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Monday, September 21st, 2009

Networking & Other Insider Tips From A Chambers Of Commerce Worker


Chambers of Commerce are an enormous resource for small businesses. They are geared towards businesses of 100 people or less and represent more than 3 million businesses.

There is a local chamber of commerce in 3,000 towns and cities across the U.S. and Canada…and 112 additional Chambers of Commerce in 99 other countries.

I recently met James Mielnik, who works for the Halifax Chamber of Commerce and he agreed to share his insights on how your business can benefit from networking and being involved in a local chamber.

Hi James…I know networking is a key component of Chambers of Commerce — what are some specific networking tips you can share?

Sixty-five percent of businesses join a Chamber because of networking so I will really want to dig in here.

Below are my top 7 networking tips:

1. Cultivate a genuine interest in seeing others succeed…. and help them do it:

This mindset should be prerequisite before anybody begins to network.  You have a great post entitled Being a Go-Giver not a Go-Getter which echo’s this mindset and has some additional tips.   In short, what I see most people doing when they network is talking about themselves and talking about their product or service with the hopes of selling more.  This is very amateurish and turns people off right away.

Solution – do the exact opposite! When you meet somebody for first time focus all your attention on asking probing questions to learn about THEM such as: What brings you here today? Who are you trying to connect with? Who would be an ideal prospect for you? What is your biggest frustration?

“Every man is my superior in that I may learn from him” Emerson

2. Listen…Listen…. and then Listen some more:

I know you have heard this many times before, but it’s a skill that ALL of us can still improve. Rather than reiterate the importance of listening I’m going to share a technique which will automatically take your listening skills to the next level and FORCE you to listen more!

When engaged in a conversation, BEFORE you respond to somebody. pause and briefly summarize what you just heard before you share what you were going to say.  This is a simple yet powerful technique to make the other person feel understood and demonstrates that you care what they have to say.

This is harder than it sounds and takes a bit of practice, but starting today, put on the breaks before you reply to someone and paraphrase back what they just told you first!.

3. The 3 Second Rule

As soon as you enter a room of people start a conversation with the first person you see within the first 3 seconds.  DO NOT HESISTATE, don’t look for somebody you know and don’t go to the bar.  It doesn’t matter who you approach, just go talk to somebody!

The goal here is to build confidence, get outside ‘your head’ and build the habit of proactively meeting people.  At most events there is usually a registration desk.  Try and view this as the “warm up”.  Use this opportunity to speak to the person beside you as you sign in or receive your name tag.

4. The soft touch:

You may have noticed what typically happens at networking events is people form small groups (usually consisting of friends or office colleagues) who then talk amongst themselves.  This situation presents a challenge for most people.

Here is a very non threatening way to approach one of these groups if you know somebody in the group (even if you don’t know them very well).  As you are walking by simply “soft touch” the person you know on the shoulder, smile, and say hi, making sure to address them by their name.  Don’t motion to shake their hand, and instead simply give a small wave as you keep walking (shaking hands is usually too much of a commitment in this situation). This seemingly small gesture accomplishes the following goals:

a) Strengthening the relationship with the person you know.
b) In some situations the individual will stop you and say “James, have you met…..” and bring you into the group to introduce you to everybody else (although this is a possibility- do not expect it)
c) It gives you unconscious face time with the other people in that group.  Some of them will notice you and you now have a small connection with them for generating a future conversation.
d) If you really wanted to meet somebody from that group and didn’t get an opportunity to at the event, you can call the person you know and say “Hey I noticed you speaking to….I would love to meet them. Would you mind introducing us?”

5. Smile the whole time :)Smiling conveys happiness, fun, positive, and so many other great emotions!   Maya Angelou is quoted as saying

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

I think this is profound. How do you want to make people feel?

I find most people at networking events are unnecessarily serious, and as a result don’t let their true personality shine through. I use to be this way as well…. Do the opposite! I have found the more I smile while speaking on the phone, while writing emails or while in person meeting others, the more it makes others want to be around me.  Smiling can also do wonders for your “inner game” by increasing your confidence, helping you relax and increasing your overall level of enjoyment. Smile.

6. Introduce people to each other:

Anytime you have a chance to introduce people who can benefit from knowing each other do it.  Sending a quick email introduction is a great habit to get into.

“Help enough people get what they want and you’ll get what you want” -Zig Zigler

7.  Keep in touch by sending things of value:

In my experience, most people contact others when they want something.  This is okay once in a while, but if this is the only instance in which you touch base with somebody, sooner or later they are not going to screen your calls.  Ironically, you can have a lot of success in doing the complete opposite.  If 80% of the time you contact somebody to offer them something of interest or value they are going to open your email or take your call every time.

A simple way to do this is keeping your eyes open for events, articles, and blogs that would interest your contacts. Other ideas include sending email introductions or cards to congratulate them for achieving success or maybe offering tickets to a sports game.  These little gestures go a long way if you are dong it because you genuinely care.  You will not only grow your relationship with that individual but they will WANT to hear what you have to say every time you contact them.  In addition to making somebody else feel good you will personally feel like a million dollars when you make the time do something like this!

