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Networking with a Laser Focus

By Michelle Nichols "Small is beautiful" launched the original Volkswagen Beetle's wild success back in the 1960s. It also perfectly describes the current trend in business networking.

Ten years ago, if you wanted to boost your sales through networking, you attended events where you would circulate through a multitude of strangers, smile constantly, and exchange business cards like mad. Whoever left with the most cards was declared the winner.

These days, successful reps are shifting away from this style of all-purpose networking and opting for smaller, focused groups, which I call SNAs -strategic network alliances. These are "strategic" because they aren't made up of hundreds of people whose only common denominator is belonging to a chamber of commerce or being women in business. Rather, there's a strategy behind their creation, and their laser focus takes them beyond general networking and toward a more potent "alliance."

SWAPING LEADS. SNA members are not direct competitors, of course, but come together around a common selling focus. It could be that they all sell to the same type of customer, like wealthy individuals or teenagers. It could be a particular industry, like automotive or fast-food franchisees. They could share a job title in common, like sales manager or senior sales representative. Their target could even be geographical, like selling to Europe or South Africa.Whatever the focus of the group, the clearer it is, the more powerful the results.

The most obvious benefit of belonging to an SNA is to exchange qualified business leads. Your chances of being introduced to key buyers increase dramatically when you associate with peers who sell complementary products to those buyers. For instance, if they sell copiers, and you sell copier paper, you've got your own little SNA. If they export heavy equipment to Peru, and you do too, another SNA is born.

Besides sales leads, another benefit is shared industry information and insight. When you work alone, it's hard to know everything about an industry or market, but as part of an SNA, you can. Don't forget that customers tend to buy from salespeople who are "in the know" so they can stay up to date too. They also like to deal with vendors who understand their bigger picture and can offer solutions that work in all dimensions of their situation.

THE PLEASURE OF PEERS. Another advantage of these small, select groups is trusted advice. Recently, I was asked to join a group of solo business owners who live in my town. Among other things, these people seek a safe place to try out ideas and get honest feedback, without the threat of a leak to their employees or competitors.

A fourth benefit is camaraderie. If you're the only one in your company who does what you do, sometimes it can be pleasurable to be among your peers. This offers a great return on time because they understand your situation and often have solutions to your problems you may not have considered. At the very least, they can support you as you work your way through a challenge - and that's worth a lot.

Not all SNA's are ongoing. For instance, I wanted to do a favor for some of the members in my business network. I realized several of them sold to wealthy individuals. So I am organizing an SNA luncheon for them to meet each other and network. They sell everything from financial products to original art, high-end real estate to plastic-surgery services.

WATCH THEM MULTIPLY. While I don't share their same target market, in the time it takes to plan and enjoy one lunch, I can thank or serve a table full of influential salespeople. I won't be surprised if several of them later refer me to speak at their professional associations or consult for their clients. Besides, it'll be fun, and I'll probably get an anecdote or two for an upcoming column or speech.

Never hesitate to share your contacts with those you trust and respect. That's the fun of a great Rolodex. Stanley Marcus, one of the founders of upscale retailer Neiman-Marcus, believed the power of a Rolodex is not how big it is, but how often you open it in the service of others. How true.

So, how do you start an SNA? It sounds ironic, but to build a good one, you need to go to several general networking groups and look for top-notch peers, professionals who have something to offer you and could benefit from what you can offer them. The good news is you don't have to do all the work. If you start with a few key members, they can probably each recommend another member or two, thereby doubling or tripling the size of the group immediately. Their recommended members also expand your network instantly -- and you haven't even met yet!

As character Buzz Lightyear reminded his fellow toys in the movie Toy Story, "If you don't have one, get one!" Although Buzz was speaking of getting a buddy for moving day, the same idea applies to expanding your selling networks. A shift has occurred in networking toward smaller, more strategic alliances. If you belong to only large networking groups, it's time to start or join an SNA. Happy networking -- and selling! Nichols is a sales speaker, trainer, and consultant based in Houston. She welcomes your questions and comments. Visit her Web site at

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