Monday, 12 March 2012

Five tips on how to start business networking, generally and in Cambridgeshire UK


This article is in answer to a friend who asked about starting business networking and what tips that I might have. The advice is both generic and includes comments relevant for Cambridgeshire.

In the UK, business networking is primarily a social activity which leads to business, as opposed to being subjected to someone’s sales pitch, or subjecting others to yours. This means finding a business network that suits your personality as well as your business.

Tip 1: Try out lots of different networks

The easiest ways to find your first network to visit are to ask a friend and or to Google for ‘business network {your region}’. Check out the websites and see if guests are welcome (they generally are), if there is a free event or a low cost pay at the door type event. If you can accompany a friend already in a network – even better.

Any good networking event will have a host or set of members looking out for attendees. There is generally some structure where people might initially mingle informally while registering, there can be an introduction round and some have presentations and buffets etc.

The important thing is to go to a first one and see what it is like and whether you feel comfortable there.

Do not join a network with an annual membership fee until you have been at least two or three times to events or meetings. Avoid being rail-roaded into joining. Some memberships come with a hefty fee and deliver little, whilst others can be very economical and be really useful to you.

Cambridgeshire has a plethora of business networks catering from microbusinesses to hi tech, here are some: The Huntingdonshire Business Network; A14 Coffee Morning (St Ives); Business Owners Breakfast (Cambridge); The Inspired Group (Cambridge), Toastmaster International (if you want to practise public speaking) Cambridge Network, Connected Cambridge, BNI, Business Club, Cambridgeshire Chambers, 4 Networking, Cambridge Businesswomen's Network and many, many more.

It is perfectly OK to be a member of several different business networks.

Tip 2: Ask new contacts you meet about where they network and why

One of the great things about business networking is that you can ask others for advice and often find it freely given!

You get to hear about events or organisations you might otherwise have missed that again could be to your advantage.

Tip 3: Using your mouth and ears in proportion

Once you are at a networking event, try to listen more to the people you meet than speaking to them. Listening is a key skill in networking. You learn more about the people you meet, personally and about their business, their needs and interests.

If you do this for a little while, you will find that you can naturally link the needs of a previous person met with a current speaker – this is a referral. Your conversation partners will also learn about you and in turn hopefully remember you and refer you to others. This is the real benefit of networking.

If you do hit the self-selling bore, excuse yourself after a little while (if someone else hasn't rescued you) to get a fresh coffee or meet another group - at least you have learnt who to avoid in future!

Tip 4: Networking as a long term marketing tool

Once you have become familiar with a set of networks that fit both you and your business, attend them regularly at a frequency that suits you. You get to know other businesses and get to be known. This not only generates business in the long term, it also gives you a great social environment to share experiences, learn from other people’s expertise and impart your own.

Whilst I have had business within a short term of one or two meetings, realistically allow for longer time-scales. The longest period between me talking to someone at a networking event and them following me up was 6 years! But when the moment was right, they remembered me.

Tip 5: Use social networking tools

Most good business networks now have a social network dimension, be it a LinkedIn group, Facebook page or Twitter feed. These are fantastic additions to the process of physical networking. You can exchange information or simply socialise online with other members you may have met or who you wish to meet in the future.

A whole different chapter can be devoted to social network. Again, the simplest first advice is to dip your toe in one or two different networks with the help of people you already know.

Conclusion

The five tips in this article will get you started in business networking, which is often the major hurdle. Once you have been to two or more events you will become familiar with the networking process. You will able to establish your preferences in the types of people and businesses you enjoy meeting – and doing business with.

I look forward to meeting you at a networking event in the future :-)

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