Networking in the New Economy: The Art of Branching Out, Without Forgetting Your Roots

By Colleen Francis

"How can I do a better job of gathering new business and new prospects in today's market?" That's a question that I get asked quite often as a sales trainer. Indeed, the simplest answer is that you need to build and sustain a network. In particular, you need one that can help you can get the word out on the street about your products or services, help you build a name for yourself in your industry, and give you support when you need it. 

Today, we live in an increasingly connected world, so it's easier than ever to go online and create the connections we want using social networking tools, such as Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter (to name just a few). There's no question that there are great benefits to using these tools, but as a sales professional it's also important to check your assumptions about what these tools can and cannot do.

Social networking really shines in how it can help you reach a large number of people and keep them informed about what you're up to these days. It's amazingly efficient at sharing information and ideas. However, it's not a substitute for one-on-one human interaction. That activity is still at the root of all successful networking efforts.

Consider the results of a 2007 study by Dr. Will Reader of Sheffield Hallam University in the UK. After examining user behavior on some 200 social networking sites, he found that while those surveyed had an average of well over 150 contacts each, most regarded only five as being close personal friends. Five people...out of 150! Just as important, some 90 percent of those close friendships were the result of meeting face-to-face.

Meaningful connections — the kinds that great business relationships are made from — those are the ones you need to build and sustain. By looking at the business habits of the top-10 percent of sales leaders in organizations both large and small, there are some important best practices to take note of in this area.

Go where your customers are.
The fastest way to build your network is to figure out where your prospects and existing customers are gathering and go there. Make face-to-face introductions at local business events, attend lunch-and-learn sessions, participate in trade shows. If part of your networking strategy is to meet a specific person in an organization, then attend the same events that they do. Even if you don't manage to make that first introduction on your own, by developing relationships with others at the event, your odds are good that you'll eventually be introduced to your targeted prospect.

Be a resource by offer something of value.
One of the best ways to build credibility is by demonstrating to people that you are a valuable resource. Do more than just give people information that they can get anywhere. Put your personal stamp on things. Offer to be a guest speaker at an event in which you share your personal best practices or even a top-ten list on a subject that matters to your audience. Regularly publish a newsletter or a blog. If you don't have the time to write it yourself, simply sketch out a few ideas and hire a writer or editor to look after the finer details.

Surround yourself with the right support.
For sales professionals, networking is about more than just reaching out to clients and prospects. You also need to build your own support network. It's really important to have people around you who support your purpose and your cause. It's equally important to be weary of those who, for all kinds of reasons, work against those goals. As I am fond of saying, there are two kinds of people in this world: life-givers and life-suckers. Be a life-giver, and by that I mean be positive, generous and supportive. Next, find others who think like you do.

What I have found in my fifteen years of studying sales people is that those who are in the top-ten percent tend to be life-givers. They understand that what they give out comes back to them. Seek out these kinds of people and treasure them, because they are the ones who through thick and thin will believe you can succeed instead of telling you why you can't. You need to find managers and sales reps and accountability partners who hold your feet to the fire and force you to do what you say you were going to do. To keep you true to yourself. These are the people with whom you can celebrate your successes, but are also the ones you turn to when a sale goes wrong and you don't know why, and get advice you can use right away.

Get tools that enhance your grassroots efforts.
Remember what I said about social networking sites. They do have their place in your networking efforts. After you've done your research and the legwork of meeting people face-to-face, leverage the power of online networking tools so that your newly mined contacts can stay in touch with you. If you're a Twitter user, tweet your key business activities. In the run-up to a tradeshow, for example, mention that you're going to be on-site and looking forward to meeting new contacts.

The applications don't stop there. You can also use these tools as a way of keeping track of your contacts and where you met them. Periodically cross-check against your customer database (that goldmine of data that gets underused in most organizations out there) and see if there are potential new connections that can be made. 

Be consistent.
Whether you're publishing a newsletter, twittering your news or engaging in direct-mail follow-up with prospects (and ideally aim to do all three of these), the key is to be consistent. Decide on an update schedule that works for you and that is convenient for your new and prospective customers. In my own discussions with clients, I find that there is no set timeframe. Some update their customers every three days. Others do so once a month. The key is to find a schedule that helps you remain on everyone's radar, and then stick to it.

Networking is vital to sales success. More than being a means of just reaching out to people, it's a crucial element that's behind finding better customers, better friends, and better partners—all of which combined are the real key to success!

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Nonstop Sales Boom by Colleen Francis Make sure you check out Colleen's latest book, Nonstop Sales Boom for powerful strategies to drive consistent sales growth quarter after quarter, year after year.

Colleen Francis, Sales Expert, is Founder and President of Engage Selling Solutions (www.EngageSelling.com). Armed with skills developed from years of experience, Colleen helps clients realize immediate results, achieve lasting success and permanently raise their bottom line.

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