Networking for SME’s

Chris Oakley, CBE. Chairman of consultancy form Chapter Eight Ltd, says networking is often seen as something that isn’t suitable for the smaller or start-up business as the problem for most is that cash is tight.

“The entrepreneur or managing director cannot lift their eyes from generating the next sale/making the next product and chasing their customers for the cash to think about strategy, let alone about attending a social event in the hope of generating leads. Only when they reach a certain size, making a comfortable profit with a cashflow that does not have to be juggled at each month end do they typically have the time and available cash to think about networking. It’s a shame but probably inevitable.

There is clearly a personality element to networking – after all you are going to speak to complete strangers. I suppose saying “Be yourself” could be dangerous advice in some cases but there really is no point in pretending to be something that you are not. Not everyone is naturally at ease in unfamiliar social settings; so choose the most socially adept member of the management team to do the networking role. It doesn’t have to be the MD.

Networking is often mistaken for hard selling. Certainly deals can be done at a networking event, but don’t be too pushy. You are not at the function to sell – although it’s great if the phone rings when you’re back in the office with an order. You are there to build your group of useful contacts. Some may never be your customer; you may be theirs – for specialist advice or skills or components you need to improve your business. That’s the value of a network.

SME owners they could send their management team for etiquette and conversation lessons – but I wouldn’t recommend it. The networker needs to know the company’s services or products inside out and be able to talk informatively about them with enough awareness to know when information overload becomes boring. Generating a spark of interest and an exchange of business cards is better than turning brains numb with information around a dinner, lunch or breakfast table.

Networking is usually characterised by actual events that managers attend, but it is much more than this. Increasingly companies which talk to businesses online are building communities for special sectors or as advice forums, companies such as which is building communities for dealmakers and property specialists and where experienced managers can follow the challenges of start up companies and offer their advice. Chapter Eight has benefitted greatly, in person and online, from the Institute of Directors membership of its MD, Mario Thomas, and partly through the Institute his association with leading companies which require the partnership of a full service agency and a provider of global e-commerce solutions.

The first pitfall people often fall into is going to the wrong event or tapping into the wrong online community. Do your research. Find out who the guests or participants are and how they might fit with your business needs. Often there is more than one event in a city for a particular sector. Find out which one the key people in that sector put in their diaries as a must attend and pay up to be there. At any function, watch the wine intake. It’s amazing how many businessmen and women enjoy the event just a bit too much and what a negative impression they create, undoing any good work from earlier in the day.

Clearly online networks now play a major role in networking.The social skills needed at a physical networking event are less in demand online. Successful events are a skilful mixing of pleasure and business, something to come away from feeling usefully informed but reflecting on a happy occasion. Online is much more about communicating a clear message in text and, increasingly, in audio or video with the social element missing. A successful event networker may find the online environment rather more sterile.

The future of networking online and offline is being shaped by the current trend that is definitely towards networking through joining online communities and I can’t see that changing, but interestingly it has not reduced the attendance at traditional networking events in the way that might have been expected. Maybe it’s a generational viewpoint but I believe personal, face-to-face contact in a focused but semi-social setting is still a more valuable networking tool than an e-mail forum or a cacophony of Tweets. And, of course, there’s the wine – but just a glass or two!”

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