Building business relationships: Eight pointers for small companies

If you’re looking to grow your company by expanding your professional network, the following tips from Ian Naylor of AppInstitute will help with building business relationships.

When it comes to job hunting, it’s all about who you know. But that adage holds true for growing your business as well. You need to know best practice for building business relationships.

Companies don’t exist as islands. Successful organisations are run by owners who maintain strong professional relationships and have networks they can draw on when trying out new strategies, launching products, or recruiting talent. Those networks are cultivated over time, and they require an ongoing commitment to keeping in touch and doing what it takes to make new contacts.

The more extensive your network, the more opportunities you can generate when building business relationships. BNI Founder Ivan Misner once shared the story of a business owner who hired a CPA she met through networking. The CPA helped with bookkeeping and connected the entrepreneur with a lucrative new client. When used strategically, networking can yield significant returns like this for small businesses.

If you’re looking to grow your company by expanding your professional network, the following tips will help you navigate this terrain successfully.

Host a networking event

What better way to meet new people than to throw a party? Organise a happy hour for local entrepreneurs or sponsor a professional development event that will attract new faces from your business community. Hosting events demonstrates initiative and competence, which are great attributes to associate with your company. Not only will this put you in contact with the movers and shakers in your area, it also brands you as an established leader and authority in your field.

Join a networking or professional development group

If you’re not in a position to host an event, get connected to a networking or professional development organisation. There may be a local or regional group that suits your business, or you may want to look to national organisations. Many industry groups hold yearly conferences and offer online resources that will enable you to grow your network after those events. The perk of national organisations is that membership offers greater reach than you’d get with a more local group, though you’ll have to put in extra effort to maintain those relationships.

Reach out to your dream partners

Is there a company you’d love to partner with but lack the inside connection to make it happen? That’s not a problem. Make a list of the top five people or brands you’d like to work with. If you don’t know anyone who can introduce you, go for a cold open. Give them a call or shoot them an email introducing yourself and explaining why a collaboration would be beneficial. Then suggest a meeting so you can go deeper on the details, which will also give you a chance to develop a rapport. You’ll be surprised at how many people are open to working together once you demonstrate the mutual benefit.

Use social media strategically

LinkedIn and Facebook can be great resources for connecting with fellow professionals. But they will backfire if you use them in awkward or self-serving ways. When adding someone on either of these platforms, let them know why you’re reaching out. Perhaps it’s because you have connections in common or because you’re a fan of their work. A short note goes a long way toward reassuring people that you’re not just using them to boost your profile and that you genuinely look forward to engaging with them on social.

Be real, even when you’re networking

Schmoozing is part of doing business, but you don’t have to be phony or sleazy while rubbing elbows on behalf of your company. An honest, approachable attitude will yield far more quality connections than behaving in an arrogant or boisterous way. Pay attention when people speak, and look for opportunities to take conversations in interesting directions. When everyone is stuck on small talk about their professional histories, you can stand out by asking about their kids, their travels, or another personal detail they’ve mentioned. People will remember your interactions and will be inclined to follow up on opportunities to work together after the event.

Cultivate the personal, not just the professional, when it comes to building business relationships

Just because you meet someone at a networking event doesn’t mean you can’t become friends. In fact, becoming friends will only strengthen the relationship. Not only can you work together strategically, you can enjoy spending time together off the clock as well. If you share a passion for live jazz with someone or discover you’re both skydiving enthusiasts, make a point to invite that person out the next time you’re doing one of those activities. Networking doesn’t only happen at conferences and formal happy hours; some of the best partnerships are forged over shared interests.

Make good on your promises

We’ve all met people who insisted they wanted to work together or vowed to follow up, only to fall off the face of the earth. Don’t be one of them. Flakiness is unprofessional, and it could cost you lucrative partnerships that might have catapulted your company’s growth. If you say you’re going to schedule a meeting, get it on the calendar right away. People will equate your reliability with your company, and that reputation is good for business.

Building business relationships: Keep in touch

Let’s say you’ve done everything right — you followed up, scheduled meetings, came up with preliminary plans for a collaboration. But the timing wasn’t right, and you had to table a particular collaboration or launch. It happens. However, it’s also not an excuse for abandoning that relationship. You never know where your next big deal is going to come from, so nurture the connections you make.

A great way to stay on people’s radars is to send them something of value. That can be an article your company recently published or a whitepaper you came across that’s relevant to their business. They’ll appreciate that you were thinking of them and that you want to help them, even if they’re not directly helping you. But whether it’s through the occasional email, coffee meeting, or after-work drink, you need to maintain your network if you want to develop a healthy ecosystem around your company.

Networking may seem daunting at first, but building business relationships isn’t all that different from personal ones. If you show up, take a genuine interest in the other person, are empathetic, and have insightful things to say, you’ll win people over and form lasting bonds. Only in this case, those bonds will help you expand your business and boost your profile as a leader and entrepreneur.

Ian Naylor is the founder and CEO of AppInstitute.

Further reading on building business relationships

Nominations are now open for the British Small Business Awards, the leading event celebrating the brightest stars in the SME sector. Click here to enter, and make sure you get involved today using the hashtag #BSBAwards. Good luck!

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