Many successful contractors rely upon a network of colleagues within and outside the industry that they can discuss concerns with and get trusted feedback on issues that challenge their businesses. All contractors should consider using networking as a source of knowledge and experience to improve their systems and business. Don’t discount its value; it’s an untapped source of valuable information, perhaps even guidance.

What’s networking?

So what’s networking and why should you do it? Networking is interacting with others and exchanging ideas that help solve problems. Asking another successful colleague or more experienced person how they handled a particular business issue is networking for your benefit. Conversely, you can benefit others by sharing solutions or your experiences when asked about a particular business problem or issue.

Establishing a group of individuals that you can go to for advice is networking. Another example of networking is to become an active participant in a peer group of owners and senior managers. It’s a great and fun way to learn what other successful companies are doing. That said, be always be prepared to give something back as well as get something.

Who should I network with?

The best source of networking associates are people with similar goals in your professional field, in the case of most of you reading this, other landscape company owners and managers. In almost all cases, these industry networks are made up of businesses that are regionally separated and non-competing. The reasons for this should be obvious.

Just about any business topic of common interest is a topic for discussion in a peer group, although it’s always a good idea to prepare an agenda beforehand to keep the get-together focused on business issues.

Mark Lay of AATex-Lawn, Charlotte, N.C., trades ideas with John Steele, Steele Blades, Louisville, Ky., at the recent Dynamic Concept Peer Group in Chicago.

A network associate may offer suggestions on how to increase your on-the-job efficiency or productivity. Another discussion may, for example, drill down on ways to improve banking relations, insurance or safety training. The topics are up to you and the group.

Why wait? Get started

State and national trade associations are a great source of networking and you can start at the next meeting or event. Your computer programmer, banker, insurance agent or lawyer can suggest out-of-the-industry professionals that could bring a new perspective in how business is done in other professions.

Social events provide a gold mine of opportunities and you never know what profession the next person you meet is in and how their experience could help you. Consider inviting an industry outsider to the next green industry event you attend because that’ll help him or her expand their network and that’s always good for you.

Quite simply, networking happens spontaneously whenever a group is assembled and socializes. There’s networking going on at a reception prior to an organization’s dinner meeting. Instead of mingling with your usual group of company associates, start a conversation with someone you don’t know and see where it goes; you’ll be surprised what you’ll learn. When you meet a new person, try mentioning an issue you’re dealing with and many times that new acquaintance can offer recommendations or point you to someone they know who has experience in that situation

For example, if you’re concerned that your EMR (experience modifier rate) has gone up and increased your insurance expense, someone in your network may have reduced their EMR and could tell you what they did to accomplish that. But, remember, to get the most out of networking, you’ve got to give and share your experience as much as you take from others.

What not to do

Don’t get too technical or detailed in initial network discussions. Imagine how you’d respond if in an introductory discussion someone asked you to look at their financial statements or tried to sell you their business. Never get personal, like requesting a reference for a potential employee or telling a first time acquaintance you’re looking for a new account manager and they should apply for the job. Given time, these and other issues can be addressed.

By following these simple, basic rules you will discover there’s no limit to what you can learn or where expanding your network can take you. Don’t be shy; you can’t network successfully until you introduce yourself and start to get to know someone. Remember, the next time someone introduces themselves to you, that person just joined your network.

Networking is a great way to improve your business and profitability, but you’ve got to get started. And remember, you’ve got to honestly share your experiences for you to get the full benefit of other business people’s hard-earned experiences.

Rick Cuddihe is president of Lafayette Consulting Co., a PLANET Trailblazer, and he works with landscape contractors to improve their businesses. Contact him at [email protected].