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How to make the most of networking to grow your business?

With so many networking events and groups around, it is often quite difficult to understand which ones should you choose to grow your business. We interview some experts and find out what kind of networks should growing SMBs be a part of and how to make the most of it.

 

It is 6.15 on a Sunday morning and Jawed Sheikh, Managing Director of Value Vision Decor Technical Services is already on his way to the Dubai Creek Golf and Yacht Club for his weekly BNI (referral business group) meeting.

He arrives there and meets with more than 25 other business heads. Before they start with their structured meeting, they discuss weekly developments, new services and update each other about the latest happenings in their lives. Once the meeting starts, Jawed gets busy in jotting down what other members of his team are looking for and prepares his referral list. While he passes on five referrals, others pass on six referrals to him.

“That’s how structured networking works,” says Jawed. “You meet potential clients or existing business partners on a regular basis to maintain your business relationship and generate referrals which can be used to identify new clients/business opportunities to further your business growth.”

In today’s world, with the onset of technology, lack of personal connection and increasing competition, it has become very difficult for SMBs to grow. Where do you find your ideal clients and how do you get qualified leads? That’s a question many businesses get stuck with.

To help such businesses, networking events were organised where people could connect with each other, understand each other’s business and then work together. This, however, got divided into two main categories - free to attend events and membership-based events. The free to attend events are mostly like industry-related conferences and workshops. The membership-based events are where the members pay a certain fee, get added into a referral group of their choice, meet with their groups on a regular basis and then pass business to each other.

“Networking is like creating a web the way spider does,” says Amitava Banerjee, Director of Business Development, CEO Clubs Network. “Each networking platform has some value to offer. However, it depends on the networker how he/she extracts the value out of that platform. Networking is an art and getting to know the other person in a short time is a bigger art, and to create an impression about oneself within that time is the biggest art.”

The first impression

With free to attend networking events, that’s the biggest challenge - how do you impress someone enough in five minutes to get them to encourage them to pass business to you? Bijay Rajnikantt Shah, National Director of BNI says: “It’s like making a cold call but in person. It does take a skill set to connect and start a conversation with strangers and not many people are proficient in this. Most SMBs who choose to attend these events assume they can literally use this opportunity to try and sell to the new people they meet.”

With structured networking, however, that’s not the case. SMBs network in a closed group and since they meet regularly, they have ample amount of time to talk in depth about their services. “Being an entrepreneur, I have always believed in structured networking where the objectives of a networking group are clearly outlined and expectations are mutual from a networking group, and therefore I personally prefer structured networking over free events,” says Anishkaa Gehani, CEO of Yardstick Marketing, Dubai.

 

Say NO to aggressive sales

Bijay, however, feels that even unstructured networking can benefit one provided they don’t try to pitch sales right in the first meeting. Anishkaa too seconds his thought as she too believes that hunters and aggressive sales people put others off. Instead, if one tries to understand the other individual’s business, takes interest in the same, keeps in touch and passes on business to them, it helps them build credibility and that’s what can get your ball rolling.

But most businesses fall into the trap of collecting several business cards at unstructured events, sending emails to them and connecting. Does that work? According to Amitava: “Networking is not limited to collection of business cards and send courteous emails as a onetime action. Value of networking starts when one makes the effort to reach out to the other person and stays in touch. Out of sight is actually out of mind so to occupy in one's mind space you need to be visible.” With structured networking, however, that’s again possible because the groups meet regularly.

 

Being active and building trust

The next essential, after impression and visibility, is being active. “Active members are those who contribute to the growth of other members while ensuring their business gets its due benefit,” says Jawed. Commitment to the objectives, involvement in the activities, engagement with the members, eagerness, and efforts to help other members in the group in their business are the key attributes for any business to grow through networking.

Once you’re an active member, you’re more trusted and that’s how real business will start coming your way. From his experience, Amitava notes that the biggest merit is trust. When a member meets another member at regular intervals, he gets more opportunity to know about that person; his business and many other details which helps build a relationship on mutual trust. Businessmen are more likely to give business to those who have a similar thought process and share a similar level of commitment.

 

Give business and be patient

“It’s more about farming than hunting,” says Bijay. “If you’re expecting to get results overnight, that might not be possible because it takes time to build trust and you need to invest that much time to derive benefits.” On average, an SMB can start expecting major results after 12-18 months of strong networking. The second most important thing is to give enough business.

That’s where understanding the business of people you’re networking with comes into play. The more you give, the more visible you are and people are more likely to deal with you.

In conclusion, there is no perfect way of networking. As Jawed says, it is important to understand and analyse whether the 'event' enlightens you and broadens your understanding of the subject and how much you gain in terms of knowledge. As long as you’re evaluating your goals from time to time, learning and developing, you’re sure to succeed through networking. “A perfect networker is like a soluble object example of sugar mixed in a drink. You consume the drink you get the taste of sweetness but can't see the sugar,” concludes Amitava.