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Gotta Get Connected

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Despite the clichéd nature of the phrase, there is a good amount of truth in, “It’s not what you know, but who you know.” No doubt you know your stuff when it comes to fixing cars and running a business, but when you hit a snag—and we all do—who do you turn to? Who do you know?

Networking is essential to establishing connections with your peers and to gaining critical knowledge in this ever-changing business environment. So when you’re taking the time and spending the cash to attend a trade show, conference or even a local meeting, why not get the most out of your investment by networking more effectively? Angie Wilson, vice president of marketing and communications at the Automotive Service Association, knows a thing or two about how to boost your networking skills:   

Strategy #1: Choose your networking opportunities wisely.

Taking advantage of every networking opportunity available would require ridiculous amounts of time and money. The first step to good networking is determining which opportunities are the right opportunities—specifically, the right opportunities for you.

Choose events that are meaningful. “The more closely [your interests are] matched to the event, the more you’ll get out of it,” Wilson says. Look for events that cater to the roles you play in your shop (manager, repairer, decision-maker, collaborator) and to your business needs (leadership training, financial oversight, time management, technical skills).

The detailed back-and-forth exchange of shared conversation can be a much richer experience than passively listening to a lecture. Share too little, and a conversation will fizzle. Share too much, and your conversation partner may feel uncomfortable.

Know the value of what you’re getting. “When you’re talking to your peers, you’re reaching a whole new level that you are not getting from a speaker in front of a large audience,” Wilson says. Discussions with fellow shop owners allow you to dive more deeply into issues and to seek feedback and advice from folks who’ve traveled the path you’re walking. The detailed back-and-forth exchange of conversation can be a much richer experience than passively listening to a lecture. “[Networking] is not only a gift to yourself, but you also play a key role sharing your knowledge as well,” Wilson explains. The more you share with others, the more you are likely to get out of the chat yourself. That’s because sharing with others keeps information fresh in your own mind while increasing your confidence that you really know your stuff.

Strategy #2: Learn how to present yourself to your peers.

Approaching someone you don’t know very well—or at all—may seem daunting at first. Here are a few suggestions for making a great first impression and to striking up a lively conversation:

Identify yourself. “From the very beginning, establish you are a peer,” Wilson says. Identifying yourself as a fellow shop owner who is reaching out to another shop owner is important. A person’s name and company on their name badge doesn’t always indicate their role at the meeting. “By defining yourself, it puts [others] more at ease about who you are,” Wilson says, “and it helps you get into the groove of conversation.”

Establish common ground. This can be as simple as inquiring about the size of the shop, asking whether the shop has a specialty or asking the number of employees. For your part, “you can give a good perspective of who you are,” Wilson says, “by saying how long you’ve been in the business, how many employees you have and sharing some unique situations.” Identifying geographic location is helpful, too, especially at a national event. You might be surprised at the similarities and differences in the struggles and successes of shop owners near and far.

Dig a little deeper. Ask how often your conversation partner attends certain industry events, and find out which are favorites or “must-attends” in their opinion. That insight can help you make better strategic decisions for planning and budgeting for your professional development.

Keep the conversation moving. “The key to [establishing stronger connections] is to focus on open-ended questions, particularly the ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions,” Wilson says. “You get the most out of the exchange if you ask the types of questions that prompt someone to respond with explanations and experiences.” Before attending your next event, take just a few minutes to make note of the top three concerns you have for you business. Brainstorm an open-ended question or two on each of those topics, being sure to avoid questions that can be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.” Next time you find yourself racking your brain for what to say next at a networking event, you’ll have a much greater chance of asking a truly engaging question.

Strategy #3: Master the art of information sharing.

Share too little, and a conversation will fizzle. Share too much, and your conversation partner may start to shift uncomfortably on his feet. Here are a few tips for how to get it just right:

Exchange business cards. Swapping business cards is a great way to indicate to someone that you’ve valued the time and information that’s been shared during your conversation. The exchange of contact information can lead to post-conference connections that serve your business for years and even evolve into genuine friendships. Trading cards can also spur a new line of conversation, as you see at a glance the person’s title, location and basic shop info. No business cards? No problem. You can easily and quickly order cards from sites like VistaPrint.com. And if you arrive at a show without cards, you may even be able to design, order and receive cards within 24 hours—though you’ll no doubt pay the price for that! And of course, most conferences provide an attendee list with complete contact info and occasionally even brief bios. Be sure to bring your list home.

Avoid over-sharing. When in doubt, hold your tongue. If you even suspect that a certain story or piece of information may be inappropriate, it’s best not to share. Anything concerning your financials or specific employee situations are red-flag topics. For example, it’s OK to say you’re having an attendance problem at your shop, but never name names. “It’s a small world, and you just never know [who will end up working where, or who might overhear your conversation],” Wilson warns. “Take the high road; be professional.”

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