‘Networking’ is a buzzword in modern business that probably conjures images of corporate types in slick suits, smoothly handing over their business cards with a flourish at a stylish inner-city bar.

But does networking have any application if you run a small business, particularly in a trade or as a local service provider?

The short answer is yes – you just need to rethink what networking means. Here’s some top tips for making networking work for your small business.

Tip 1: Remember networking is not just about finding customers

Networking is not the same as sales. If you approach networking just thinking you’re going to pitch your business and win some new clients, not only will you risk being branded a pushy salesperson, but you’re missing out on some of the more valuable outcomes networking offers.

Your professional network can include mentors to support and guide you in growing your business; suppliers and contractors who could add value to the service you offer your customers; talented professionals you might want to hire or contract one day; and allied providers or well-connected people who could become great referrer partners. Each of these has the ability to contribute to your business in a unique way, so fight the urge to put on the hard sell immediately when meeting someone new.

aerial view of a cafe table with two people sitting opposite each other holding coffee cups

Tip 2: Give as much as you get

A conversation where only one person is talking is just a monologue. Remember that networking isn’t just about taking as much from others as you can – to truly get involved in networking you should be prepared to offer value and give something away too.

The number one way to improve your chances of building strong, valuable professional relationships is to show your willingness to help others and offer them value – even if you don’t immediately get anything in return. Get karma on your side! Consider what you want to get out of networking and find opportunities to provide this help to others in your network.

Tip 3: Know your story and how to tell it

Have you heard of an elevator pitch? This is the quick synopsis of who you are and what you do that can be easily digested in a short amount of time – such as a ride in an elevator. Imagine you met the perfect customer or investor in an elevator and had the time between ground floor and sixth floor to win them over. What would you want them to know about you?

Remembering from Tip 1 that it’s not always about sales, be clear about what people should remember about your business, and practice telling that story briefly, succinctly and in an engaging manner. This will give you a confidence boost and equip you well for any opportunities that arise.

two men talking in a room taken through a coloured light lens

Tip 4: Networking isn’t just for conferences

Don’t get us wrong – conferences are great. They bring like minded people with similar interests and investments into the one location for a concentrated period of time, and everyone goes knowing that networking is going to be part of the deal. But this isn’t the only place to build valuable networks.

Have you considered volunteering? Say you run a small construction business and you assist at a local school rebuilding the playground. Not only are you doing good for the community, but you’re giving your brand some added visibility and connecting with school leaders (who may consider you for paid work in future) and other community members who could be potential clients, referrers, partners, suppliers or more.

On a more similar note but smaller scale to conferences, there are plenty of professional organisations across all industries that host regular events, meetups, training opportunities and more that are all opportunities to network. Whether it’s a trade organisation within your field of focus or a local business bureau or trader’s association, everyone who joins is looking for the same value as you and will be open to sharing their expertise.