Practical Considerations of Business-based Networking

Networking, whether to directly find new customers or to increase your visibility in the marketplace, is an important activity for small businesses.  Here’s insight based on my experience after completing over ten months participation in a referral / leads networking group in which only one member per profession is allowed.   

These concepts and issues are relevant for other business-based networking opportunities such as a chamber of commerce and civic groups.  Please note there are many other valid reasons for networking, but this article is strictly focused on business networking. 

Business and Marketing Considerations 

1)    Visit other similar groups or chapters if they’re nearby.

a)    Use this opportunity to speak with members who are professionals from your industry.  Ask about both time and money commitment and whether they’ve benefited financially and/or professionally. 

2)    Analyze the membership in terms of your target market.

a)    As an example, does the group consist of more business-to-consumer entities or more business-to-business entities?

i)      In my case, there were certain businesses I was never able to refer to such as home security.  We’ve lived in the same community and house for over ten years, and I tend to recommend businesses I personally know or use.

ii)    What is an acceptable amount of time to spend meeting with people outside of your target market at this stage of your business? 

b)    If you have a geographic target market, where do members live and work?  Additionally, a business may target customers based on other factors such income, age or lifestyle.  And of course, B2B markets will utilize different criteria.

3)    Consider your sales cycle.

a)    Members with short sales cycles (carpet cleaning, clothing alterations, hairstylists) will usually gain business immediately.  Industries such as financial planning and consulting can be involved for six or more months without receiving any referrals.

b)    Be prepared to remain in the group for at least six months to one year.  As with any promotional effort, make the commitment and think of this opportunity as a long term investment in building relationships and developing trust.

c)     If your business is young, this opportunity can be invaluable for testing ideas.

4)    Examine the group in terms of the quality of members.

a)    You have to balance what time you have for this marketing activity versus how much you may need to give to make the group highly valuable (inviting potential members or your industry allies, one-on-one meetings, etc.)

b)    It can be uncomfortable to recommend a person based on a few meetings if you haven’t seen or experienced their work.  Plus due to human nature, there are bound to be certain people with whom you don’t click.  When it comes to referrals, your reputation is on the line! 

Personal Considerations 

1)    Focus on the time of the meeting as your personal situation may work better for lunch meetings than morning or evening meetings, or vice versa.

a)    Interestingly, I’m continually hearing about a greater number of networking groups meeting bi-weekly or monthly. 

 2)    Find out what meetings are required outside of your regularly scheduled meeting. 

a)    We were expected to meet at least once a week with another member and to meet with every member.

b)    While the group is sold as only requiring ninety minutes each week, the time commitment was realistically three to four hours each week. 

3)    If considering a leadership position, ask questions about how much time it takes, does the member feel the extra commitment has paid off, and what type of training is available. 

a)    As incentive, the top three leaders of our group obtain additional months of membership for their service.

b)    In our group, training always required some type of fee (under $20) and was not necessarily geographically convenient.  For my particular position, limited free materials were provided, but the majority of materials required a purchase. 

Group Considerations 

1)    Learn about membership retention rates and try to gauge the priority of the group.

a)    Our group was very young. 

i)      Thus, many members felt our top priority was to recruit new members.  This can lead to projects requiring additional time and money.

ii)    Leadership stability can be important.  We had three different group leaders (i.e., president, director) and two second-in-command leaders in 10.5 months.

iii) During those months, twenty-six members left the group for various reasons.  At the time I joined, the group had roughly thirty members.  At the time I left, the group had twenty and at one point was under 15.

b)    Learn about the types of businesses that have remained in the group if it’s older than two years.

2)    Ask about membership policies.

a)    You may be required to invite a certain number of potential members involving letters, phone calls, etc.

i)      These numbers can be substantial.

b)    Ask about financial commitment. 

 i)      We paid an initial registration fee, annual fee and monthly dues to cover our breakfast and meeting facility; these fees totaled over $870 for twelve months. I’m aware of some groups having monthly dues of $50 to $60 if meeting for lunch.

c)     What type of training is available?

i)      In our case, a basic required course offered useful suggestions for maximizing your participation.  These ideas were applicable to other networking situations.

d)    Make sure you fully understand attendance policies, such as whether a substitute is or is not expected.

i)      Of the forty plus meetings I attended, we always had at least one member absent.  In some cases, we had seven or more absent out of 20 or 25 members.  When members are absent, it detracts from the value of the group.

e)    If more than one person from a profession applies, how is the member selected?

f)      How are non-productive members handled?

g)    If the group tracks referrals and business, how are they calculated?  Different groups within the same organization may use different methods.

h)    A mentoring program is great but again requires additional time.

i)      If the group has a website, spend adequate time researching it.

3)    Visit as many times as permissible to observe the flow of the meeting. 

a)    Our group leader received formal training on how to run the meeting, and thus each one generally followed the recommended format.  I’ve been told not all groups do so. 

b)    Are the members friendly to visitors?  Are the members actively speaking with one another?

c)     Try to learn about the quality of direction given by paid personal if the group has a formal management organization. 

i)      Will the organization offer any type of discount for providing poor management from the paid/staff level?   If this group is run as a for-profit business, you’ll have an idea if gaining new members is significantly more important than providing customer service to existing members. 

d)    If there are terms you don’t understand, ask for explanation.  Just like any industry, these groups have their own terminology! 

What I learned and experienced in a nutshell.

  1. Business-wise, since I have a geographic target market and primarily focus on clients in the B2B market, I would likely generate greater benefits by establishing my own networking group of small B2B businesses serving my geographic area and relating to my field.
  2. I obtained enough business to pay for all fees and expenses but the time commitment was extensive.
  3. I will maintain contact over the long-term with a handful of professionals from the group who I can either refer to or receive referrals.  Plus, some have become personal friends.
  4. Professionally, since I’m a home-based business, it was great incentive to dress in formal work clothes, get out of the house, and sharpen my speaking skills through a leadership position.  Other home-based members and those who have recently relocated to our area share my sentiment! 
  5. I highly recommend business networking for professionals who’ve been out of the work force for a period of time and will benefit from the structure and leadership opportunities as it’s easier to get back into the professional mode.
  6. Overall, my participation in this group helped more with professional growth than business growth.   

Whether you’ve had positive or negative networking experiences, or want to share comments, please don’t hesitate to email me at kgbmarketing@hotmail.com.