Casting a Net: The Importance of Networking to Build Your Business

Sept. 1, 2016
Anyone who has seen the movie “Field of Dreams” likely knows the now famous line, “if you build it, they will come.” That line has also likely resonated with all too many small business owners who open the shop, turn the lights on and wait, wait and wait some more. Customers aren’t likely to come in just because you’ve opened the shop. Building it isn’t enough.There are many other components of running a business besides just doing the business of the shop. There is marketing, management, dealing with suppliers and balancing the books. It can be daunting to handle

Anyone who has seen the movie “Field of Dreams” likely knows the now famous line, “if you build it, they will come.” That line has also likely resonated with all too many small business owners who open the shop, turn the lights on and wait, wait and wait some more. Customers aren’t likely to come in just because you’ve opened the shop. Building it isn’t enough.

There are many other components of running a business besides just doing the business of the shop. There is marketing, management, dealing with suppliers and balancing the books. It can be daunting to handle it all, but there are ways to help manage the business and get some customers/clients in the process. It all begins with networking.

This can include joining the local Chamber of Commerce, Rotary Club or various specialty groups including Business Network International (BNI), C12 Group and others. Today these aren’t the “good ol’ boy’s club” but are groups and organizations where serious business leaders take their business very seriously.

“Networking is another part of running the business,” said Chuck Stasny of Houston-based AAMCO Transmissions Total Car Care. “You have to face that your customers are moving and dying, so you have to be on the lookout for new ones. The other advantage of being part of a group is if you are networking and have a solid networking group, you can refer your customers to our businesses as well as using them for business.”

Networking can be very helpful for single shops and franchises alike.

“It is very important,” said Rick Sage, director of marketing at Honest-1 Auto Care. “We recommend our franchisees specifically dedicate time to networking. We also expect that a certain percentage of revenue is generated from their networking efforts.”

More Than Word of Mouth

The problem with just taking the “build it” approach is, it won’t get business in, and it certainly won’t help you become a better business leader. At the same time, networking isn’t just about shaking hands when you meet other business leaders. Networking is really an art, something that needs to be worked.

One of the largest referral organizations is BNI, which was launched in 1985 by then management consultant Ivan Misner, Ph.D., who remains the company’s chief visionary officer. Members in BNI groups pay a one-time joining fee, an annual membership fee and weekly meeting fee to cover the cost of a meeting location and refreshments.

In exchange, members get to meet with other local business leaders to discuss ways of improving their respective businesses, but more importantly, to share client leads. Today, there are more than 200,000 members in more than 7,500 chapters around the world. The key to BNI groups is there can be only one of any particular business — so the quick lube shop that joins a local group will always be the only quick lube shop in that group.

“This is so you don’t have your competitor looking over your shoulder,” Misner said. “Today, we continue to only have one person in each group for each position. We want these groups to share and to help grow each other’s business.”

BNI does require members to attend meetings weekly with few exceptions, and this is a decision that came about as the original groups grew in size.

“You need to have accountability to have a solid network,” Misner added. “We found a correlation between referrals and attendance, and if you don’t have members in attendance, you lose out on those referrals.”

This structured nature of BNI can be off-putting to some, but as with any organization you get out what you are willing to put in.

“If you aren’t willing to participate, you should get out,” said Stasny, who has belonged to a BNI group in Houston. “Otherwise, you just have a plaque to put on your wall.”

Honest-1 Auto Care also works with BNI and local chambers.

“Networking groups provide an opportunity for our franchisees to connect with other like-minded individuals who can become champions of the brand,” Sage added. “Networking also helps us connect with other businesses in the automotive service industry, which allows us to share resources and team up for marketing campaigns.”

Reaching Out to Like-Minded Businesses

Another way to network is to talk to other shops through trade groups, such as the Automotive Oil Change Association. This is how John Wall, owner of Checkered Flag Express Lube and Car Wash in Marysville, Ohio, handles his networking.

“I am officially a member of AOCA, and I use their AOCA Talk group pretty religiously,” Wall said. “Having people to reach out to, across the nation, that are dealing with the same issues is invaluable!”

He noted any subject raised gets at least 10 responses of similar experiences and feedback.

“The best part for me is that it’s techs, managers and owners that respond,” Wall added. “Some members are even from different types of institutions like car lots, dealerships [and] repair shops, as well as lube shops.”

Members of AOCA identify their shop, where they are on the totem pole and what part of the country they serve, and Wall finds this key to his ability to get insight from other operators.

“It’s very informal, but still fantastic information,” he said. “The items shared can be technical, legal, documents and forms, how-to and even advertising that has worked. These are good people, and all go out of their way to help. It’s usually instantaneous, too. I highly recommend it for folks in our industry.”

Farming, Not Hunting

As noted, a big part of BNI — along with other groups — is gaining referrals, which is why businesses join. In other words, it is seen for the short-term gain in leads, but Misner said there is much more to it.

“Networking is about farming not hunting,” he explained. “Think of it as a way to cultivate relationships with people. But joining BNI is not about getting rich quick; rather it is relationship building, which is why it is so important that we meet weekly to build trust. This, in turn, is where more referrals come from.”

BNI groups are also more than just referrals, explained Stasny.

“It will teach you how to network,” he said.

Groups like BNI are designed to teach business owners how to network and what they can get out of it. This can be extremely helpful because one of the hardest parts of networking is finding time to do it.

“I have never known how to get started with one,” admitted Carl Goede, of Rivers Edge Oil & Tire in Mukwonago, Wisconsin. “Literally, I don’t know where to begin.”

