How can your network be part of your business development strategy?

Your network is only as good as your efforts to activate it.

My company offers a strategic planning service, where we work directly with your management team to develop a vision of your company’s future with aligned goals and objectives. In almost every instance of our strategic planning sessions, when using the Strengths/Weaknesses/Opportunities/Threats (SWOT) analysis exercise, teams iterate that their network is a key strength. Which, of course, it should be.

But here is where it I think we fall down a bit, what are you doing to maximize your network?

For the longest time, I felt that asking my friends and colleagues for connections or opportunities was in some way prostituting my relationship with them. So I didn’t do it; I never asked for their help in that way and I never asked them to just give me work. That is a mistake. I had to adjust my thinking because approaching them for help wasn’t wrong but demanding work or preferential treatment from them would be.

Your network is only as good as your efforts to activate it.n other words, it is only a strength if you use it as a tool to build your business. I do not recommend being aggressive or even demanding, I do recommend being communicative and informative. For example, a very good friend of mine works for a company that falls firmly into my target client demographic. My friend is the senior vice president, and after a great project slid past me I shared with him that I would have liked an opportunity to bid on that work. He was surprised; he thought I was too busy or it was too small of a package to interest me so he never considered adding me to the RFP list. And he thought and assumed all of that because I am indeed, busy, and because he knows my career history: Olympics, Super Bowls, and World Cups – he thought I would never want to do a small project. He assumed that because I had never told him anything different. That was an ah-ha moment for me.

I realized my network was full of people who likely didn’t know what I wanted, what my company really offers, or that I would welcome help. I set out to fix that in a few key ways. I redeveloped my website so that it tells a much better story of who we are, what we offer, and what we are good at. It also qualifies the kind of work we can do but doesn’t pigeonhole us into one service sector or industry. The second thing I did was communicate to my network that I would accept help and provided concrete examples of the ways they could help. Things I suggested included referrals, introductions, collaborative bidding, and opportunities for small to large projects in the corporate, event and sports sectors.

Another thing to consider is who within your network is an influencer? Once you have identified them ask for help with specific things, like targeted introductions or to help spread the word about your latest endeavour. An important consideration is reciprocity; always ask them how you can reciprocate their help. Is there anything you can do for them to help them reach their goals, open doors, or provide access to an opportunity?

Lastly, follow through and up. If you make an ask of someone, ensure you provide them with the right information and be clear about what you are asking for, and if at all possible, speak to them directly. Then follow up within a reasonable amount of time to see how it went, what you can change to improve, or how you can make it easier for them to aid in your success. Email is a great tool but it can easily be misconstrued or ‘filed’ without a second thought. If they are part of your network, a personal call to request help can convey a great deal of respect for them and your relationship.

Will these actions win you work? No guarantees. But it should provide you with the opportunity to win work, and as my good friend H says, “You can’t win if you don’t enter.” Maximizing your network will allow you to gain more entries and that is really what your strategic approach should consider. But remember, adding the personal touch with a phone call or coffee meeting is as important as the ask itself because if you can’t make the time to call them why should they make the time to help you?

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