But how do you grow this circle of business opportunity, and give your business the best possible chance? After all, you can only get so far by just having a group of followers on Twitter, or a network of contacts on LinkedIn.
Emily Coltman FCA, Chief Accountant to FreeAgent – who provide an award-winning online accounting system for small businesses and freelancers – gives ten top tips for how to turn those contacts into a circle of supportive business friends.
1) Do what you do well
Nobody wants to work with someone who is incompetent, so make sure that your business is top-notch and delights its customers at every turn!
When you’re communicating with contacts, keep your tone polite, friendly, professional, and approachable. Remember, presentation is key; no-one will want to do business with you if you don’t look professional. But you’ll also need to have the right business credentials to back it up; if you rely on too much style and not enough substance, you’ll quickly be found out!
2) Be responsive
Reply to e-mails and calls promptly. If you’re not going to be able to be in touch with your contacts as quickly as usual, set their expectations, with warnings in advance, automatic e-mail responses and answer phone messages.
But do temper this with a bit of common sense. Nobody should expect you to drop everything the minute they contact you. If anyone does, then think about how long you can sustain the relationship! You have other customers to look after.
3) Ask for help when you need it
People love to help, so don’t be shy when it comes to seeking out some expert advice. Admitting that you need help – and asking for it – will enable you to address problems in your business quickly and avoid them becoming bigger issues down the line.
Use your existing network of contacts for help or look for new avenues that can provide you with invaluable advice, such as a local business networking forum. And don’t be ashamed of asking for help. Nobody can possibly know everything about everything!
4) Give help when you are asked
Conversely, try to help when people ask you! Be ready to go the extra mile. For example, if someone asks you to find something out for them, what else might they need help with? Ask the question, or even do the research for them without being asked.
Remember that if you provide help to someone in need, they may also be willing to return the favour when the tables are turned and it’s you asking for help!
5) Do a good turn for others
Many small businesses rely on other people helping them out when they’re in their infancy. Perhaps it’s the tech-savvy friend who builds them a website for free, or the family member who offers some marketing tips for nothing.
So if you had support from others when you were starting out – and they didn’t charge you for their time or advice – could you do the same for someone else you know who is starting out in business on their own?
It’s a good idea to not always ask for payment if someone asks you to help them, and particularly not if you’ve offered to help without being asked. Remember that if you help someone who is in need, this will strengthen your relationship with them and they may be more inclined to return the favour in the future.
6) Mind your manners
If you’re dealing with other people when you’re doing business, it’s important to be polite and courteous. After all, your contacts won’t want to work with you if they don’t feel that you’re being respectful to them – so remember to say “please” when you ask for help, and never, ever forget to thank those who help you.
It goes without saying that you should put these magic words into your communications, both on the phone and by e-mail, but how could you take this to the next level?
If you receive spectacularly good service, write to the manager of the person who helped you, or give them a recommendation on LinkedIn. You could also send them a thank-you card (try these beautiful e-cards from Jacquie Lawson), or a little gift, such as a box of chocolates or bottle of wine – or notonthehighstreet.com is very fertile hunting ground if you want something a bit more special and personal.
7) Harness the power of social media
Once you’ve had contact with someone, don’t leave it until you need help from them again before you get in touch.
Are you connected to them on social media? If not, send them an invitation to connect online. However, if you’re already linked through social media could you be doing more on these channels? Could you comment on their Facebook posts or join in with conversations they start on LinkedIn? Could you read their blog and give your opinions in the comments section? Or re-tweet and comment on their Tweets?
The aim is to build a strong business friendship, so don’t just agree with everything they say or shower them with excessive praise. You don’t want to look like you’re being insincere or sucking up to them. Be respectful and try to debate and discuss things – and don’t be afraid to say (politely!) if you disagree with something your contact has said.
Just remember to be respectful and not to smother your contacts. You don’t want to leave so many comments that it looks like you’re stalking them online!
8) Build a community of your own
Share articles and tips that you think will interest your contacts. If you don’t have time to send individual e-mails, why not create a LinkedIn group or a Facebook page to share material, and invite your contacts to join you there?
9) Remember the power of the laugh
As part of your community, don’t feel that you should only be sharing serious business content. Shared laughter is a very powerful bonding tool.
Business can be fun in its own right, as companies like MOO and innocent exemplify. And who doesn’t enjoy watching a flight safety briefing rap-style, or Scouting fashion? Don’t think that just because you’re in business you always need to be stuffy and boring – being professional in your business dealings doesn’t mean you can’t have fun.
10) Think of the person behind the business face
It’s easy to treat your contacts simply as people who exist to help your business, but that’s not a healthy or personable attitude to have. After all, they’re people who you regularly talk to, so could you be making more of an effort to remember – or find out – more about the personal side of their lives?
Nobody’s suggesting that they have to become your bosom buddies, and certainly don’t get the clipboard out and fire questions at them! But if it comes up naturally in conversation, could you get to know your contacts as people with lives outside of work? For example, when are their birthdays? What are their hobbies? Do they have children? Find something to talk about in addition to work and your business relationship may improve – as people generally tend to prefer working with someone that they know well and who they are friendly with. Just don’t go overboard: too much prying into their personal lives can make you come across as insincere or clingy, which is a real turn-off.