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Chris Liles - Are there too many networking groups?

PUBLISHED: 13:41 14 May 2012 | UPDATED: 14:32 22 May 2012

Chris Liles, business mentor (columnists for EDP biz).

Chris Liles, business mentor (columnists for EDP biz).

Local research specialists www.research-plus.co.uk recently found there are over fifty business networking organisations in the Norwich area alone! When I started networking I can only recall a handful. My contentious proposal is that this tenfold increase is far too many. My concern is that the local business community is not expanding fast enough to support all these networks. Potential attendees only have a finite amount of time to spend networking. Therefore they are becoming more selective e.g. I now only attend those that interest me and/or that I enjoy.

The result of people being selective like that is an increasing trend of low turnouts and cancelled events due to inadequate support. This is where, from experience, I have major empathy for those running networking events and finding themselves struggling to achieve viable numbers. Recently I have attended networking events with only 10 or so other people. Whilst often pleasant, unless those people are strangers to you, it may not be productive. Remember this is a business activity so you should surely be focusing on income-generating activities?

Another issue is regularly returning to the same group and meeting the same people. I fully recognise the BNI (Business Network International) concept of getting to know people in order to access their contacts. The issue emerges when a group of people already know and trust you well enough to freely recommend you when the opportunity arises.

Would you then be better focusing on strangers (who may be friends you have not met yet) in other groups whose mate could turn out to be Richard Branson?

A feature of local networks is that the same faces tend to appear. I am not knocking that since I too have been known to attend the opening of an envelope just to get my face in the place. The tendency though is to gravitate towards known people rather than seek out new blood. I suspect some regular networkers may consider me a little ruthless when I (always) politely leave their company to meet/greet a stranger. Sorry, but I am prioritising my time – you should be too.

Newcomers to networking groups should also be made warmly welcome. I have watched seasoned networkers stand chatting to their fellow group members while a newcomer stands alone. At times I have been that newcomer. Guess my thoughts of such groups?

There is also the human psychological element of wanting to belong to a group. It certainly can be lonely for small businesses and a support group may be the ideal remedy. What you must decide is whether it is simply therapy for you. If so, it could be costing you dearly in your time (including what income you could otherwise be generating) as well as networking fees, meals, petrol etc.

In summary I am encouraging you to consider seriously how you manage your networking time:

1. Be selective. Explore networks that are new to you but be prepared to dump them if unsuitable.

2. Prioritise what you want from networking – new income or a support group. If the latter recognise it comes with a potentially high cost – can you afford it? It is possible to achieve both income and support from networking, but maintain the balance and watch the cost.

3. If you are involved in a network throw all efforts into attracting new visitors/members. Then greet them as Guests of Honour when they turn up.

4. Be assertive (not aggressive) and move on to meet different people if your conversation becomes stale. The other person may be wanting to lose you too but they are also too polite to instigate the separation.

5. If you are considering setting up a new Norwich network, beware. Saturation point has already been exceeded in my view.

So, have I upset some of you seasoned networkers? Hopefully I have got you thinking. For newcomers, get out there and get networking. Until you try a network you will not know if it is suitable for you. However, if you choose to return ensure it is ‘networking’ rather than ‘notworking’.

As qualifications for the following diatribe, here is my business Networking CV:

• 2000-2004 Business Network International (BNI) including being Chapter Director.

• 2005-2011 Antidote business network – Partner.

• 2000-2012 I also joined many other networks e.g. 4Networking, Norfolk Network, Netwalking and many others. Also I train people in networking confidently and easily.

Chris Liles is a mentor for small businesses aspiring to be bigger.

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