Business networking: Love it or hate it?

As you can imagine I talk to an awful lot of business people about how they generate new business. When we get onto the subject of networking it usually gets a visceral emotional response. People either love it or hate it and then continue to give details to justify their position. Either the amazing client they got as a result and support they get from others or the frustration of pitching up to meeting after meeting and never getting anything from it and how their clients aren’t in the room. 

They are always defining networking as pitching up to events with a room full (or “zoom full”) of other business people and pitching their business.

I want to take you away from that view of networking and give you another perspective.

Whether you like it or not if you’re in business then you network. Business networking is the process of building relationships with the intention to generate business, increase your knowledge and influence, gain support from others and give back to the community. Every interaction you have with others you are influencing that relationship and in turn, influencing the quality of the response you get from the other. As this is happening anyway, wouldn’t it be better to have a strategy and business process that means you maximise the value of that relationship, as well as managing your expectations on both sides?

So what are the results you want from these relationships? Business relationships fall into three main categories based on what type of help they can give you; information,  support, and referrals. The people you know don’t fall into neat little categories like this and many people may provide you with help in two or more ways (see Venn diagram).  These are likely to be your strongest relationships.  For the purposes of this illustration, I’ll focus on each type of help other people can give you separately.

Information network

These are all the people who have knowledge or expertise that you lack. They cover such basics like legal, financial, tax advice, insurances, marketing, sales training, data protection and specific professional compliance as well as new industry trends or innovations. If you have a mentor or business coach they also fall into this section. 

Often you are their client but not always. One of the advantages of going to formal networking events is your fellow members who have that expertise may share information with you. As your relationship deepens some may act as informal board-level advisors or even as you grow become non-executive directors. 

These people have a vested interest in your success. As a supplier of services to you the more successful you become the more likely you are to retain their services or spend more with them.

For those offering their services free whilst the monetary reward may not be important their reputation is. Psychologically we only help the people we like and we tend to like people who share our values and ethics. So if they are successful as a result of our help it bolsters our self-esteem to have picked a winner. That in turn motivates them to want to help you further.

Support network

Everyone who runs their own business knows it can be a lonely place; it can be a real roller coaster with many ups and downs. The pressure to get a regular flow of income, that covers your costs and obligations and deliver excellence can be intense. The first rejection or cancellation of an order can be gut-wrenching. You need other people to motivate you and help you keep a sense of perspective and give you constructive feedback when you bounce ideas off them. 

They are also there to help you celebrate success. Have you noticed how often award ceremony photos and thank you lists mention someone who as “just there when I needed them”? 

Whilst friends and family fill a support role, having independent people who have experienced what you’re experiencing who you can draw on for support is invaluable. Some people draw on their personal friendships for this type of support, often going back as far as school, university, previous jobs or their social lives. It may be just your mates down the pub or fellow enthusiasts at a local sports or hobby club. These social outlets often have the advantage of bringing you into contact with people with diverse backgrounds and work experience that you would not find easy to access through other mean

If you don’t have these relationships then it can be a key purpose for joining to a business networking organisation. When I ask people who belong to such groups what they get from their membership this support from their peers is usually the first thing they mention. I suspect some of those who profess to hate formal networking have either not attended long enough or not developed their relationships to take advantage of this type of support.  

Referral network

I like to refer to your referral network as the engine for your business. These are the people who can put you in front of your potential clients. You will meet them through all the same routes as above. However you meet them, this is the network  where it pays to have a strategy for choosing who and how you motivate them to introduce you to their contacts.

Who is best fitted to help you with introductions? The only people who can refer you on a regular basis are people who know lots of the sort of people you want as clients. For example, if you want to meet lots of managing directors of engineering companies then it pays to know people who also do business, education or support with the leaders of engineering companies.  

One of the major reasons people espouse for finding formal networking frustrating is they go out seeking to meet their prospective clients, rather than people who can introduce them to their prospective clients.

Sticking with engineers, it is rare (if ever) to meet the leader of an engineering company at an early morning breakfast network meeting. Who you will meet is Ashish who provides IT support specifically to engineering companies. What a find! Get to know him and help him through your engineering network and he will be motivated to help you in return.

So your business strategy probably already includes direct approaches to get in front of your prospective clients. Expand that strategy to consciously leverage the full power of your network. Analyse who you already know who can help you with better information, support and those crucial introductions, and invest time and money in being active in the environments where others who are working with similar types of clients tend to congregate. Then work on developing strong personal relationships with like-minded people to explore how you can help each other succeed. 

Jacky Sherman
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Jacky Sherman

In 2003 Jacky left her post as the CEO of the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital and set up her own coaching company. Realising she knew little about marketing her own business and as a result felt very de-skilled. She found the support and help she needed from two main sources. First she undertook formal training with Asentiv, the business development company that she bought into a few years later. The other source was the willingness of other business owners on the local networking scene to share their knowledge and contacts with a newcomer who freely admitted she was not a natural networker. Now semi-retired she pays forward that generosity by mentoring others who have come out of employment as experts in their field but also confess that marketing themselves is foreign and at times uncomfortable territory. She finds a way of helping the most unnatural networker build a business in a way that is natural to them.