-- A.C., Singapore
A: If your family or current network of friends is disinterested, start building a new network. Family and friends are not always the best source for networking or business referrals anyway, experts say, because they may not know much about your chosen industry.
What you need to do, says Maribeth Kuzmeski, president of Red Zone Marketing of Libertyville, Ill., is to develop a positive, benefit-driven statement about you and your company. "Don't just say, 'I'm a barbecue salesman.' That's dull, and that's all about you. What does the business do for others? What can it do in the future?" Write one or two sentences about what you do and how others can benefit from it, and then commit it to memory. Be strong, but don't over-pitch.
Once you've developed a good way to describe your business, develop some presentation skills. Ask friends and family to role-play with you, for example. Or you could polish your speaking abilities without taking an expensive course by teaching an adult class in your field or offering to make an educational presentation for a club or professional organization. Such stints probably won't generate income, but they will bring credibility and experience.
SCRATCHING BACKS. It's important in business that you get out of your office and learn to be bold, says Dee Helfgott, a business coach, and author of Network Smart and Listen Up. "Seek out ongoing opportunities to meet new people. Windows of opportunity are all around you in your daily life," she says. "Begin by targeting your market. Determine what type of people you would like on your team and where you can go to meet them. Then organize a networking action plan on a weekly basis, setting a schedule that includes meetings, industry trade shows, and conferences where you can meet new people. Read daily newspapers and business journals to learn about events. Set face-to-face appointments, make telephone contacts, and send e-mails."
When you identify people who influence your industry, ask them out to lunch. Sure, some people will turn you down, but if you keep asking, some will accept your invitation. Do your homework first, and figure out how you can benefit the person you're talking to," says Kuzmeski.
A client of Kuzmeski's who wanted to connect with important businesspeople in his community took the president of the local chamber of commerce to lunch. The client asked about the chamber, and listened when the man complained that he was frustrated about finding someone to take a spot on the chamber's board of directors. The volunteer position took time and energy, and none of the members wanted the responsibility. Kuzmeski's client volunteered for the job on the spot, won the immediate gratitude of the chamber president, got connected with other members, and quickly picked up referrals for his business.
ALL EARS. "Be blunt about it," Kuzmeski advises. "Ask important businesspeople, 'What do you need? What do you want? How can I help you?' Another client of mine met with a local financial advisor, who told him he really needed clients who were rolling over their 401(k) plans. My client thought of someone he could refer to this guy, did the legwork, and got him some new business. From then on in, he was golden."
Networking is much more about listening than about talking, Helfgott advises. Explain your business succinctly, and then listen to other people talk about theirs. You'll have an immediate advantage over most people because you'll be doing something valuable that most others are not. And you'll be in a position to make real relationships -- the golden currency of a successful company. Have a question about running your business? Ask our small-business experts. Send us an e-mail at email@example.com, or write to Smart Answers, BW Online, 6th Floor, 2 Penn Plaza, New York, NY 10121. Please include your real name and phone number in case we need more information; only your initials and city will be printed. Because of the volume of mail, we won't be able to respond to all questions personally.