Yes, it can be lonely at the top when you’re trying to make your entrepreneurial dreams come true. But it doesn’t have to be.
There’s a whole world of people ready to provide advice, sympathy, information, brainstorming help and sales leads. Some become customers; others become colleagues, mentors and lifelong friends. All you have to do is meet them. How?
It’s called networking.
The purpose of business networking is NOT to bag a sale — at least not immediately, nor with every person you meet. The purpose is to build relationships with other professionals.
“All things being equal, people will do business with, and refer business to, those people they know, like and trust,” writes Bob Burg in “Endless Referrals.”
“Though I’ve never run a product-oriented business, some of my best business ideas have been inspired by colleagues who are in retail,” said one Score client. “I also get great insights from people I used to work with — many of whom have become entrepreneurs themselves.”
Although Facebook, LinkedIn and other online social networks have made networking convenient, don’t abandon the real “face time” method of building relationships.
You get different benefits from social networks, phone calls and face-to-face interactions. Julie Poland, York Score marketing chairwoman, said, “One of my favorite ways to get together with people in my network is over coffee or lunch, where ideas constantly flow.”
Business and professional associations are great places for building your network, too. They range from simple meet-and-greets to themed programs and discussions on relevant issues. You can find opportunities through Internet searches, by asking current members of your network or asking Score.
A good place to start is at the closest chamber of commerce or economic alliance. Many regions also have groups specifically for female entrepreneurs.
Don’t worry if you don’t consider yourself a talkative person, particularly around new people. Just prepare your “elevator speech” — a 20- to 30-second description about yourself and what you do.
The key to networking is the interaction itself. Listen, ask questions and chime in when you feel the time is right. The conversation might never touch specifically on your business, but the next conversation with these same people might. It’ll also show you’re not there solely to sell your business.
And take plenty of business cards to share.
Thousands of businesspeople who use networking as a marketing tool were given a survey that asked, “Where does most of your business come from?” Their responses broke down like this:
• 5 percent: public relations
• 9 percent: cold-calling
• 12 percent: advertising
• 74 percent: networking
Then there’s the business that comes because people recommended you to their friends. In the world of real estate, for example, the National Association of Realtors reports that 44 percent of homebuyers chose a Realtor referred by friends.
Here are some tips to help you become a more successful networker.
• Dress as if you’re going to a job interview.
• Be the connector and introduce people you know to each other.
• Listen more than you talk.
• Ask relevant questions, such as, “Describe your ideal client.”
• Ask permission to call a “hot prospect” or potential “power partner” later to talk more in depth.
• Approach. Engage. Disengage. Move on to the next person.
• Memorize and use your elevator speech.
• Load up with food and drinks. You can’t shake hands or exchange business cards with your hands full of munchies and beverages.
• Gossip about others or talk about personal problems.
• Dispose of someone’s business card or brochure in their presence.
• Ask for professional advice the person normally charges fees for.
• Give a sales pitch.
• Forget to follow up with people you promised to contact.
• Assume you have permission to add people to your email newsletter.
• Give up. Seedlings take time to bear fruit.
Networking, or word-of-mouth marketing, is one of the best ways for small businesses to attract new customers. It requires no expensive, time-consuming advertising or marketing campaigns, and uses the most trusted spokesperson you could ever find for your business.
Beth Fowler is a Score volunteer in York. To find out more about Score in Harrisburg, go to www.HarrisburgScore.org; in Lancaster, www.ScoreLancaster.org; and in York, www.YorkScore.org. Or call 800-634-0245.