Author: WV SBDC Subject Matter Expert – Frank Vitale, MBA
Growing a business is a lot like growing a garden. You start with a seed – an idea – and plant it. With proper care, effort, and time, your business, like that seed, will grow. To get the most out of your garden, you need to fertilize the soil to pack as many nutrients in as possible. For a business, networking is that fertilizer. A little bit of time and energy invested in boosting your professional network will result in a bountiful harvest for your business.
When trying to build or strengthen your network, leaders should focus on three areas that I call “Circles of Influence” — your primary audience, your partners, and your promoters.
Expanding Your Primary Audience
Every business has an audience. They are current customers, future customers, and anyone with whom the business should and could work.
Growing all three groups is a major challenge for every business. In fact, Patriot Software’s Small Business Blog listed “attracting and retaining customers” as one of the Top 10 biggest concerns of small business owners, right behind “making money.”
So how do you woo new customers while making sure your current customers stay happy, come back, and if possible, do more business? First, be friendly. Make customer service a key priority. Be approachable, understanding, and easy to work with. Be friendly in person and online. Make sure your business website is easy to use, easy to find and personable. Make your customers – whether online or in-person – feel valued and appreciated.
Second, be where your customers are. If you are not on social media yet, get on it. Set up a Facebook or Instagram page, a LinkedIn account, a Twitter account, or YouTube channel. Figure out which social media platforms your current and potential customers use most often and be there. Post updates regularly. Share videos. Like and interact with people. Ask satisfied customers to share reviews or post testimonials about your business. Social media is the town square. You need to be there.
Third, be an active participant in your community. You can define ‘community’ however is best for you. It may be your town, the state, or your industry. It may be all three. Regardless of how you define “community,” if you are asking others to support you, you need to support them as well. Be a good corporate citizen. Participate in local events or activities. Help nonprofits that reflect your organization’s core beliefs. Be present. Be visible. Help others. Give back.
Building Up Partnerships
Another way to build your network is to create win-win partnerships with other businesses that complement yours.
For example, a small coffee roaster that wants to expand his business may partner with a local baker who wants to expand hers. Or a personal trainer with clients interested in eating healthier partners with an organic gardener that specializes in home-delivery of farm-to-table fruits and vegetables.
Partnerships are out there waiting to be made. You just need to find them.
Mirjana Perkovic, a serial entrepreneur and member of the Forbes Business Council, wrote a blog on building business networks. She said partnerships form through basic human connections: talking with people, getting out in the community, and thinking not about how other businesses can help you, but how you can help them. “Always be prepared to help others and give more than you take. Business partnerships are often based on friendship and kindness first. The nicer you are to people, the more likely people will be willing to help you and open business doors for you when needed.” 1
Additional partnerships can form through actions you take to promote and market yourself and your business. Write guest columns and blogs on topics dear to you. Take steps to be recognized as an expert in your field and share the knowledge you have learned with others. As you expand your professional world, more partnerships will become evident.
Promoting your strengths
The third group that can help business owners strengthen their network are the “promoters.” These are the people, organizations, and agencies that will not necessarily give you business directly, but have the connections, knowledge, and understanding to influence others to work with you.
Promoters are the people you know who are well-connected and seem to know someone wherever they go. They are the rainmakers, the dealmakers, and the people both at the front of the room and behind the scenes. Promoters are the people whom others listen to and trust.
They are the people YOU listen to and trust — a “kitchen cabinet.’’
As you grow your business, your promoters can refer people to you and connect you with others. They vouch for you, introduce you to the right people, and get you or your business included in the events that will build your brand.
Expanding Your Circles of Influence
What if it hits you that those three Circles of Influence are not as large as you would like? Do not fear. You can expand them.
Your Circles of Influence should always be growing and changing. This is where networking comes in.
In the days before COVID, it was common for business owners to get together formally or informally, be it at Chamber of Commerce events, community activities, volunteering for a non-profit or at a fundraising event.
Sometimes the best networking was something as simple and relaxed as two people grabbing a cup of coffee together. But then COVID happened, and suddenly face-to-face interactions became rare. Instead, we connected through Zoom meetings, text messages, and email. In the process, we may have lost that essential part of getting to know people: human interaction.
Here is what you do: Turn off your computer and go meet someone. Join a business group and go to the luncheons and meetings. Attend a Business After Hours event. Volunteer for a non-profit or join a business group related to your company. Go to business groundbreakings and attend that small-business grand opening down the road. See people and talk to them. Ask them about their businesses and tell them about yours.
In short, show up. Making a personal connection is the key.
You may gain a new customer. You may lay the foundation for a new partnership. You may impress someone who will become your greatest promoter.
All you need to do is keep tending your garden and nourish it as much as you can.
About the Author
Frank Vitale is the founder, president and CEO of Forge, a certified Veteran’s Business Enterprise. A former Army Captain, Frank has 25 years of business experience in the areas of government contracting, finance, health care, and education. An adjunct professor at West Virginia University, Frank is a subject matter expert with the Small Business Development Center.