely benefit from it going forward.

Transcript

It can be difficult because a lot of people find it hard to go into a room full of strangers and just start talking to them. But I think if it’s something that makes you nervous is just remembering that probably most people feel nervous as well.

I’m Colin Gray, and this is UK Business Startup. This week we’re getting into one of those areas of business that really splits the crowd. Some people love it, and even more hate it. But there’s little doubt that, if you do it right, it can be one of the best ways to grow your business. And, it has a bunch of benefits besides that. You might have guessed by now. Of course, we’re talking business networking.

Stefan Thomas: A lot of people think that networking is just that thing which some of us who are quite odd do at seven thirty in the morning where we meet up at formal networking events and have breakfast with other people. But networking is about every connection you make along the way.

That was Stefan Thomas – author of business networking for dummies. He’s one of the top UK experts in this area, so he knows how to get networking right. We’ll be hearing plenty from him on this episode, along with a few old friends. Talking of which, here’s Alison Colley again from Real Employement law advice on how she sees networking.

Alison Colley: When I set up my business actually going to networking and meeting people who had either set up their own businesses or who were providing the sorts of services that I needed as a business was crucial. There's no better way of building trust than at networking. Then you can tap into those resources

Chris Marr: It’s a bit cliché now but it is true that people buy from people that they know they can trust. Not only that. People refer business to people that they know they can trust as well. The only way to get known by people and for people to like you and to trust you is to build a relationship with people.

That was Chris Marr, founder of the Content Marketing Academy. He talked a lot about trust on our marketing episode, and here it is again. This ties back to what Stefan told us – it’s those connections, and the trust you build with them. Those are the people that send you clients, or might even become clients themselves. Now, at this point, you might be thinking – this just doesn’t apply to me. It’s only for b2b companies isn’t it? Well, Chris has a good way for you to figure it out.

Chris Marr: We look back over the last six months, look at where our business has come from, and we always write down two or three names. That piece of business came from that person, this business came from that person. What you start to realize actually is that people are massively involved in your business.

If people just don’t know who you are, then you're less likely to get business. We do coaching calls, especially with people who are just starting their business. One of the big things that always comes up is, well, they say to me, “We’re not getting enough business.” I immediately ask them, “How big is your network? What are you doing to actively grow your network,” and they’re just simply not doing enough to get out there and to be known by people.

So, it’s not just trust, it’s visibility, isn’t it? No matter what type of business you have, you can always be more visible. The problem is, this personal connection caper is pretty time consuming… How do you make sure you’re making that time worthwhile.

Chris Marr: I don’t mean going meeting everybody, not going to have a coffee with every single person because it can be a massive time suck. What you need to be good at is qualifying people that you want to connect with, people who have influence, people who clearly are good at introducing people to other people, and people who have quite big networks are the people you're looking to spend time with.

What you're not trying to do, and I guess this kind of like the next question is, is not just about spending time with people that could be potential customers, because that’s sort of like thinking quite small. You’ve got to think quite big. You actually want to meet people that have bigger influence. They may never ever buy from you, but they might be … They will probably introduce you to other people, they will probably recommend your services to other people.

It’s well put – you might well find some direct clients through networking, but the big wins are in the wider viral effect. You get to know 10 people in a networking group, and suddenly you’re the ‘roof repair guy’ not only for them, but their entire network. When their friend says, Man my roof just fell in, who do you think they’re going to tell them about?

So, that makes sense – looks like the time’s well worth it, as long as you’re smart about how you spend it. Remember too that time’s just another kind of currency. Here’s how Stefan sees it.

Stefan Thomas: I treat my networking as part of my marketing spend. That’s an investment to my business because I know that an awful lot of the big opportunities that I've got coming up in the coming year and that I've had in the last couple of years have come from a little conversation at a networking event, and if I go to networking events, conferences, seminars, whatever it happens to be, then I’m more likely to start more of those conversations which lead to big opportunities.

So, Stefan knows it’s worthwhile for him. He’s tracking those opportunities and where they lead. But, then, Stefan’s a pro. What about mere mortals like us? Here’s Julie Christie from Tea Break Tog:

Julie Christie: I didn’t do anything like that for about three years, and then when I did that everything changed. Pretty much over the course of a couple of months I realized that everything was changing because of the people that I was meeting in this group, just expanding my network, but also encouraging me to think about my business differently. People who were having successes in different areas from me I was able to question them and learn from them and vice-versa.

