Networking isn’t just an optional extra – it can help drive, improve and expand your business in ways you may never have imagined.

If you’ve thought of networking as a hard-headed self-promotional experience, our top tips will show you that it can actually be the perfect route to business improvement for you, and the people you network with.

Dos and don’ts of face-to-face networking

1. Do start now

The time to network is before you need to. This allows you to relax because there’s nothing at stake.

By developing the techniques of networking at your own pace, you’ll gain seasoned abilities to call on when you need them. Think of this as rehearsal time, and when you actually get to perform, you’ll feel totally comfortable with the process.

2. Do plan on a business card

Each networking opportunity helps you hone your business. So before you network, take a business card sized piece of paper and on one side write – your talents, strengths and skills.

On the other side, put down what you want to talk about, find out about or explore with those around you.

Anything you can’t fit onto a business card will probably vanish from your mind in a networking situation anyway, but if you’ve distilled your VA persona into that small space, it will be easier for you to expand on it when networking.

3. Do inter-network

This is a pretty advanced skill, but it’s easy enough to develop.

As you network with more people, you’ll discover that one person may be able to help another but they aren’t aware of it.

Try putting them in touch with each other and – while there’s nothing obvious in it for you – you’ll build a reputation as having stellar ‘helping’ abilities and superb business matchmaking talents!

If nothing else, think about karma. Who knows what may come of you helping others later down the line.

4. Do ask

It’s such a hard thing for many of us to do, but if we don’t ask, we don’t get!

When any business conversation is coming to an end, simply ask, ‘how can I help your business succeed?’

Asking the question, may lead that person on to thinking about areas that could do with some support. Then when they come to following through on that need, they may well come back to you as the person who had the initiative to ask.

5. Don’t forget

Note down any promises you made at the event.

Whether it was to call somebody, send them material, etc. Failure to follow through can damage your reputation – people may think you’ll be just as casual about their business needs.

Follow up. Always!

Help for shy networkers

Networking isn’t everyone’s cup of tea.

For introverts it can be a daunting experience.

But let’s go back to that ‘business card’ you prepared. Put it in your pocket or bag and refer to it throughout the event. And don’t worry if anyone catches you at it, tell them exactly what you’re doing – they’ll most likely be impressed by your forward-planning and ability to bullet-point your business skills and desires – it might even lead to a new client.

However if you are shy and nervous, why not start off with networking online first?

Dos and don’ts of online networking

1. Do be yourself

Online networking can sometimes feel a bit forced. Try not to let that happen to you.

We all know remorseless self-promoters who send us messages exhorting us to buy, buy, buy!

If that’s not your style, don’t fall into it. You should be as true to yourself online as you would in real life, so people can get to know you virtually.

2. Do practice on your real life contacts

Commit to networking with current clients and customers, friends and acquaintances.

Building your skills makes it much easier than to network with ‘virtual’ strangers. It’s also a great strategy as we can easily forget to network with those who are already engaged with our VA business, and yet they are the most likely people to respond to our approaches.

3. Do know your purpose

Just as in the business card example for real life networking, your online networking should be clear and simple – what are you trying to project, and where would you like to grow?

Ensure your online communications are strictly in line with these two strands and you won’t end up looking unprofessional.

4. Do pay attention

It’s easy to end up looking for ways to ‘get your message across’ instead of simply looking for opportunities.

Pay attention to what other people are saying online and make a note to follow up on their statements – asking if somebody got their report in on time or enjoyed their holiday can make you stand out from the crowd.

5. Don’t measure success by numbers

It’s so easy to think that the more followers you have or conversations you participate in, the better you’re doing.

The real measure is how many of your networking ventures lead to new clients, new projects or new opportunities.

Heading to networking event soon? Or starting out online? Try these strategies and let us know how you get on.

Or if you have any networking tips of your own – let us know what’s worked for you.