Goede is far from alone. As with many operators, his networking has consisted mainly of talking to other shop owners at conventions and connecting with competitors that have a common oil distributor. Understanding how to network is what he and many shop owners likely still need to understand.

“We don’t teach networking in schools, and these are things that are not taught,” Misner said. “People today still use cold calling as a way to drum up business, and often when they go to some local events they feel they need a shower afterward from trying too hard at networking.”

Using C12 Groups

One of the newer meet-up groups that has emerged is the C12 Group, which is aimed at Christian business owners or chief executives wanting to achieve excellence through best-practice professional development, peer sharing, consistent accountability and learning. However, C12 Groups are not true networking groups, and the organization of these groups is set up in a way that doesn’t even allow business owners to solicit members for business.

“C12 is technically not a networking group in the traditional sense,” said Kevin Miller, director of marketing for C12. “This is really more of a CEO and owner round table group.”

It is also the largest Christian-focused group for business leaders, and it offers members the ability to study MBA-level curriculum and gain a deeper understanding of running a business than providing just a networking experience.

“A networking group is something where people work to do business together, but this is more about teaching business owners about integrating best practices,” Miller added. “The study includes fellowship and camaraderie, while the study does teach how to incorporate ministry into the business.

 “This is like a board of directors that come together each month and can help someone make tough decisions. The goal of these meetings is to improve business, and we like to point out the stats don’t lie. Those in C12 Groups have outperformed their business peers with what they learned in our meetings.”

Being Social (Media)

In the 21st century networking can’t exactly be done by surfing the net, but the Internet has become a crucial part of building brand awareness, attracting customers and making important connections. Today, if you don’t have a website you need to have an answer for why not. However, the online presence for a small business owner or franchisee should be more than a basic site, even if this isn’t as easy as it sounds.

“Small business owners (SMBs) manage operations, sales and marketing, juggling this and that throughout the day, while staying on top of their industry’s trends,” said technology industry analyst Josh Crandall of Netpop Research. “They are spread thin and can’t do everything. Finding time for additional professional development is difficult. In-person peer networking is a terrific source of perspective, inspiration and solutions, but it takes so much dedicated time.”

What you can’t do in person you might be able to more easily manage online. Instead of meet ups and pounding the pavement, a few of the right clicks can make everything “click” for a business to succeed.

“SMBs can leverage online sources to round out their networking,” Crandall added. “Reaching out to other SMBs who offer complementary services in your local area is quick and easy to do through searches on online networks. Sharing referrals, helpful tips and requests for advice is possible on the computer in a fraction of the time it takes to stop in at a shop, or even calling peers on the telephone. Online networks enable one-to-many communications very efficiently.”

A key component of online networking is social media, including services such as Twitter and Facebook — both of which have become as much about sharing business ideas as posting photos from your recent vacation.

“Social media is now a critical channel for small businesses,” said Greg Sterling, vice president of strategy and insight at the Local Search Association. “It’s also a top three channel in terms of adoption and interest. By some estimates, 60 to 75 percent of SMBs that market online have a Facebook presence.”

For this reason, Sterling suggested that having a complete presence on Facebook is essential.

“After that, it’s based on the intended audience/prospect,” he noted.

Keeping up with social media comes with its own challenges too, warned Sterling, who added, “Facebook has made it more challenging recently to use unpaid posts for marketing purposes, but it remains an effective tool as part of a digital and mobile presence. Facebook’s ad products can also be quite reasonable and effective. But, they do take some testing.”

Beyond Facebook there are other sites, including Pinterest, Snapchat, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram that can also be effective depending on the target audience.

“Yet, it’s challenging to address all of these,” Sterling said. “SMB marketers thus need to be selective, even if they employ an outside agency. Content for social media is a longer conversation, but let’s just say, if you build it doesn’t mean they will come.”

This might sound daunting, and some shop owners admit that online networking presents too many challenges.

“I don’t do social media,” Stasny said. “I’ve got enough things that I can’t keep up with social media.”

However, Stasny quickly added he does use other online tools to stay connected.

“I have a LinkedIn page that is regularly updated, and I think it is a good tool to stay connected,” Stasny suggested. “I also belong to various online forums that discuss transmissions. Google my name, and you can see the things I do.”

That in itself is quality networking that can be cheap and effective. Simply by being part of a larger community Stasny has become a renowned expert in the field, and that brings brand awareness with it. This can pay off quite well as online contacts can turn into real world connections.

“I’m especially keen when online contacts develop into in-person relationships,” Crandall said. “After getting to know a peer online, it’s a thrill to meet them at an in-person networking event and put a face to their online voice.”

Casting the Wider Net

At the end of the day, regardless of the type of networking, it is clear building relationships is required to weather the bad times and grow the business in the good times.

“Networking groups have certainly made a difference,” Sage said. “As a marketing director, you are always concerned with the message, the audience and the delivery. In our industry, most businesses focus on direct mail and digital advertising. They want to start the automated marketing machine, step back and watch the customers come in through the door.”

Unfortunately, that is not reality for most businesses.

“If you want to be the best, you need to do things differently,” Sage noted. “Adding the element of personal interaction in a networking environment has completely changed our view of the typical automotive service center marketing plan.”

By working with other business leaders in networking groups, social media and through other connections, it is like being part of something bigger.

“It is not only a great way to get business, it is a way to do business,” Misner said. “We gain by working together, so we can all be successful in a strong economy and in a bad economy, too.”