WALKING INTO A CROWDED ROOM FACED with the potential of not knowing anyone can be as awkward as a blind date. But networking with prospective clients, just like breaking the ice during that first date, is a necessity in today’s business climate, according to local business leaders.
“I don’t think I’ve met anyone who enjoys net etworking,” says Renee Kennedy Edwards, an executive coach and president of Coaching 4 Success in Bonita Springs, whose work with local and national business clients includes networking strategies. “It takes energy. You have to be on. Sometimes it seems people are talking to everybody except you.”
The face-to-face contact is important not just for cultivating business leads but developing allies and getting your name — and your business — known. Local chambers of commerce, trade organizations and professional groups host numerous monthly functions that give businesses the opportunity to connect.
The Greater Naples Chamber of Commerce provides more than 100 networking functions annually — everything from education-based programs and topical guest speakers to informal “pocketful of business card” events, “speed networking,” and Southwest Florida’s largest trade show, says Brenda O’Connor, senior vice president.
“These programs give our members access to 1,800 member companies, which collectively employ 60,000 people here in Collier County,” says Ms. O’Connor. “There is a real art to networking, and periodically the chamber offers seminars from local experts to teach our members effective techniques.”
Like many area chambers, Punta Gorda’s offers a mixed schedule of breakfast, lunch and after-hours networking opportunities that attract anywhere from 60 to 100 guests. Breakfast and after-hour programs are free and hosted by member businesses; lunches are at area restaurants. There’s currently a two-year waiting list to host breakfast, says John Wright, president.
“We’re very event focused, and networking is a fundamental part of what we do,” he says.
To help break the ice, after-hour events are often light-hearted and entertaining. A team of diplomats sweeps the room to ensure there are no wallflowers, “no one’s left on the shelf,” says Mr. Wright. “We don’t want anyone saying, ‘No one spoke to me.’”
New members are also assigned mentors responsible for introducing them to all the benefits the chamber has to offer. “They know if a new member hasn’t been to a networking event and will offer to pick them up and take them,” he says.
The Collier Building Industry Association also assigns mentors to new or prospective members, says executive vice president Kathy Curatolo. The mentor “spends the networking portion of the evening introducing them to folks and talking about the organization so they’re not left on their own.”
“Relationship building, which we identify networking as, is a critical aspect or benefit of belonging to the CBIA,” she adds. “The nuclei of our group are builders but we have events that allow them to interact with tradesfolk, interior designers, bankers, insurance companies and an eclectic array of services these types of organizations use. A lot of our members have developed business relationships through the CBIA. There’s a sense of trust that comes through interacting at our events.”
Networking is so important, the Fort Myers Chamber of Commerce offers four professional networking groups that meet twice a month, says executive director Colleen DePasquale, the former general manager of the Courtyard by Marriott in Estero. “Some have as many as 30 members with just one person from every industry. You get to know the other businesses in these groups so you can recommend them. Networking is very important to business, especially in this area, because it’s so relationship driven. I attended a lot of chamber events and was on the board so when they were looking for a new executive director, I was a candidate. And it wasn’t because I sat in my office at the Courtyard.”
Getting out there is important, says Ms. O’Connor of the Naples chamber. “The reason the chamber places such a high value on our networking programs is that besides the contacts you meet that may become or refer customers, you can learn about what is happening in the business community, and how those issues can affect your business,” she says. “We can help attain that competitive edge that may be harder to achieve if you stay within the four walls of your business everyday.”
Emerging from that shell can be difficult; not everyone is a natural social butterfly, says Ms. Kennedy-Edwards, who works with clients to determine their networking comfort level. “If someone is nervous, I help them break out of the mold and feel more confident. But for some people, talking person to person may be better than trying to work a huge room.”
Even those who can overcome their fears, shouldn’t expect immediate success. You’re not likely to become the life of the party or make the deal of a lifetime after just one event.
“People join the chamber and expect leads to fall in their laps but you really have to work on it,” says Ms. Kennedy Edwards. “Just like dating, it takes time to develop a business relationship, trust and interest.”
And remember, it’s OK to be nervous; even pros like Ms. Kennedy- Edwards get a touch of stage fright upon stepping into the unknown.
“I remember when I was new to the area and didn’t know anyone. I would get sick to my stomach walking into some of these events,” she says. “What I do, and what I have my clients do, is take one day at a time. I paid to belong to a group so I told myself I would go to an event every week and if I didn’t like it at the end of the month, I would think about quitting. After a month I was more comfortable and decided I’d reassess the situation after one more month. After two months, I started knowing people and by the third month, I was looking forward to going to the events because I knew people.”
For businesspeople of a certain age, young professionals groups can be beneficial not just for business but expanding one’s circle of friends. Stacy Calvino, special events director and a founding member of the Charlotte County Young Professionals, says the 120-member organization of 21- to 40-year olds combines networking and social opportunities — everything from beer and wine tastings, dodgeball tournaments and camping to its signature cardboard boat race. Most events have a charitable component.
“We offer something a little bit different than the chamber of commerce,” says the community activist. “We’re like a stepping stone to getting on other boards or getting involved in the chamber.”
Networking opportunities can be a study — sometimes laughable — in psychology and human nature. And proper body language and voice tone are among the key factors to success, says Ms. Kennedy-Edwards. An introvert’s slumped stance, hands in pocket or arms folded across the chest give off an unapproachable vibe
“It’s easy when you’re nervous to roll up into a ball,” she says. “Always have an open stance with your shoulders back, never put your hands in your pocket and always have one hand available to shake. Make direct eye contact.”
Approaching a group engrossed in a conversation can be advantageous — if your 2 cents are applicable. Again, study the body language. Avoid interjecting your thoughts if a group is closely spaced and engaged in direct eye contact.
Networking is indeed an art, one that takes practice to perfect. Punta Gorda businesswoman Kay Hill credits the success of her upscale ladies consignment shop, to her membership in the Punta Gorda Chamber of Commerce. She joined in October 2010, the same month she opened Kay’s Kloset, a finalist for business of the year and a recent best of winner.
“When you join the Punta Gorda chamber, you become a family member, if that’s what you choose to do,” she says. “Some people join just for the plaque to hang on their wall. For me, I got involved and made myself available and I can’t tell you just how much I’ve gotten back. It’s unbelievable.”
Ms. Hill is parlaying that positive experience to help other business owners. She’s mentored several new members. “It’s hard to put yourself out there,” she says. “You have to work at it and make contacts but getting your name and your business name out there is the whole ball of wax. I encourage my new members to get involved and attend different functions. I hold their hand for a couple of weeks until they get comfortable.” ¦