I don’t know about you, but I am so tired of seeing my face in a sea of square boxes of talking heads on my monitor.  And that’s coming from someone who works from home already! 

I can’t imagine the transition for those of you accustomed to working in an office, with all the water cooler and conference room conversations about work and everything else, face to face with your co-workers!  (Note: If you are really missing the office, you can at least mimic the sounds of an office setting.)

We have all been effectively forced into a new model for making connections that was not of our choosing.  Between missed conferences, trade shows, and networking events, or their virtual, and ineffectual, substitutes, this year has been a challenge for all business owners.  Whether you are just starting up (In a pandemic! What were you thinking?) or geared up to grow fast in 2020 (Without trade shows?  How will you find customers?), 2020 has not been very receptive to our need to connect.  Even introverts like me long for a good networking lunch, a nice friendly handshake with a new business connection, and maybe even a huge crowd at an expo center, just ripe with opportunity.

But if we wait for COVID-19 to go away and plan for a future that looks a lot like our past did, then we are in for a huge disappointment.  Things will not go back to how they used to be.  Our traditional business models for making connections with peers, customers, vendors and investors has been upended.  Disrupted.  Forever altered.  That’s not to say that there will never be tradeshows or conferences again.  I fully anticipate joining my local fellow small business owners over a beer during a fun networking event, maybe in the summer of 2021.  And attending my annual association conference in person next year (fingers crossed!).

But we can’t all press pause on our businesses and wait a year for things to open up to those in-person connections.  So instead of looking at this situation as a threat to our business success, we have to consider it an opportunity to create new ways to make connections.

What does that look like?  I am no fan of the giant Zoom calls, and I don’t believe that virtual conferences offer the same spontaneous connections and conversations that a live one does.  We need to get creative now to make connections to help grow our business.  Here are a few thoughts.  I hope you’ll share your own suggestions with me!

Broaden your networking circle

Our current situation creates a brand-new opportunity for you to connect with whole new circles of people that you might not have sought out previously.  For example, many networking and referral groups are very focused on local connections.  And while many businesses rely on local customers for sales, it is time to think about expanding your reach to other locales. 

If you own a retail store or a service business that is location-dependent, can you reach out to nearby towns through Chambers of Commerce or County Economic Development groups?  Start by subscribing to e-mail newsletters and following these groups on social media.   Then do some looking around online to see if there are potential customers, collaborators or competitors that you could connect with for sales, joint marketing or even partnerships. 

If your business is not location dependent, then do some online searching to find new groups of people that don’t know about you and your fabulous business.  This could be through Facebook or Linked In groups, associations of your peers or customers, or even through an online community, whether created by you or one you join to increase your connectivity.

The key here is expanding your connections in a way that you might not have tried pre-pandemic.  Sign up for new information, look for groups to join, reach outside of your usual or local circles to connect with new potential customers or partners.

Narrow your sales search

Ironically, another great way to make connections is by being incredibly specific, rather than intentionally broad.  In addition to searching for communities to connect with, think about some more strategic ways to connect with individuals. 

Let me explain with a personal anecdote.  When my computer science-major son was looking for a job his senior year, I encouraged him to go to the campus job fair.  “Go where they are already looking for you,” I told him.  But he found the job fair to be so overwhelming – over 250 companies looking for potential employees all in one giant location!  So, I asked him some questions.  “What does your ideal job look like? What are your favorite programming languages?  Where do you want to live? Big company or small? City or suburb?” 

Then, I did some research, and ultimately handed him a list of four companies.  I told him, “These four companies meet all your criteria.  Find them, introduce yourself, make a connection and then you can leave the fair and follow up with them later.”  And he did.  Turns out that the rep from one company held the same TA position he currently had.  They had a nice chat, he followed up with her, and that ultimately led to a series of interviews and a job offer in his hands before he even started his last semester. 

Now, translate that story to your sales and marketing efforts.  Pre-pandemic, you might attend a trade show and attempt to connect with as many potential customers as possible.  Instead, can you do some research to pinpoint the handful of companies that you think are the best fit?  Start with any virtual trade show member lists, along with all the virtual communities you joined (per my first suggestion).  Spend some time looking around at companies that attract your attention – either as a customer or a supplier/vendor.  Then reach out.  I don’t mean reach out with your sales pitch.  Reach out to make the connection.

For example: “I’m writing an article for our company blog post on xxx and from my research, you are one of the experts.  Could you spare 30 minutes for an information interview?”

People are a lot more open to new ways to do business given the current situation.  Reach out directly to the business owners you think would be good connections and schedule a good old-fashioned phone call.  Call it a one-on-one or an information interview – the goal here is to learn more and see if you can find ways to connect and help each other.

Make it easy to be found

In addition to searching for new communities and networks of people and to reaching out directly to targeted companies and individuals, it is equally as important to make sure people doing the same can find you.  Is your Linked In profile up to date?  Do you have a “Contact us” option on your website?  Or at least an email address and phone number for people to find you?  Are you getting yourself “out there” online, commenting on posts, following and commenting on blogs from your industry, attending webinars, or even writing your own posts and hosting your own webinars? 

Think about your ideal customers.  What information is important to them?  Can you be the provider of that information?  A recent McKinsey survey indicates that there is a 2x “increased likelihood of companies that provide an outstanding digital experience being chosen as a primary supplier.”  Do you offer an outstanding digital experience?  Perhaps it’s time to transition that trade show budget into making yourself easy to find online.

Have you found new ways to make connections to grow your business?  What has worked and what hasn’t?  Share your thoughts!