Networking has become a buzzword over the past few years, and while it has always been important, it has taken on a mythical significance as millions of business people around the world embrace its potential to promote their businesses and connect with potential clients. However, as a business strategy, how does it differ from building business relationships?

Let’s explore the concepts of networking and business relationship building, focusing on what each is, where they overlap, and how they differ, if at all.

What is networking?

According to the investopedia.com website, networking is “…the exchange of information and ideas among people with a common profession or special interest, usually in an informal social setting. Networking often begins with a single point of common ground.”

That’s not a bad start, but it’s not an optimal description of what networking is, either.

So let’s look at another definition. The Mirriam-Webster dictionary defines networking as

…the cultivation of productive relationships for employment or business…

What I like about this definition, in contrast to the first one, is the part about “… cultivation of productive relationships …”

From these two definitions, we can see there that there seems to be a not-so-insubstantial variance in the way that networking is defined. Could this be the reason that networking seems so nebulous a term?

The first definition seems to allude to the meeting and exchanging information and ideas at some sort of event or occasion. It focuses on the interaction at a single point in time, divorced from any subsequent activity. It’s about meeting people, talking, listening, exchanging business cards within the confines of the networking event. And then what?

Unfortunately, this is precisely what many people think networking is. Business connections are seen as commodities that can be “picked up” at a networking event like groceries at a supermarket.

I guess the thought process is that you pop in to the event, exchange some business cards, drink some cheap wine, and leave with a handful of new connections. It’s totally divorced from the rest of your business life. No wonder the proponents of this approach are disappointed in their results. Just look in any online forum discussing networking as part of a well-balanced business strategy and you’ll see things like “It’s a waste of time” and “Networking doesn’t work”.

The second definition approaches networking as a process focused on the enhancement of relationships over time. And this is where building business relationships enters the conversation.

What is building business relationships?

building business relationships

As we have already seen from the definition of networking in the Mirriam-Webster dictionary, proper networking involves the cultivation of relationships. As already stated, it’s a process that takes place over time.

Proper networking, like any worthwhile relationship, cannot be rushed. It takes months to get the other person to trust you. Let’s face it, most people assume that when a stranger suddenly starts befriending them, one of two things are happening;

  • the eager beaver wants to sell them something, or
  • they want to scam them
  • or they want something for free.

Consequently, you have to get past this initial reticence before even standing a chance of establishing a relationship. It’s like starting 20 meters behind the starting line in a race.

Understand that cultivating a relationship requires the investment of time and effort to prove that you are not trying to take advantage of them and that you genuinely have their well-being at heart. This is why we talk about the cultivation of a relationship. Building trust takes time and is essential for business relationship building.

So, do networking and business relationship building overlap?

In my opinion, the first definition considered above is not networking. I would call it “contact-list padding”. It’s all about collecting business cards and contact details in case you need their services one day (and most of the time you won’t) and hoping that the people you hand your business card to will call you if they need your services.

As they say, hope is not a strategy.

The people you meet at “smash-and-grab” networking events would never go out of their way to help you if there was nothing in it for them. They are contacts, not connections.

In contrast, proper networking is business relationship building. They are one and the same thing if you use the correct definition of the term networking.

The verdict

Many business people out there still labor under a misshapen idea of what networking is. They either don’t know, or don’t want to know, how to go about building lasting, robust, reciprocal business relationships that grow and flourish over time.

And so this confusing situation persists.

Perhaps we need a new definition of networking that incorporates the cultivation of business relationship building to distinguish itself from networking as contact-list padding. But we’ll leave that for another day.

Conclusion

If you want to get any value out of the time you spend networking, it’s essential that you approach it from an informed perspective. If you don’t know what you need to do to become a successful networker, you are bound to be disappointed in the results you achieve. What is more, you will waste your valuable time.

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