Three ways SMEs can continue networking during lockdowns

A woman looks at her phone screen while working from her computer. Source: Unsplash/Bruce Mars.

As Sydney navigates through another week of lockdown 2.0 (3.0 if you’re in the Northern Beaches), Melbourne ensures its extended fifth lockdown and South Australia continues through a week-long snap lockdown, the feelings of ‘here we go again’ are high for small businesses. 

Although we don’t have the JobKeeper scheme to fall back on this time, the governments are working together to help people maintain some form of income whilst the stay-at-home orders are in place.

A series of business grants will also be available to help cover business costs such as wages, consulting, marketing and other expenses that are needed to run the business. And, although these are much appreciated, even my bookkeeper has been left unclear as to the process for application.

As we wait until we reach the point where we can live and work with COVID, for many businesses it’s not the past and present that are creating the most concern, but the loss of future revenue and growth.

According to the ASBFEO Small Business Counts 2020 Report, small businesses (employing fewer than 20 employees) account for over 97% of all Australian businesses, so keeping them in business is vital.

While it’s easy to see the devastating effects that lockdowns have on what’s termed ‘high impact’ businesses in the government guidelines for the grants — hospitality, tourism, retail, hair and beauty and construction are the obvious ones — there are some less obvious threats to many other businesses too.

For small service-based businesses providing mostly professional services, the lockdown impacts are less immediate, unless their core market is in those industries in the high impact areas. For these businesses, the lifeblood and one of the primary drivers of continued revenue is networking.

And while we have all become accustomed to looking at a screen that looks like permanent open credits for the Brady Bunch and doing our networking online, the natural flow of conversation that you have when you meet someone in a physical environment is hard to replace.

While talking to a business connection the other day and discussing our experiences of this last 18 months, she reflected that when she examined the business’ position with her business partner at the end of last financial year, feeling like they were doing okay, she realised they were actually just managing to keep the lights on.

The many opportunities that she had lined up with potential new clients in Melbourne, being a regular visitor pre-COVID, had all disappeared. 

Elsewhere, at a recent webinar on how to secure government and corporate tenders, our presenter, who despite being more philosophical and open about the process, was clear. They only won tenders where they had been able to establish some kind of prior relationship or connection with the decision-makers, usually starting with her speaking in person at a conference.

Breaking those ASBFEO small business figures down further, over 62% of them are sole traders and almost 26% are micro businesses employing 1-4 people. So a significant proportion of those businesses will rely heavily on networking to drive future revenue and growth, and many of them may not qualify for the government grants.

So how does small business continue to build relationships and revenue without their primary marketing activity available to them? 

Embrace the online

I know everyone is already suffering from online fatigue, and you’re probably groaning at the thought of yet another webinar or Zoom free-for-all. However, online networking that is well organised can actually produce some real gems, especially when it’s with a group of like-minded people who already have a connection. 

Business Networking International Australia, which is famous for the amount of face-to-face meeting time you need to devote as a member, quickly adapted to an online format. And many other groups have done the same. If you’re not yet part of a group, try your local business chamber and if they’re not running any online networking, offer to start it. You’ll get even more exposure as the host. 

One of my networking groups is starting a Zoom Speed Networking Pitch night, designed to combine the fun of not knowing who will be on the other side of the screen with the serious business of clearly requesting a specific referral. 

Up your game 

Now you have all those extra non-travelling hours to and from networking events, you can use that time to find ways to adjust or — preferably — add new services to your offering. 

Reach out to your current or former clients and other connections to get feedback on whether these new or refreshed ideas resonate with them. You’d be surprised how many people are willing to give you ten minutes of their time, and it gives you an opportunity to reconnect and possibly generate some business at the same time.

Just ask

So often people are afraid to ask those in their existing network for an introduction to someone they know. But in times like these we need to set aside the doubts. I’m willing to bet that if someone reached out to you there’d be no hesitation in making an introduction between people where there could be a win-win outcome.

There’s still a long road ahead before we break out of Fortress Australia. And it’s likely that, until we have the requisite vaccine numbers, this won’t be the last time we find ourselves back in confinement. So the more pro-active you can be now in starting, maintaining and growing relationships, the better chance you have of doing better than just keeping the lights on. 

And if you have friends who are small business owners, ask if there’s anyone you can introduce them to. They will be eternally grateful.

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