Last month I promised to share with you some of the learning which has helped me successfully reach the three-year milestone in my business. I have often mentioned networking events as a key tool for growing your business. This is because I know it works particularly well in Cumbria. It has been a really important part of growing my business. Sometimes, nothing beats getting out there and building relationships with new contacts, especially when you first startup.

Most of us can't grow our businesses without getting out from behind our desks and meeting our customers, suppliers and peers - yet I see many business people who forget this. It's a fact that most business development is now generated through referrals and leads and formal networking plays a big part in this.

In this article, I'll walk you through what you should expect from a networking meeting and share my knowledge of what I feel are the best networking groups in Cumbria and North Lancashire.

Networking know-how

Rule 1; Always be prepared. Ensure you take your business cards. It's also a good idea to take along a small notepad. Think about the questions you may be asked and rehearse your answers. A guaranteed question you'll be asked is, "So, what do you do?" You'd be surprised at the number of people who seemingly don't know. I am confident that they do know exactly what they do, but they haven't thought about a concise way of summarising that information for presenting to a networking audience (aka the elevator pitch).

Rule 2; Networking is not about selling. You're unlikely to return home with any new clients or orders. Think of networking as your mission to establish yourself with an effective referral network.

Rule 3; Business people are human beings. I know that many people hate networking because they are removed from their comfort zone. But meeting in a neutral location, outside of the work environment gives everybody an opportunity to establish themselves on a level playing field. Most of the people in the room probably feel as awkward as you do – so you are not alone!

Rule 4; Actively listen. While it's important to convey your business' core messages, networking is pointless if you don't listen. By finding out about other business people, opportunities and common interests, you can tailor your business offering to them once your relationship is developed. Write down notes in your pad, on their business card or on your phone to record key points (preferably not in view of the contact) or enter into your CRM system when you’re back in the car or office.

Rule 5; Always have your diary to hand. If you've built a good relationship with someone and they're interested in working with you, don't just leave it at that. Whip out your diary and make a plan to meet and convert that lead into a customer.

Rule 6; Follow up. Make sure you drop each person you meet a simple “nice to meet you again” email to consolidate the connection. Connect with them on LinkedIn and/or Twitter. Do remember that these new contacts will check you out on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and your website so ensure these are professional, relevant and up-to-date. Your story must be consistent across all channels and throughout all your marketing activities.

Rule 7; It gets easier. Keep at it! as the more you network, the more familiar you'll become with the people and the venues, which will naturally lead to increased confidence. Be consistent in attending events and be consistent in your approach.

Rule 8; Building trust takes time. Use first names regularly when in a conversation and build the discussion from previous meetings. You have to get to know the person first, so ask questions such as, "Did you enjoy your family holiday to Italy?", "How did your daughter get on in her exams?", "What sports or interests do you have outside of work?”.

Rule 9; People buy knowledge. So when asked, share tips, give advice, share contacts, introduce them to other business people you know at the networking meeting who may be of value to them and their business needs. You want to be remembered as the 'go to' person in your field. Think of yourself as a signpost.

Rule 10; Effort will reap reward. Ultimately, by networking and following up you will generate valuable personalised touch points that other marketing and sales methods fall short on. The chances are, over time, these contacts will either ask you to sell to them or introduce you to someone who will benefit from your services or products.

Networking groups in Cumbria and Lancashire

Now you’ve got the know-how, it’s time to get out there and start networking. Here are some of the locally based business networking groups you might like to attend depending on your business sector.

  • If it is business referrals you’re looking for and meeting regularly within a structured process, nothing beats BNI (Business Networking International). BNI groups meet weekly which accelerates the trust building relationships. Carlisle chapter have a visitors' day coming up Tuesday 27th February 6.45am - 8.30am, Crown & Mitre Hotel, Carlisle. Register here There are also groups in Kendal, Barrow, Morecambe, and Lancaster. It's free to attend for first two meetings...
  • To gain industry, social and sector knowledge and to understand what’s happening in West Cumbria within the nuclear and energy supply chain, BECBC (Britain’s Energy Coast Business Cluster), is a great place to meet, it's monthly too. Check out their website but meetings are normally on the first Wednesday of each month.
  • The regions larger accountants, solicitors and banks all hold networking sessions and business seminars around the county to share information, legislation and even discuss case studies which I always find invaluable to attend. Just look on their websites or link in with them on social media to find out what’s on, where and when.
  • Cumbria Chamber of Commerce and Business Growth Hubs run many events, click on their websites links for further details. Cumbria Chamber or Growth Hub
  • There’s the Family Business Network for those that want to mix with like-minded family business owners plus there are many other networking groups.
  • So check out Eventbrite to see what’s on in your area or specific to your business sector.

If you wish to dip your toe in, why not come along to the BNI Visitors Day, Tuesday 27th February 6.45am - 8.30am, Crown & Mitre Hotel, Carlisle. click here to register I will be there to put you at ease if this is your first networking event and would be delighted to have a chat over coffee with anyone who is thinking of putting on their own networking events.

If you are looking to review or grow your business even in these turbulent times, Business Doctors Cumbria offers an initial free business health check , (a chat over a coffee) and can help you to establish a clear vision for you to start working on the steps to fulfil your aspirations.

For further information, please contact Peter Fleming 0845 163 1490 or 07966 686112 or mail .