Networking: building valuable relationships

Networking comes naturally to some entrepreneurs. For others, it is an uncomfortable necessity. These 11 tips from networking expert Judith Smits will help you enjoy networking and get more out of it for your business.

Your network is made up of all the people you know, both privately and professionally, far away and nearby. When you network, you make new contacts or maintain your existing network. Networking is about relationships in which you have something to offer the other person and/or the other person can help you further.

You can network both online and offline. Online, for instance, you tell your story using a company profile on networking sites, such as LinkedIn or Higher Level, the Entrepreneur Forum of the Netherlands. Or you can take part in an online meeting, training, or course. Networking offline, you can think of company get-togethers, trade and regional networks, conferences, and training courses. Or birthdays, social get-togethers, and receptions. It just depends on what suits you or your company.

What makes it so exciting?

“85% of people find it exciting to start a conversation with a stranger. The same goes for that well-known entrepreneur or director of a big company,” Judith Smits explains. She wrote the networking book The FUNfactor and organises networking events. “That tension is logical. In the old days, as a hunter or gatherer, you paid with your life if you fell outside a group. So you preferred to stay with acquaintances you trusted. Now, this ‘safety instinct’ still makes you feel unsafe when you walk up to a stranger. But people are more human than you think. So are directors.”

Why network?

At networking events, Smits sees people spend hours talking to the same person. For example, with the colleague they came in with. “By doing this, you rob yourself of new connections, but also the person you’re talking to. When you do approach a stranger, that's when the magic happens,” she says. Networking, she says, will  get you:

New customers and recommendations

People get to know you and therefore recommend you to others. Smits, for example, got a new speaking job through Marie. They met at an event. Afterward, Marie noticed that her organisation was struggling with networking. She thought of Smits and put them in touch. “People want to help each other,” Smits says. “I got a new assignment and Marie had a good feeling because she helped both of us.”

Fruitful collaborations

You get to know people, which creates collaborations. Restaurants on Kapelstraat in Bussum jointly celebrate the opening of their terraces in spring. One restaurant took the initiative to organise this for the first time on a grand scale with other entrepreneurs. Now it is a well-attended annual event reported by local media.

Personal growth

You grow when you dare to show yourself to the outside world. When you talk about yourself and your business, the reaction is often to hear another entrepreneur's story. The difficulties they face and their solutions. You, in turn, can learn from this.

11 networking tips

The most important thing about networking? People need to remember you and feel good about their conversation with you. The more you practice, the better you become at networking. These 11 tips from Smits will turn your next networking event into a successful party.

  1. Check the (online) guest list. Is there someone present you would like to speak to? Approach them in advance with a message, for example via LinkedIn. If you miss them during the event, you can send them a message afterwards.
  2. Arrive relaxed. For example, put on some music during your journey to the event. Or take a walk if you are going to network online from home. This way, you will begin with good energy, be more spontaneous, and open to contact. People will then come to you more easily.
  3. Do you mainly speak to people online? Make sure you have enough (natural) light, so you are clearly visible on camera. Then link with the people you speak to online. For example, if you are in a break-out session on Teams or Zoom. So you expand your network again.
  4. Join a group of 3 people. Two people are having an intimate conversation. In a group of 3, 1 person is often talking. That person is so enthusiastic and has trouble focusing on 2 listeners. So one person basically just hangs around and you strike up a conversation with them. “I always ask ‘Do you guys mind if I join you?’ That sounds more positive than asking ‘Am I disturbing you?’ Then I talk and laugh along until I create a gap for conversation.”
  5. Ask the question ‘What do you do?’ yourself first. When you know what your conversation partner is doing, tailor your story accordingly. “Think of different pitches. For example, I am a speaker, I do interim jobs and I am a mother. If the person works with interim speakers, I go into that in a business-like way when I tell them who I am.” Smits continues: “Someone told me the other day that she works at Rabobank. Then I could respond right away that I have done jobs for them.”
  6. Describe briefly and powerfully what you do so that people remember it easily. Practice saying what you do in one to two sentences. As much as possible, use clear language and examples of clients or jobs you do. So not: ‘I am a coach and I make sure people are empowered’. But rather: ‘I help clients where sales are lagging. I make sure they earn 100K a year now’.
  7. Remember, you are not just talking to the person opposite you. They have a network behind them of at least 500 people you reach through them. “I often see people wanting to move on because the person themself is of no use to them. But you are also indirectly talking to their network. So, finish your conversation well and listen carefully, so that the person leaves with a good feeling and recommends you. Your network extends beyond the small circle you are engaged with now.’
  8. Say goodbye energetically. People remember the beginning and end of a conversation. Link, for example, via the QR code on the LinkedIn app on your phone. Smits tackles it this way: “Shall we QR for a moment? I then make sure the other person shows their code and I scan it with my camera. Then I see their name and with a press of the button, you are linked. Almost always I see that we have mutual acquaintances and say: ‘Hey how nice, I see that you know this one and that one. Please give them my regards. I have to head off now.’ Knowing people in common makes a good impression. As a result, they remember you and are going to recommend you.’
  9. Keep your conversation short. An average successful networking conversation lasts 5 minutes. In that time, you can already lay a good foundation. You can talk to many more people than you initially think.
  10. Make sure the other person can find you again. Exchange contact details. You can do this via LinkedIn or the app Clinck but in some industries, this is less common. So you may want to use a business card. Or make sure you have a separate company name that makes you impossible to forget! For example, the Singing Chimney Sweep who releases their own songs, or the Pink painter with their pink van and clothes.
  11. Keep challenging yourself. Set a goal that will make you stay longer and meet new people. For example, if you are just starting out, it's ‘today I'm approaching someone I don't know yet’ and if you are experienced, it's ‘today I'll speak to that director and approach 5 different strangers.”