So, this is interesting. She’s pretty clear that her network brings big direct benefits. But, she’s also starting to delve into the other upside. Because we know that, for all the things we love about running a business, it’s not all shiny rainbows.

Other Benefits

Laura Lucas: I was a bit worried I might be lonely when I first started my business working for myself, but because of the networking I've done I’ve meet amazing people actually. People who I feel are much more likeminded and much more attuned to the sort of ambitions I’ve got and where I want my life to go than maybe people who I would happen to work alongside. I always enjoyed going into work and having good relationships with my colleagues and so on, but I feel like there’s something that people who have their own business have in common. They’ve got that vision and that ambition. It’s just great to be around those sort of people.

It’s actually about developing those relationships to see how we can help each other and how we can collaborate and who we can introduce each other to. Is a huge, huge benefit of having a business that I hadn’t expected.

Julie Christie:  Every week you're with these people who are passionate about their businesses and we’re all talking about our business and how we can move it forward. But because you're meeting them the next week you're really motivated to go back and work on those things that you’ve been talking about. I’ve meet some amazing people through that, and doing that it has changed the direction of my business and improved my business and made me think with a lot more clarity about what I’m doing and why I’m doing it. For me it’s been absolutely huge, huge part of growing my business.

Stefan Thomas: But also in business I think that networking helps you to build the structure, to build the support structure around you, and a network of supportive people which to my mind is just as important to sales.

There’s no doubt that running a business can be a pretty lonely, isolating job. If you’re working yourself, who do you turn to for help, for support, for some simple feedback on something? Well, for Laura, Julie and Stefan, it’s their network. As they all said there, they’ve met people through networking, built relationships, found support, and  they’ve really grown their business as a result.

Alright, I’m hoping you’re at least a bit convinced, but there’s a good chance you’ve still got a few reservations. Networking does carry a lot of baggage…. I got a sign of this when I asked Pete Matthew if he sees any value in networking:

Hating Networking

Pete Matthew: Absolutely, though it can drive fear into the hearts of a lot of people. I’m a natural introvert. If I go to a party, you will usually find me in the corner on my cell phone. But I've taught myself to be better, because it’s important to have relationships. It’s amazing where relationships can go.

I even found out that Stefan, our networking Guru, took a while to find his feet.

Stefan Thomas: Not only have I covered it hundreds of times but of course I’ve been there myself. This wasn’t something that I was born to do. My very first networking event I really did stand awkwardly in the corner. That was sometime in 2005. There’s an awful lot that I’ve learned since then.

It’s definitely makes me feel better knowing that I’m not the only one who feels like a lemon every time I walk into an event like this. I always find myself making a meal over pouring a coffee. It’s my way of delaying that moment when I have to turn around and try not to look panicked, hoping someone will come over and talk to me. The thing is, it’s natural to feel like that, but it’s always fine.

Laura Lucas: If you're not sure if it’s for you or not go and find out basically. It can be difficult because a lot of people find it hard to go into a room full of strangers and just start talking to them. But I think if it’s something that makes you nervous is just remembering that probably most people feel nervous as well.

You’ve got something in common with everyone and just really being open to having those conversations. You’ll hopefully find, I know I've certainly found that networking events I’ve gone to are very open and welcoming and people are interested to hear about you and they’re keen to tell you about them. It’s not as hard as you might think it is.

Ok, we’ll get over the fear and give it a try. First step, I suppose, is finding a group:

How to Network

Stefan Thomas: The very first thing that I would do would be to google networking events in your town, wherever your town happens to be. Look for the local chamber of commerce. They are very likely to have some sort of networking event there. It’s pretty likely in most towns in the UK that you will also have networking organizations such as 4Networking of which I’m a member and BNI and other networking organizations that exist. Thanks Stefan – simple enough. So, once we’re there, how do we get over the fear and make that first introduction?

People I think look for some clever answer as to how to start a conversation with someone, and what I have found works best is to go for the lowest common denominator. If you’ve grabbed a cup of coffee, it’s very likely that there are other people grabbing coffee at the same time. Talk about coffee, talk about parking, talk about the fact that everyone got caught in traffic this morning. You're in that enviable position working event, or conference, or seminar, that you immediately have something in common with everyone in the room. An awful lot of my early sales training was about finding that thing that you have in common with someone so that you can start talking to them on common grounds.

