Talk the talk: How to correctly "network" and build your small business

When I started my business more than eight years ago, I didn't have any clients and I didn't have anyone in my Rolodex. I quite literally started from scratch and had to build a contact list. Hopefully you're luckier than me in that regard, but even if you do have a base of clients and contacts already, you are probably still looking to grow those lists.

"Networking" is one key way that I built my business from the ground up. I'll confess.... I hate the term "networking." It's so overused and definitely abused. But that's what most people like to call after-work mixers or breakfast meetings.

I did a lot of these events in the beginning. I went to Chamber of Commerce mixers, meetings for bar associations and CPA societies, morning lead exchanges, and lunch-hour "elevator pitch" meetings. I was always on the lookout for events that might have attorneys in attendance, as that's who sends me most of my business. But the events didn't have to be focused on lawyers. I knew there were plenty of other business professionals with fat Rolodexes who would be there, so I wanted to meet them too.

The key to successful networking is threefold: First, you have to know your purpose in attending these events. I knew that I wouldn't walk out of a networking event with a new project in hand. Rather, I went there to meet interesting people who might know other professionals who could use my services. By knowing what I was there for, I could focus my efforts and not be disappointed when I walked out without any new business.

Second, don't be an obnoxious card-pusher or conversation hog. People can sense very quickly when you're at an event strictly to see what you can get for yourself. You run around the room and see how many cards you can hand out. You don't spend much time trying to find out about what others do. You're too busy talking about yourself and your business to notice that these events are a focused on give-and-take. Don't do these things. Instead, take your time, and get to know people organically...and genuinely. You'll be more fondly remembered by those who might provide a business connection down the line. Even better, you might actually make some new friends -- all the more valuable.

Finally, remember that helping others to make valuable connections makes them want to help you. Go to a networking event with an intent to help others connect with people who may need their products or services. Don't be afraid to ask others how you could help them land some new business. By helping others find new business opportunities, you will be remembered as a good networker and more likely to receive business leads of your own.

Tracy L. Coenen, CPA, MBA, CFE performs fraud examinations and financial investigations for her company Sequence Inc. Forensic Accounting, and is the author of Essentials of Corporate Fraud.
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