This article originally appeared in the September 2023 issue of THE SHOP magazine.
Networking is a crucial part of business growth and success. We all have them—those few, yet important, business contacts that we connect with every so often by phone, email or in-person at industry shows or events.
They are other businesspeople who we admire, appreciate and trust. They are the ones we can be brutally honest with and who don’t sugar-coat things when asked for their thoughts or advice.
Often, these people (your network) are simply a sounding board when you need to rant about difficult customers or current business challenges. But they are also very important relationships that should be nurtured and grown.
When was the last time you strategized about how to expand your business network? Here are a few steps to help strengthen existing relationships and build new connections.
- INCREASE YOUR LINKEDIN PRESENCE
While I could fill the pages of this publication with all the negative aspects of social media, the reality is it remains an important business tool that should be understood and used. Ensuring your LinkedIn profile is kept fresh and up to date is only the start.
Try to share professional insights or information that affects your industry at least once a week. It can be as simple as posting an article that you find interesting or helpful.
By demonstrating your knowledge through thoughtful posts, you’re showing potential connections that you have valuable contributions to offer. Staying active and establishing a presence helps to build awareness of your brand and increases opportunities to form relationships with others in the industry.
- EDUCATING VS. PITCHING
Use your social media channels to teach people techniques and ideas they can use, interesting features that impressed you about certain products, and new and/or important information about your industry that customers may find interesting.
Many business owners make the mistake of constantly selling instead of creating a conversation. They say that marketing is like a first date—if all you do is talk about yourself, there won’t be a second one.
- ATTEND (A FEW) LOCAL NETWORKING EVENTS
Now, don’t get me wrong. I do believe that most networking events are what you make of them. I also believe, however, that you shouldn’t rely on, or limit yourself to only attending local, longstanding business gatherings.
Chamber of Commerce and other small business groups usually offer monthly or quarterly networking events, but you shouldn’t expect too much from them. Typically, they are the same people who get together each time.
These events are worth attending on occasion, of course, to make sure the group knows you, your business and the type of work you do. And, in the true spirit of networking, you can also look to introduce people you know to members of the group who may benefit from a professional connection.
- ATTEND INDUSTRY-SPECIFIC EVENTS
There’s no denying that attending shows like SEMA and PRI, as well as regional events around the country, is a great way to connect with important industry professionals and meet new ones. It doesn’t happen just by attending, however.
Networking is work, and it takes a conscious effort and a solid strategy to make the most of these important opportunities. Planning ahead by contacting people you would like to meet with and asking if you can set a time for coffee, lunch or simply to exchange business cards is a great start.
Also think about the people you already know and who you may be able to introduce to each other. The ability to identify those who should get to know one another and then making it happen is the mark of a true networking pro. Building relationships within your industry and connecting people is just as important for your business as knowing your way around a vehicle.
- TRAVEL A LITTLE MORE
I know, I know, you’ve got a business to run.
However, whether I am attending an off-road race, a local car show, the Indy 500 or any other enthusiast event, I always try to make plans to connect with other industry professionals who may be there as well. Or I make time to visit businesses similar to mine that are located in the same area as the event.
These are great ways to expand your network. I suggest looking at the calendar in advance and locating people you would like to connect with in the areas where you already plan to travel. Or, kick it up a level by organizing your own networking event during a time that you are traveling to a trade show or enthusiast event, inviting key people who you know will attend and then promoting it to other industry professionals who may be interested in joining you.
It’s a great way to help establish yourself as an industry expert who is interested in bringing people together.
DON’T GO IT ALONE
Regardless of how you plan to move forward, another important part of networking is being a bit vulnerable. Remember, we can all use a little help now and then.
We know how fake it seems when people go on and on about how great things are all the time. So, if you want your networking efforts to succeed, you must be bold enough to ask for assistance when needed.
Before networking, determine some of the topics you would like to discuss and be sure you can articulate what it is you are hoping to learn or get help with. Then, when someone asks if they can help, tell them the truth.
Jhan R. Dolphin is vice president of Michigan-based concept vehicle and prototype company Prefix Corporation and owner of marketing and promotional company J Robert Marketing. He often speaks to industry groups on sales, marketing, and various business topics. He can be reached at email@example.com.