My usual one is just to catch someone’s eye at the coffee table as say, ‘Hey, how’s your day been?’. It’s simple, easy and usually gets people talking about something they’re interested in. It also tends to give me a clue on whether it’s sometone I can get on with too, because if they just start moaning about their day, then they’re obviously not the most positive of people.

Laura Lucas: One thing that helps me on those times when I do feel a bit self-conscious is just to try and find someone that looks more nervous than me and help them feel better. That can be a really effective way of actually forgetting about your own hang-ups. If you make the conversation about the other person you're much more likely to have an impact. Sometimes we’ll go in and we’ll feel like we’re supposed to have this perfect elevator pitch and you should go in, say the elevator pitch and walk out with a client. Well that’s not really the purpose of it. It’s just begin to know people and it’s really about just looking for things that you’ve got in common.

Chris Marr: Be the person that introduces yourself to other people. Don’t go sell. Don’t sell to people. Just go and meet people. Make friends with people. That’s what I always use to say when I go to event, is like who can I make friends with today. That’s one of the best things you can do because people hate being sold to, and they can see a mile off, they can see you gearing up to hand your business card over and people hate it. They just absolutely hate it. The best thing to do is to almost forget that you are selling anything at all and just try and meet people and make friends with people.

Laura and Chris are spot on here, for me. You can always spot the serial networkers – those folk that see it as nothing more than a chance to push out as many business cards as they can. I really don’t know how they can’t see what a turn-off that is. They’re not building any kind of relationships, and that’s where the value lies.

Now you might remember Andy Brown from Triple Your Clients. He takes it a step further – he doesn’t just think about building relationships – he gives even more value to one of his business groups.

Andy Brown: I’m on the committee there and also on the committee of the St Andrews merchant association, even though I’m not actually a merchant, I don’t have a shop or anything in St Andrews. I joined the committee because I’m all about being useful and giving value, particularly in the local area.

It’s not a me, me, me situation. It’s just I think you do get a lot of benefits from just giving. You’ve got to be mindful of your own time, but I say that I've got these skills related to the internet. I can probably help even though you’ve got a presence on the High Street. I can help for instance the association. Then with the business club we have a website. I update that. Just by definition that I’m updating that I get in contact with all the people that come and speak at the business club.

So, part of Andy’s networking is doing just a little bit of work for the clubs – stuff that he finds pretty easy – but it helps grow that trust, that reputation, that makes him more prominent in the network.

It’s all about giving, really. What’s the cliché – you get what you give. Stefan sums it up well:

How to Talk to People

Stefan Thomas: The way that I treat any networking event is to ask a lot of questions, to find out a lot about the other people in the room, and to get to know them. I very rarely try and push my services on people at networking events.

Right, we’ve been along to an event, we’ve beaten the fear, and we’ve made some friends. But what we do we do next? What happens after that first conversation?

Next Steps

Stefan Thomas: If you think about this for a second, when you I and finish this conversation a number of things will happen. You’ve got your next appointment to get to, you’ve got your client you’ve missed a called from, and those little conversations that you have at the event start to slip out of your memory. Now the same happens to everyone else in the room, so it’s your job to continue to remind them that you exist. It’s not their job to continue to remember you.

Chris Marr: Bring the business cards home with you. Ping them on email. Just say, “Hey it was great to meet you today, and I’m looking forward to catching up with you sometime in the future,” and then stay in touch. That’s the big thing.

Stefan Thomas: There are two things that I talk about a lot in terms of follow up: active follow up. That’s when someone said, “Stephen, I’m really interested in what you do.” In that case I make a point to actively follow up, to phone them the next day and say, “Really like that you're interested in what I do. Can we talk about it more?” Passive follow up, passive follow up is I think when most people lose because actually keeping gently in touch with people over weeks, months, and in my case sometimes even years, that’s the thing that has often led to the hidden opportunities, the opportunities that I would never have spotted that come out of the woodwork a few months or even years later.

I know myself how easy it is to miss this out. We talked earlier about making sure it’s worth the time you invest. Well, the problem is, without the followup, it doesn’t really matter how well you do in person, nothing’s gonna come of it. You need to get yourself a system – Chris mentioned the business cards there – put them somewhere you’ll always find them. When you get back to the office, put it in your process that you always look in this place after an event. And you always do it right away. Like Stefan says, this stuff fades from your memory really quickly.

Stefan Thomas: With all of the tools that we have in 2015, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, email, the telephone, all of these ways of keeping in touch with people, and yet there’s a staggering statistic that 87% of people never follow up after networking meetings. If you just do that, if you just make an effort to keep in touch with people in a very gentle non-sales-y way, then you're immediately putting yourself ahead of the competition.

