Gaining and keeping valuable contacts is vital for SMEs to grow their client base and strengthen their business objectives.
Although 94% of small businesses consider direct referrals important to their success, new research commissioned by accountancy firm Kingston Smith LLP shows that they’re not sure how to improve their networking skills.
So what can you do to better connect with people?
Utilise social media
Most businesses consider sites such as LinkedIn and Twitter to be important networking tools, but 35% find them ineffective. In fact, many view social networking as a ‘necessary evil’.
To make the most of it, avoid getting sucked into trivial discussions and use it to comment on news and events in your industry to gain respect. After meeting someone at an event, always connect to them online via LinkedIn.
Social media is best used in conjunction with face-to-face meetings, not instead of them, and you shouldn’t devote too much time to it.
Meet face to face
There’s no substitute for shaking someone’s hand and engaging in direct conversation with them. Meeting clients and suppliers face to face will bring the greatest returns. Some of the most important business relationships have been forged at seminars, over a meal or on the golf course.
That said, it’s important to be selective when attending business meetings to avoid suffering ‘event overload’. Having a clear strategy for networking at events is equally as valuable as having a marketing strategy.
Befriend your competitors
It may go against the grain to build relationships with the very people who are competing for your business, but it can actually be very beneficial to introduce yourself at trade fairs. By developing a rapport with businesses similar to you, you can create a network of contacts that you’re able to talk to whenever you need to discuss industry issues. Most people are happy to help when asked for their advice. It doesn’t mean you have to divulge any trade secrets.
Cast your net further afield
Don’t be too choosy about who you add to your network. You never know when someone might prove useful. The more people you know, the more likely it is that you’ll get business opportunities because of them.
It’s the little details that impress people, so when you first meet someone, remember what they tell you about themselves and their family. Mention it when you get back in touch. For example, you could ask ‘How is your son getting on in his new job?’ or ‘Did you have a good holiday in Italy?’ People feel special when you show an interest in them.
Follow up contacts
When you ask someone in your circles for something like a reference or advice, let them know that their help was appreciated. Was their advice useful? If it was, call or email to thank them. Kind gestures aren’t forgotten, and your contacts will be more willing to help you in future.
Similarly, if you’ve been impressed by something one of your contacts has done, such as a blog they’ve written, or a talk they gave, tell them so.
Slowly but surely, you can build a network of people to help you expand your business – as well as lasting friendships.
Posted by Ashleigh Sharp