How to make networking work for you

Tony Urwin reveals the tricks of how to be a successful networker and how it could help benefit your business.

As a franchise owner, you are often one step ahead of the competition when it comes to marketing, thanks to the support you receive from your franchisor. Most franchisors will provide, as a minimum, advertising templates, leaflets, staff uniforms and a website. In addition, you can usually tap into their wealth of experience to drive your own local marketing initiatives. Ultimately, however, the success of your business is down to you and the relationships you build with customers and people of influence within your local area. In order to help you to establish a solid local network, many franchisors advise their franchise owners to join a networking group. In practice, however, this approach does not work for everyone. Franchise Consultant Tony Urwin explores why and reveals the secret of successful networking.

Networking is often touted as being the successful small business owner's 'secret weapon'. Those who advocate it, and are good at it, claim that it can bring in more business than expensive advertising campaigns. In reality, however, many people join a networking group full of enthusiasm and then gradually stop going after a few months feeling greatly underwhelmed.

It's disappointing to waste time and money joining these groups with no influx of new business to reward you. You can spend hours at silly-o'clock breakfast meetings, overpriced lunches and alcohol-free drinks parties (chances are you'll have to drive).

While some people may be content to write the experience off and assume that, for whatever reason, it just doesn't work for them or their particular business, the smarter option may be to look closely at the dynamics of the group. Maybe there is more to this networking lark than simply turning up, delivering a two minute presentation and competing for the Guinness World Record in business card collecting? Maybe the reason that networking groups do work for some people goes a little deeper?

In actual fact, referrals are not a natural by-product of a networking group. The group is merely a starting-point.

Let's look at the implications of making a referral. You recommend someone to a business associate and they provide a great service. In return you gain respect for knowing the right person for the job. However, when you recommend someone and they don't perform well, your reputation and credibility are diminished. So why would you take the risk of recommending someone you barely know, just because they go to the same club?

The trick, therefore, is to spend time with the other members of your networking group outside the allotted meeting times. Choose the people that you genuinely like and want to get to know better, taking the time to get to know them as individuals. Once you know them personally, the business side of things will follow quite naturally.

In reality, it's not enough just to meet once and tick that person off your list with a smug look on your face. Remember that you are looking to develop a relationship and that means regular conversations and staying in touch. It doesn't always just have to be two of you, meet in small groups socially as well. It is only through spending quality time with fellow members that you can start to form meaningful friendships. Only then will the trust between you develop sufficiently to allow you to confidently refer and be referred. And it is only once this is achieved that the people in your networking group can actually become your network.

Networking groups don't provide referrals. They can, however, introduce you to the people who, over time, will.