What’s the primary purpose of a Chamber of Commerce?

There are 2 key purposes of a Chamber.  One is to represent the interests of businesses in a particular community or region.  For example, the Halifax Chamber of Commerce represents the 15,000 businesses in the Halifax Regional Municipality.  The interests in our region range from a better public transit system to lower taxes for small businesses.

The second purpose is to help businesses grow and connect with others.  This is done by providing networking opportunities.  The Halifax Chamber of Commerce has over 100 events per year ranging from informal after hours events such as  ‘Commerce Connections’ to annual gala events like the spring and fall dinners.”

How does the Chamber of Commerce and industry work together?

This is achieved by having employees of various companies volunteer with the Chamber of Commerce, either on our Board or a sub committee like the Energy Advisory Group.  When you have CEOs of companies such as Nova Scotia Power or Bell Aliant (our major telecommunications provider) getting involved with a Chamber committee, this creates a synergy and cohesion between individual industries and the business committee as a whole.

This creates tremendous clout and gets the attention of government officials who can make the change happen.

What’s the typical membership fee for becoming a Chamber of Commerce member?

Membership is done on an annual basis and the fee is determined by the number of employees a business has.  Our memberships start at $280 for a 1-2 employee company and go up to $4,300 for 500+ employees.

Can a business list job openings through a Chamber of Commerce.

Each Chamber is different.  Our chamber currently does not offer the ability to post job openings .  What we do offer is discounts on recruiting firms through our member to member marketplace.

This is where a company who is a member of the Chamber can offer discounts (usually 10-20-% off their services) to other Chamber members.

How can a Chamber of Commerce generate Web site traffic for businesses?

Here are the top 3 ways:

1.    Chambers have what we call an online business or member directory.  This includes every business who is a member and links directly to your site.
2.    Advertise on the Chamber website.  Most Chambers have vertical banners or some place to advertise on their website which can link to your page.
3.    Email blasts.  Most Chambers give you the option to send out an email to every one of their members for a couple hundred dollars.

Would you give an example of the “biggest win” that a business had as a result of being a Chamber of Commerce member (please give details of the story).

I know a lot of business deals have been made during Chamber events.  Unfortunately, I don’t have details for any of them.  I can speak to some of the “big wins” for our Chamber.  We recently helped get a smoking by-law passed which prohibits smoking in all restaurants.

Another big win was allowing Sunday shopping (Stores in Halifax prior to this passing were closed for business on Sunday!).  One other big win would be introducing U.S. Customs pre-clearance at our airport so we can get screed prior to leaving for international flights.

If you were to start your own business, how would you best take advantage of the benefits of the Chamber of Commerce (please include a list of tips (including secret ones!)? 😉

Below are the top 7 things you could do if just starting a business:

1. Go to the free events offered by the Chamber such as Business After Hours or Commerce Connections and practice meeting and networking.  These events are very non threatening and it will also help get the name of your company into the market place.
2. Use the Membership directory and find potential businesses to partner with and cross promote.
3. Most Chambers have a monthly magazine (ours is called Business Voice) and we are always looking for content from members.  Offer to write monthly articles about your speciality or industry. This is much more effective than advertising and it’s free!!!
4. Volunteer for a committee within the Chamber such as the ambassadors, transportation or education committees.  This is a great way to meet and establish relationships with 20+ people right away.  It will also help keep you abreast of issues.
5. Take advantage of the group discounts offered by the Chamber to help save your business money.  There is everything from payroll services discounts to merchant services discounts.
6. Develop a relationship with the staff at your Chamber.  The staff will know many of the members and if you ask can help introduce you to them.
7. Put the Chamber of Commerce logo on your business cards and website.  This will help establish credibility.

I notice Chambers of Commerce are global. How does the American Chamber of Commerce differ from the Canada Chamber of Commerce versus the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce versus the British Chamber of Commerce or even the Chinese Chamber of Commerce, etc.?

It is safe to say that Chambers exist almost everywhere businesses do. While I am not involved in Chambers on a global scale, it is clear that they all follow a similar format and would have the benefits listed above.

The primary difference between these Chambers is the type of advocacy and the policy work they would do because every region has their own unique challenges.  Furthermore, each Chamber targets their particular region and/or cultural group.

Is there a good link you could share to a global Chamber of Commerce directory?

Hmm….To be honest I’m not aware of such a link.  Perhaps you’ve planted the seed of a new business idea!  The closest thing I could recommend is to find the Chamber of Commerce for a particular state.

Take California for example.  If you go to the California Chamber of Commerce Website they have a place which lists every local Chamber in California and their contact information.

Hey James, if someone wanted to learn more about you, do you have a link about yourself?

Sure.  The best way to connect would be my LinkedIn profile.  I am more than happy to answer any questions, share ideas or further insights with any of your readers.

Thanks Rob.

Thank you for sharing, James!

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