Does your network, Net Work?

The concept of private practice is certainly not new to the field of Speech Pathology. However, one aspect of private practice that is still evolving, is that of Corporate Speech Pathology.

Beginning in 1994 I established a private practice in Corporate Speech Pathology; initially on a part-time basis and now full-time. Making the choice to become an entrepreneur is admittedly one of the biggest professional risks I’ve undertaken in my career, and yet at the same time, the best career move I’ve ever made. While there is still a long road ahead with many challenges, the greatest lesson I’ve learned so far, is the value of knowing how to network.

Clearly by now, the word “network” is more or less a household term and one with which almost everyone is familiar. It is even defined as a noun in Webster’s Dictionary as: an interconnected or interrelated group or system. What is missing however, is understanding the term “network” as a verb form and as such, one must recognize that to network is an active vs. passive activity. Truthfully, I would even go so far as to say that learning how to effectively network is indeed an art.

Much like making the decision to learn any other new skill, you must be patient with yourself in learning how to network. Let me also quickly point out that networking is clearly not for those of us who are shy or the “wallflower type.”   Without a doubt the first prerequisite to learning how to network is being able to get out and talk to as many people as possible and whenever possible. It has always struck me that perhaps the best way to tackle any new skill is to break it down into smaller units. If we use this approach when thinking about networking, we can look at it as having three distinct parts:

1. Planning your network

2. Implementing your network

3. Following up and cultivating your network

Let’s start with planning your network, which involves giving a good deal of thought to what types of clients you want to serve in your private practice and where their “centers of influence” are.   As an example, within my Corporate Speech Pathology practice, I determined that I wanted to provide services to a wide array of professionals.

These include: trainers, public speakers, sales staff, engineers and physicians.   As you determine the clientele you want to work with, you then begin to think about organizations where these professionals are represented, as well as who the decision makers (“centers of influence”) are that would determine whether or not to utilize your services. Initially this process may seem overwhelming, however as you do your research, ask questions and then ask more refined questions, your planning begins to take shape.  Along the way you may attend some meetings or contact some people that do not appear to be steering you in the direction you want. This is where patience is a virtue because there will be some “trial and error” in your planning. Keep in mind however, that no contact is truly a waste of time because it is an opportunity to educate someone and for you to learn something new. You also never know when a contact you make today will ultimately turn into a referral at a later point in time.

That brings us to the next step, which is implementing your network.  At this point it is helpful to keep in mind that although in step one you may have developed your list of groups or people, it is always a good idea to ask others what groups or networks they use. This is the beauty of networking in that all you have to do is ask the right questions and you increase your network. When you begin to implement your network, it is always beneficial to find out if an organization has multiple chapters and whether it exists at a national as well as a local level. Depending on the group, it may be advantageous to attend meetings or forums at more than one level.

Some examples of groups that have proved very valuable for my practice are:

*Chambers of Commerce

*American Society of Training and Development (ASTD)

*Business and Professional Women (BPW)

*Kiwanis Clubs and Rotary Clubs

*Business Network International (BNI)

*National Speaker’s Association

*local organizations for Human Resources Directors

*local consulting alliance groups

*any local ethnic club or group (to interface with clients for foreign accent reduction)

It is also noteworthy that once you become acclimated to a group such as a Chamber of Commerce, you want to approach it much the same as you would an onion. That is, there are many layers to explore, with a host of subgroups in which you can choose to participate. Specifically within my local Chamber of Commerce, I regularly attend a Women’s Business Council once per month, as well as a Business Leads Group twice per month. It is not nearly enough to join a Chamber as a member, as I initially thought. There is a wide array of activities and committees in which you can participate, keeping in mind that “networking” requires action on your part. Once you’ve established a comfort level with a committee or group it also behooves you to volunteer some time to help out with an event that contributes to the ongoing success of the group. Additionally, you can offer to be an ambassador for your local chamber. In so doing, you do have to commit to attend certain Chamber functions and indoctrinate new members. While this requires a time commitment, it is certainly time well spent in that you are meeting all new members and have a firsthand opportunity to educate them about your business.

Now that you’ve planned and implemented your network, your next step is following up and cultivating your network. What needs to be reinforced here is that “networking” is never done.  By that I mean it is a continuous and evolving action on your part which must be woven into your business on a steady diet. Granted you may spend more time networking some weeks than others, which is acceptable as long as you don’t view networking as something you actually complete. By the time you’ve reached this step of networking you will have begun to amass an impressive number of contacts and their corresponding business cards. An effective organizational tip is to make a brief note on someone’s business card right after you meet them, of anything pertinent you want to remember (e.g. date and place you met, any information about which you want to follow-up). Maintaining a database with contact names is ideal and allows you to update periodically. Also, with a database of your contacts you can easily send out announcements or updates about your business or consider distributing a newsletter. Perhaps the most salient aspect of cultivating your network is to initiate contact with people you’ve met. This can take the form of a phone call, email, or the best yet which is to invite the person to meet you for a cup of coffee or lunch. The true essence of networking is to establish relationships with people and get to know them on a one-to-one basis. Remember that when this happens you are not there merely to sell your business. More importantly, you are there to express a genuine interest in the other person and to share ideas. As a byproduct of this interaction, a trust level develops and this can ultimately generate more business for both of you. This is commonly referred to as “relationship marketing.” Speaking of generating business, it’s highly recommended that you write a personal thank you note to anyone who provides a referral to you or assists you in any way with your business. Not only is this common courtesy greatly appreciated, but it makes a very positive statement about you.

So, if you’re among the ranks of those who are ready to take the risk of pursuing a private practice, the first order of business is getting ready to network so that your network, will Net Work!

By: Dale G. Klein, M.A., Corporate Communication & Speech Specialist, © 2008, Profitable Speech, LLC A Sound Investment®. All rights reserved.