When you’re running a local business — especially in the early stages—networking isn’t something you do to boost business. Networking is your business. Every operator of a small business should network, not only because it’s important to know people but it’s essential to know the right people.

An extensive network of people in your community is only part of your journey toward business success. To get you mingling with the right people, here are some tips to help you build a vast network of professional contacts, and nurture those connections so that they become friendships with people who’ve got your back.

 Before you get started make a plan

Every thriving business begins with a good business plan, and the same goes for networking. Ask yourself some important questions before you get started:

  • Who do I need to connect with to grow my business and as a professional?
  • What groups or companies would be beneficial to my businesses future success?
  • What are the events or platforms where I am likely to meet these people?

Write down your answers, and then use them to prioritize your networking activities. Create a calendar and commit to a timeline for making certain connections happen.

Growing your network

Time is in short supply as a business owner, so you need to spend it wisely by targeting your energy toward connections that will help your business succeed. However, that doesn’t mean you should limit your efforts by connecting to people within your industry. Some of the most successful business operators have vast networks, spanning various occupations, geographies, and industries. Sometimes, it’s people completely outside of your immediate circle that provide you with the most valuable connections or advice, which can propel you onwards and upwards.

Always aim high. Don’t miss out on opportunities simply because you’re intimidated by people who are more senior or experienced than you. From time-to-time, you may be rebuffed, ignored, or flatly turned down. However, other times you might find that people really surprise you. Don’t let the fear of a bruised ego hinder your progress.

 Have meaningful conversations

Whether you’re at an event or connecting with someone on LinkedIn, aim to make quality connections right from the start. It’s important to be genuine and honest, exude warmth and energy so that the person you’re engaged with feels that you like them as an individual. Above all, pay attention to what they are saying and try to learn something new.

Most people let their minds wander, tuning out of the conversation to think about their to-do list or scanning the room for the next person they’re hoping to meet. Differentiate yourself by being an active listener. You can do this by:

  1. Demonstrate you’ve heard the conversation by rephrasing some of their important ideas
  2. Offer brief encouraging responses such as “yeah, I get that,” or “totally”
  3. Ask follow-up questions

Add value with every interaction

During your conversations, listen for what would be of value to the contact. Perhaps it’s simply your open, professional opinion. Most people shy away from speaking out and being candid as they’re afraid of being disliked or inviting an uncomfortable exchange. However, not only is this is a good way to differentiate yourself, it’s also something that may be very valuable to the person you’re speaking to. It will also help set up the expectation of honesty in future conversations.

Other than honesty, there are many other ways to add value. You could offer ideas to help the person’s business, or offer to introduce them to a connection that would help them. Perhaps you’re organizing an event and can offer them a speaking spot, or you write a blog and can feature them in an interview on your website. Whatever’s going on in your professional world, seek ways to create and reinforce goodwill and trust between you. That way, your network will always be pleased to hear from you.

Stay in touch; connect on social media

It may sounds easy, but this is where some people drop the ball. After your interactions, do what you said you’d do. If you said you had a lot of people to introduce them to, make sure to make those introductions. If there was an article you mentioned sending over, don’t make the mistake of thinking they’ll forget. Most people will make passing promises during networking conversations and then never follow-up. At that point, the relationship stops and you’ve made a negative impression.

Another way to follow-up is sending an invite on social media like LinkedIn or Twitter. These days it’s simple to build connections, which allows people to get lazy. Connecting on social media is a great way to ensure you don’t lose track of someone who could prove valuable down the track. Just ensure you also keep in touch in a personal way too.

Limit requests

A good rule of thumb is to give three things and ask for one. If you’re looking to make a good impression and create a long lasting relationship avoid asking for anything in return early on. When you do finally ask for something, make it short and sweet. Ask for something that won’t take the contact more than 10-15 minutes of their time, like a brief phone interview.

If you’re asking for an introduction to someone in their network, make it easy for them by writing a self-contained email introduction to yourself that includes information about who you are, what you want, and why. That way your contact can simply forward it to their connection. People enjoy helping others, but they don’t often have a lot of time and resources to always assist.  

It takes time to build a great network

Sometimes, people approach networking as transactional. Don’t fall into that trap. Instead, aim to build your network professionally and share information without any expectations. In the long run, making your reputation a priority is worth it. If you follow our steps, you’ll build a solid group of contacts who will be glad to see your name in their inbox. It’s a great feeling to know that you have a great group of contacts that will lend a hand when you need it.