“Many entrepreneurs are hesitant to jump on the networking ‘bandwagon’ when the fact is that these provide important opportunities to gain exposure for himself and his business,” says Nazeem Martin, MD of Business Partners, the leading financier of South African SMEs.
“Whether it’s through regular lunch dates with clients, a round of golf or networking events arranged by local business associations, constant interaction with the customer is essential,” he says.
The first challenge an entrepreneur might have to overcome is the concept of “regularly” networking with his clients and colleagues. Time is often an issue, but formal networking occasions should be high on the list of priorities.
Not every event will produce a business deal, but the intention is to develop relationships, make good contacts and to spring to mind when the need for his services does arise.
One on one
“Networking is all about the one-on-one interaction,” explains Martin and offers the following advice to becoming an effective networker:
- Be confident: Even if it’s not your biggest strength, don’t be afraid to approach people. Many of the attendees are probably just as nervous as you are, so they will appreciate you breaking the ice. This will get easier as you attend more events
- Be strategic: Aim to speak to a few people you have never met before. It’s pointless only connecting with those you know, or people who will never bring you business
- Don’t forget to listen: By being genuinely interested in what the other person has to say, you’ll be able to ask thoughtful questions and build a relationship. Exchanging e-mail addresses and updating each other on what you’re doing could result in working opportunities or viable business leads
- Don’t feel pressured to speak to everyone. A few meaningful interactions are better than having many forgettable conversations. However, don’t monopolise one person’s time, so be able to give a brief description of what you do
- Don’t forget to follow up. If you’ve made some good contacts, follow up quickly. Even just dropping them an e-mail to say you enjoyed meeting them will put you on their radar for doing business in the future.
Martin believes that this approach to networking will help any SME owner or budding entrepreneur use it to his advantage.
What about online networking?
The notion of networking is not limited to face-to-face interactions. Social (or online) networking is a global phenomenon where deals are being done every day, without people ever meeting in person.
Websites like Facebook, Twitter, Myspace and business-focussed sites like LinkedIn and BNI give business owners the opportunity to profile their companies and form relationships with potential customers, service providers and strategic partners.
Millions of South Africans are logging on to these sites every day, so the world of social media can provide a whole new target market for even the smallest of ventures. The best thing about it is that all this can be done for free!
“Online forums are very user-friendly and by doing a little pre-planning and investing some time, the entrepreneur can harness this potential to generate business via the Internet,” Martin says about this component of a broader marketing strategy.
In the same way as face-to-face networking, the SME owner can use this media to form relationships, put a face to his business, get to know his customers and start building demand for and trust in his services or products.
The potential for generating business may even be greater, since there is no time limit on discussions, contacts can easily share contacts and the Internet creates visibility on a global scale.
“When it comes to running a thriving business, I will always encourage the entrepreneur to ‘think out of the box’. Using these kinds of opportunities to market one’s business is an example of doing just that,” says Martin.