What Is Networking?
The One Business Skill They Typically Don't Teach in College
What's the one critical skill that is almost never taught in college, even business school? Networking. Yet, without it, one's career can easily be a non-starter.
Even worse is that many people have an "I know it when I see it" attitude when it comes to networking. But without a clear understanding of what exactly it is and how to use it, connection activities can be a frustrating and futile exercise.
While the dictionary may have an official definition for it, here is my functional definition of networking in business: The two pillars of the networking process are establishing and maintaining connections and mutual support.
Networking is the process of establishing and maintaining connections with groups of individuals for the purpose of mutual support.— Heidi Thorne
Establishing and Maintaining Networking Connections
This is at the heart of the networking process. Establishing connections can be done in a variety of ways and venues. But the most common method for business is through participation in networking groups. These groups can include:
- Chambers of commerce
- Leads groups (BNI, Le Tip, etc.)
- Associations and clubs
- Networking events
- Social networking via social media and other online venues
- Informal networks of friends, family, colleagues, and vendors
The key is to participate in the right groups because not all networking groups are created equal in terms of their ability to reach the people you want to reach.
And like groups, not all connections are ideal connections. Agreed, following a "you don't know who they know" philosophy, even irrelevant contacts can often come up with some outstanding referrals. But the cost in terms of time and effort to maintain and grow connections with people far removed from your target audience can be counterproductive.
Remember, also, that a "like attracts like" principle is also at work. Even if the ideal prospects you are directly connecting with in these groups do not become buyers, they may be able to refer you to people just like themselves who may be a good fit for you.
So the point is to evaluate networking groups and opportunities based on their ability to connect you with a big enough pool of people from the market segments you want to reach.
Networking Is an Investment
Networking is a long-term investment. It takes a significant amount of time to attend networking groups and events, follow up with good connections (via email, phone and in-person meetings) and maintain a presence in that arena until even a first sale is made. This could be months or even years, depending on the type of networking done and what is being sold.
Networking is a dance of giving and getting. Networkers who participate only to get are usually obvious and are usually gone quickly. On the opposite side of the spectrum, network members who give too much (for example, volunteering for every possible committee) are also gone quickly due to burnout.
Decide how much time, effort, and money you can and are willing to invest in each particular network in order to achieve your business goals while providing support for fellow members. Remember that the goal is mutual support.
Ways to Provide Support
Support can take the form of:
- Buying needed products and services from network members. The emphasis is on "needed." No pity buys!
- Giving relevant referrals to others.
- Participating in meetings, events, and special projects.
But Isn't Networking the Same as Word of Mouth?
No! Though both networking and word of mouth advertising seek to share connections and information with people one knows, they are completely different in terms of their goals and function. An example will better illustrate.
Say that I visit a new restaurant in town and I tell my neighbor about my great experience there. That's word of mouth. On the other hand, say I have a conversation with the new restaurant owner while I'm dining and I learn that he needs help with his marketing. I then refer him via email with a marketing consultant friend of mine. I have an established relationship with the marketing consultant and am looking out for her interests, as well as the interests of the new restaurant owner connection I just made. That's networking.
Word of mouth is completely noncommittal. I don't honestly care if my neighbor actually visits the new restaurant in the example or not. And the restaurant owner has no idea if I will, or will not, share information about his place with anyone.
Networking has some level of investment on the part of all parties. In the example, I had to strike up a conversation with the restaurant owner. I also had to already have the established connection with my marketing consultant friend and had to take time and effort to connect her with the restaurant owner. So what's in it for me? I'll have made this connection in the hopes that when they see an opportunity that's suitable for my business, they'll reciprocate and connect me.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
© 2016 Heidi Thorne