Networking. The word brings to mind people in suits mingling and engaging in superficial small talk. Fake smiles and handshakes. Exchanging business cards and giving sales pitches to get new business. I’ve done and seen a lot of this kind of networking. And I’m not a fan.
Yet, I believe the concept of networking is great! It can be extremely beneficial for small business owners and professionals. It can:
- Provide professional support and camaraderie
- Facilitate an opportunity to share ideas and business practices
- Help businesses partner up, create joint ventures, and co-promote
- Encourage relationships where businesses help promote one another
However, most structured networking practices today are outdated, unpleasant, and far less beneficial than they could be. In a typical generic networking group:
- There are owners from too many unrelated industries who don’t understand each other’s businesses
- There is not enough overlap when it comes to the business models or clientele of the members in the group
- There is little to keep sub par businesses and owners from joining
- They mainly focus on trying to get new customers from one another and miss the other benefits of networking
- Members engage in the practice of referring people to one another mainly because they are in the same group, not necessarily because they know their fellow members are the best in their field or the perfect fit for the person receiving the referral
Your time is far too precious to spend networking with the wrong people, or in the wrong way. You want to connect with people that are truly interested in you and your business. People that have high standards for their own business and will understand the same goes for yours. People that genuinely want to support other businesses, not just themselves. People interested in learning, sharing, and collaborating to improve their skills and their business. And people that aren’t only focused on getting new clients, but who recognize and want to pursue the many other ways you can grow a business.
Remember, you want all the benefits of networking listed above. Not just new clients. And when it comes to new clients, you don’t just want any new client being sent your way in the name of “networking.” You want the right new clients. Ones that are most interested in your services and way of doing business. Ones that are likely to be a positive addition to your studio culture and likely to stay with you for a long time.
When you develop a network of people and businesses that truly understand and believe in your business, they will understand what potential new clients are a good fit for your studio and will send the right kind of clients to you.
Now, there are great networking groups out there! But it’s important to recognize that networking in and of itself is not always a valuable endeavor and not worth your time unless you know how to work it your way.
So ask yourself, what would a great networking experience look like for you? For a fitness studio owner or instructor? Who would you want in your network? What other types of businesses or professionals? How would you want to interact with them?
My recommendation is to create your own networking circle! You don’t need a name. You don’t need big meetings. You don’t even need to let other people know they’re in your circle. It’s just about making the right connections and building real relationships - and you don’t need a networking group or event to do that. You can do it in a way that fits you!
Start by first finding the right people and businesses:
Identify local businesses you want to connect with that are NOT fitness related.
- Businesses with a similar business model. I.e. businesses that make client appointments, offer classes, provide education, have cancellation policies, offer high-end services etc. With these businesses: you can share ideas about operations, policies, staff or other ways you run your business.
- Businesses with a similar clientele, or a clientele you want to reach. (Note: If you want to reach a new clientele, make sure you understand why, and make sure they fit with your business style and approach.) With these businesses: you can share customer service strategies, marketing ideas, and help promote one another.
- Businesses with products or services that compliment yours. I.e. health food stores, child care, massage therapy, athletic clothing stores. With these businesses: you can work together on joint ventures and co-promote.
- Businesses that have achieved something you desire. I.e. the owner has become a public speaker or written a book, the business has partnered with someone you want to connect with, or the business has achieve a goal you want to reach. With these businesses: you can learn ways to grow and achieve your goals.
Then, identify any businesses you want to connect with that ARE fitness related.
- Out-of-town fitness studios that offer the same programs. With theses businesses: you can share ideas on business operations, programs and services, client relationships, marketing, and much more!
- Local studios that offer different programs. Yes, you might feel that they are your competition, but there are ways you can support each other in a win-win situation if both studios are willing. There are plenty of people in all of our communities that aren’t actively exercising, so there is opportunity for everyone to grow. With these businesses: you can collaborate on special events and work together to make your community a healthier place!
Then it’s time to connect and develop a genuine professional relationship with the people and businesses you want to network with.
Now, the key to developing a good professional relationship is to give before you ask to receive! To do this, here are my recommendations:
- Be their customer first. Get to know their business firsthand through the eyes of a customer. Make sure you truly enjoy their products and services, and admire the way they do business. Plus you’re showing your support through your patronage. If by chance, you don’t need or want their products or services, then they likely aren’t someone you should network with.
- Get together one-on-one. After you introduce yourself and your business, offer to take them out for coffee or lunch just to get to know them better. When you’re out, learn their story, their business approach, philosophy and goals. Look for characteristics that you admire and respect. And look for real connections between the two of you personally and professionally, and between your businesses.
- Offer your support. Start with the basics. Ask for a few business cards and brochures so you can share them with other people or businesses. Tell them you’ll be singing their praise and recommending them to friends, family, clients, etc. Offer to write an online review of their business (since you are a customer after all) and/or provide a testimonial. And ask if there is anything else you can do for them.
- Stay connected. Exchange emails and phone numbers. Connect on social media. Sign-up for each other’s newsletters. Schedule your next get together. Whatever you do, make a conscious effort to reconnect again, and do it soon. Put it on your calendar.
- Share, talk, and brainstorm. When you do get together or talk again, share ideas and compare notes about your businesses. Talk about any challenges you’re facing or any successes you’ve had. You will learn a lot from one another and get some great new ideas for your business. Anything from professional resources, to business policies, to handling clients. You can also get new marketing ideas. Find out what’s working for other businesses or learn about a marketing program you never would have thought of on your own! Plus you may find ways to work together and promote one another.
Networking is a powerful, powerful practice for business owners and professionals. It just depends on how you do it! So make it right for you. Find the people and the businesses that fit you best, and build a genuine, professional relationship with them. It will give you the true and complete benefits of networking at its finest. And it will be something you enjoy and have fun with along the way!