Building up your business network might seem like a daunting task, especially as you manage all of the other responsibilities that come with starting and managing a small business.
However, whether you are sending a client a thank-you note, setting up a meeting with someone you met at a party, or signing up for a networking event, constructing a business network now can help you grow your small business down the road.
“It’s not what you know or who you know. It’s how well you know each other that counts,” says Ivan Misner, the founder of BNI, the world’s largest business networking organization.
“What really counts is going deep with the relationship,” says Misner, who surveyed 12,000 people from around the world and found that more than 91 percent believed networking had been important to their success.
Whether you are starting your networking efforts from scratch or adding to an already established contact list, here are five tips that will help you develop a business network that works.
1. Tackle your networking step by step.
You don’t have to put your other work on hold to go mingle with your entire town or connect with every single person you know on social networking sites.
Instead, try to view business networking as an ongoing process with chronological steps that will help you cultivate strong relationships, ultimately leading to profitability.
Misner recommends starting with visibility—make sure the people in your community know who you are and what you do. Next, work on establishing credibility and building your reputation.
2. Look out for events that allow you to network with multiple people.
You probably already have a lot of work on your plate, so you’ll want to be smart about how you spend your networking time, resources, and energy.
Keep an eye open for networking opportunities that allow you to connect with multiple people at once, says Frank Gullo, brand and business innovation manager for the Superior Group.
See if you can add any educational seminars, conferences, happy hours, webinars, or online group chats to your calendar.
3. Use the Internet as a networking tool.
If you find in-person networking to be intimidating, social media can be a good way to establish trust and build rapport with new business contacts. But before you use the Web to help cultivate your business network, make sure that your social media profile and online brand accurately reflect who you are and for what you want to be known.
Use social media to engage in dialogues with other users by posing questions, asking for feedback, and replying to comments, Misner says. Another way to get people’s attention is to include some personal information in addition to the professional.
4. Make the transition from online to face-to-face.
Online networking should not be a substitute for in-person networking, Gullo says.
While the Internet is a great place to meet people, try to move your relationship offline to solidify the connection—with a meet-and-greet lunch or a conversation over coffee, for example.
5. Keep up with your contacts.
Just because you get someone’s business card does not mean the networking process is complete. Time spent maintaining and developing your new relationships is equally as important.
“A lot of times today, with tools such as LinkedIn and Twitter, it’s easy for us to connect to these really big networks and kind of lose touch with people,” Gullo says.
To have a solid relationship with your professional contacts, you need to continually check in with them. This doesn’t have to be a grand gesture—you can simply reach out through a company email newsletter, a personal email with a relevant link, or with a referral.
But be careful not to spam your contacts with too many electronic messages. Gullo suggests organizing your network into different categories based on the depth of each relationship and then deciding how often to check in accordingly—be it once a year, once a quarter, or more frequently.
Remember that professional networking is a long-term investment that requires routine maintenance if you want to yield a return. You never know how connections will evolve, and someone you meet today may become a customer, an employee, or a valuable referral source years from now.