Strong business relationships are key for successful contractors. And like any worthwhile landscaping or building project, those relationships must be well crafted and cultivated.
To propel their businesses forward, small business owners in the construction industry must be committed to networking, says Lara Papi Wilson, director of public relations of Home Builders Association of Raleigh-Wake County in North Carolina. “Finding time can be a difficult task,” she says, “but networking has to become a regular occurrence in their monthly business plan.”
Setting aside 10 percent to 15 percent of your time to networking is a good rule of thumb, says Bob Kustka, president of Fusion Factor, Inc., a workplace productivity and HR consultancy firm based in Boston. However, he says the ideal amount of time depends on your business. In addition, quality trumps quantity — you’ll probably get more out of a dinner meeting than accepting 10 LinkedIn connections.
Even if you have the time to dedicate to networking, it can be tough to know where to begin. Consider these questions when developing your own networking strategy:
How can I stay informed on my industry’s latest trends?
Participating in an industry-related association or your local chamber of commerce will keep you updated on trends and connected to your peers. “Membership and participation in a local professional association builds credibility, enhances reputation and allows many opportunities to network,” Wilson says.
Because members don’t always have the same types of clients, there are plenty of opportunities to learn from other participants, as well as receive mentorship and referrals. Wilson recommends seeking a leadership position or an award nomination, which helps you stand out and makes you more credible in networking circles.
Where are my clients?
While it’s important to network with your peers, researching where you can meet potential clients is critical. Kustka says you should ask yourself: Who am I trying to meet, and where do they go?
Reaching your clients might mean joining groups that don’t directly pertain to you. When Kustka first started in HR consulting, he joined a women’s social business networking organization that he felt had a solid demographic for his work. He offered to help them with marketing efforts, which led members from the group to refer him to their business connections.
Joe Crisara, CEO of ContractorSelling.com, an online community targeted to HVAC/R, plumbing and electrical contractors, agrees you should think outside the box. For example, if you’re a plumber who wants to do drain-cleaning work in restaurants, you can get in touch with restaurant owners by joining their associations.
How do I network?
Some people shy away from networking because it’s difficult to balance casual and professional interaction. That’s why it’s important to develop soft skills, such as small talk. These skills come more naturally to some than others.
“Networking involves engaging in a conversation, listening and building a relationship,” Wilson says. “Most people have become immune to the hard sell approach. Small business owners must learn how to make someone ask for their business card instead of handing out a free pen.”
When in doubt, begin by asking people about their business, Kustka says.
If soft skills don’t come naturally to you, Wilson recommends having prepared responses to help you feel more comfortable and avoid sounding too rehearsed. Like an interview, most networking conversations start off with the same kind of questions, such as: What do you do? How are you looking to improve your business? What do you have to offer?
If you’re listening well, you’ll find entry points to tell them about the services you offer, she says. “Try to draw out of things they say or touch upon. Take initiative to ask questions back.”
In addition, keep in mind that networking isn’t always conducive to a 9-to-5 schedule. It is a consistent, multifaceted process with many different opportunities. “Building a good network specific to your business takes time,” Wilson says. “Approach it from a job search perspective: The more hands you shake, the larger your network becomes, and the more opportunities wills emerge.”
How should I follow up?
Anyone can exchange a business card, but real networking takes place after the initial meeting. Don’t be shy, Kustka says: If you had a really great conversation with someone, feel free to give them a call in the next week to say you’d love to hear more about what they do over a cup of coffee or forward them a news story or article about something relevant to their industry. This shows you care enough about the potential relationship to do a little work and research, Crisara says, and they’ll feel more inclined to reciprocate.