SFR-small-biz-icons-networkingNetworking is an essential means of building the relationships and strategic partnerships that lead to long-term business success. Whether it’s through in-person meetings or via social media, networking is the tool most often cited by business owners for building invaluable connections with individuals in allied services and industries.

Like all successful business endeavors, networking requires a sound plan and proper execution to achieve the best results. While there are countless tips and tricks for maximizing your networking investment, here are five simple strategies that have worked for the team at Summit Financial Resources.

#1 – Be clear about your goal.

As a small business owner, you don’t have time to waste. The key to making the most of the time you spend networking is to have a specific purpose in mind. If you are seeking funding for a startup, the networks you need to access are very different than if you are growing your business and looking for a CPA.

Some organizations, meetings, and events are based more on exchanging knowledge and ideas than on strictly making business connections. Whether your goal is to meet a specific number of people, learn something new, or discover potential opportunities, knowing what you are looking for makes it easier to zero in on groups that will help you get what you need.

#2 – Find the right room.

Many business professionals make the mistake of looking for the right connection in the wrong room. Your network is a critical asset only if you can add value strategically to those you meet, and they, in turn, give you access to quality information, ideas, and opportunities.

Target key groups and be strategic. If you’re new to networking, local chapters of large organizations in your industry are often good places to start. At Summit Financial Resources, we are actively involved in a number of commercial finance industry groups, including the Turnaround Management Association, Risk Management Association, International Factoring Association, Commercial Finance Association, and The Association For Corporate Growth.

Your chamber of commerce and rotary club may also be valuable resources for making connections with local businesses and service providers. If you are looking for a banker, an attorney, or a marketing consultant, a reliable referral from another business owner is priceless. You might also find value in connecting with niche groups, such as those focused on women-owned or minority-owned businesses or young professionals.

Finding the right groups is often a process of trial and error, so consider initially casting a wide net. Look outside your industry for potential contacts. Expand your network to include professionals at varying experience levels, not just your peers. You never know who might have the right connections. The key is to invest time with groups where people have the resources you need to achieve your goal. If there aren’t people who can help you, move on.

#3 – Articulate what you do and how you do it differently.

In order to get referrals, you need to be able to clearly tell people what you do, who it benefits, and why they should refer you. Crafting a great elevator pitch is not just about stating the facts in 30 seconds. You need to explain what makes you special or different from everyone else who does the same thing.

Keep in mind that before you begin “selling” your product or service, it’s important to understand what your listener is interested in buying. Running a successful business is about offering people what they want, not what you think they need. The best way to find out what someone wants is to ask questions and listen to the answers. Everyone has problems, and they are more likely to work with you or refer you to others if you can tell them how your business takes a unique or unrivaled approach to solving those problems.

#4 – Turn connections into relationships.

When it comes to business relationships, it’s important to focus less on the word “business” and more on “relationships.” One of the biggest mistakes you can make when networking is to think only about what you can get from others. Networking is a two-way street, and it is important that the connections you make be meaningful and valuable to all involved.

Take the time to get to know people and not just get a lead or a referral. Before attending a meeting or event, do your homework. Find out who will be there, what their industry is about, and what you have in common. When speaking with those you meet, ask questions to learn more about them and their challenges.

Focus not on what they can do for you, but on what you have to offer. Facilitating an introduction or sharing information about their area of expertise is a way of adding value. Chances are they will remember you when they have the opportunity to offer value in return.

#5 – Follow up and follow through.

It goes without saying that in order for networking to work, you need to follow up with the contacts you’ve made. It’s helpful to make notes on the back of the business cards you collect about future actions you want to take. Send each contact a short email and connect via LinkedIn, Facebook, or Twitter. If there is someone you want to connect with in person, initiate the next meeting.

The same holds true with referrals. Get in touch by email shortly after the meeting or event, and include the person who referred you in your initial correspondence. Regardless of the outcome, always remember to thank someone for helping you. What goes around comes around.

The secret to great networking is establishing relationships that have mutual respect and genuine value. As a small business, Summit Financial Resources understands that developing long-term relationships that are mutually beneficial is essential to building our reputation and growing our business.

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Summit Financial Resources specializes in working capital financing for small to medium-sized businesses that need increased cash flow. We provide working capital financing through invoice factoring, asset-based lending, inventory lending, and equipment financing.