A trick I often use is just to write a few words on the business card. Just something that’ll remind you who this person is, what you might have in common, what’s worth following up on. Having those little nuggets in the follow up contact really separates from the rest, as Stefan said. And if nothing else, it reminds you who the card belonged to. I’ve found many a card, weeks later, and had no clue where I got it!

Now, Stefan mentioned a bunch of mediums there, so it’s worth digging into that a bit. Email, for me, is still the first stop. I’ll do that for the main followup. But, social media can be a great addition.

Social Media

Stefan Thomas:  I also treat all of my social media activity as networking as well, because all the way along I'm either making new connections or I'm strengthening my existing connections. Pretty much everything that we do in our day-to-day business is networking.

So for Stefan, actually, social media can support his existing connections, and it can be a first contact for others. You’ll remember Patricia McGuire from Purple select – she had a few thoughts on social networking.

Patricia McGuire: Sometimes when I look at the way my staff network I think really they spend too much time on social networks and the online platforms doing this. To be honest with you they’re really, really valuable. Again, you need to think where are the people you need to talk to, what platforms are they on, and start building relationships with them.

If you're using online platforms, so if you're using Twitter or Facebook or whatever, it’s not enough to be on those platforms. You need to interact with people, offer advice, tell people when they’ve given you some advice that’s really worked, just interact like you would do in a normal everyday life and you will find that that works very well and business will start being referred to. But I still believe that you cannot beat face-to-face relationships.

So, for Patricia – you can build a network online, as you’d expect. But it doesn’t replace face to face. I’d say it’s a valuable part of your networking, not the whole.

Laura Lucas: If you're into offline networking I think online networking can really enhance that, because I’ll give you a great example actually. A great friend of mine is Kate McQuillan who has Pet Sitters Ireland. She’s a really keen blogger. I met her briefly at the Content Marketing Academy Conference in 2014, so I met her once. We meet. She talked to the conference and I was very impressed with what she’d achieved through blogging. We didn’t really get much of a chance to speak to each other, but I really got to know her in the Content Marketing Academy Facebook group. Then I really got to know her personally on Facebook, just from like chatting and interacting, and it’s developed into a full bloomed friendship now. She’s as much my friend as anyone that I've known since school days or anything like that. She’s business friend and she’s a personal friend as well.

I love that story in that it shows the value of putting long term effort into your network. It’s not just those one-off meetings, and it’s not even just that follow-up, right after it happens. It’s beyond that, making sure that you’re building relationships long term – not just for your own benefit, but really creating a partnership with everyone in your network.

Stefan Thomas: The process doesn’t stop. In 2015 when you and I are talking it is so easy to keep in touch with people, and it’s the biggest mistake that most people make is not to keep in touch with people.

Laura Lucas: I think sometimes when it’s business networking we can think it’s all about business but it’s actually all about just building a relationship. It doesn’t matter what you build that relationship on. I think just take the pressure off yourself and enjoy getting to know people really.

Pete Matthew: Find half a dozen people who are like you, small business owners like you but maybe in different markets and just help each other. You’ll be surprised where that will end up.

This is Colin Gray on UK Business startup, hoping that I’ve given you the motivation you need to get out there and start building your own network. I promise you, it’ll end up being one of the most valuable assets in your business.

Now, we’re nearly at the end of the season. We’ll be tying it up next week with some key takeaways from the series, and giving you an insight into what’s coming next. We’re also going to be running a little competition leading up to the launch of season 2, so do make sure you tune in next time around.

Also, a wee request, in the spirit of this episode, I’d love to ask you for a little referral of your own. I hope we’ve helped you figure out some of this crazy journey we can business, and if you feel like that’s built a bit of trust, then I’m proud to call you part of my network. If that’s the case then could you do one small thing. Have a think about one person you know that might like this show. Fire up your email and send them the link, copying us in if you think it’d help – we’re on [email protected]. It’d mean a huge amount to me, and it’ll help us to get this out to more people, hopefully helping as many folk as we can in the long run.

Ok, that’s it for this week – this show is created by The Podcast Host, produced by Matthew McLean, written and narrated by me, Colin Gray, and we’re a part of the 3B Podcast Network – that stands for British Business Broadcasting. You can check out the other shows on the network at 3bpn.com.

Thanks and we’ll see you next time.