Everyone raves about the benefits of networking to market and expand business opportunities. Typically, networking includes activities such as reaching out to other business owners by attending networking meetings or meeting people one-on-one, sharing goals, and creating a sense of camaraderie rather than competition.

Unfortunately, the new and perhaps naïve entrepreneur may jump into networking without adequately assessing the real costs and benefits of these potential relationships. There is a downside to networking; some of it is subtle so that it is easily missed until it is too late, and some of it is downright outrageous.

For example, you’re at a conference discussing new ideas in a break-out session and you mention that you’re considering writing a uniquely formatted booklet to describe your special services. Shortly after this meeting, you receive a booklet in a similar format describing the services of a person who was in your break-out session.

How could you have prevented this networking nightmare? How does an entrepreneur know when he or she is cultivating valuable connections or just wasting time with needless phone and e-mail contacts? How can a new business owner avoid other potential nightmares, such as having a contact:
• Steal your ideas?
• Court your clients?
• Take advantage of opportunities offered to you?
• Spread rumors about you or your business?
• Mislead you about possible opportunities?

Here are 10 tips to help you be on the lookout for potential networking problems:
1. Be clear in your own mind what you expect from networking. For example, do you want information from other owners or do you simply want others to know about your services? Establish your goals in terms of the type of group and amount of time and money you want to devote to networking activities, since some groups require a substantial commitment of both money and time.
2. Identify information that you are willing to share in a general way with others. For example, if you are in the design phase of a product, that is not the time to talk about the product. If asked a question that you don’t want to answer, say something like, “I’m not ready to talk about this topic right now.”
3. Protect your client or customer list. Each name is a source of potential business for someone else. Be alert for subtle inquiries such as, “Who did you say your new clients are?” Respond by saying, “I didn’t mention anyone by name. I’m very respectful of my customer’s privacy.”
4. Keep your financial status to yourself. It is no one else’s business if you just got a great loan or if you just lost your biggest client. You are the best protector of your privacy.
5. Know e-mail etiquette and protect confidentiality. Be careful of what you say and how you say it to a member of a networking group. A confidential message or client address, phone number, or e-mail address may be forwarded to all members of a networking group and then redirected to others you do not know.
6. Check out those who want to work with you. Ask for references, contact the Better Business Bureau, and use the Internet to check the accuracy of information given. Unfortunately, some people in networking groups stretch the truth when attempting to get business. They promise what they can’t deliver.
7. Copyright titles or trademark products that reflect your creativity and uniqueness so that others resist violating your rights. Put your name, company, and logo on all materials you send to others. Note that materials may be used only with permission.
8. Be assertive when you discover that someone is badmouthing you, lying, or spreading rumors. First ask the person about the incident, discuss any evidence you have, and inform him or her that networking is based on mutual trust and positive business ethics. If the situation persists, inform the person that you will bring up the matter with others in the networking group. If you don’t belong to a group, tell the person that you would consider legal action if the situation continues.
9. Look before you leap into new ventures. For example, you are in an informal networking meeting with another business owner. This person generates many ideas and possibilities, all of which require time, energy and money to explore, and take your focus away from your own business. This is the time to do a cost/benefit analysis to determine if this new venture is cost effective.
10. Be sure to ask about possible costs if a new networking friend offers to help you with a project. For example, a publicity agent suggests a meeting to discuss podcasting. You think it is an informal, information-sharing meeting but you get billed for $600.00. Before attending any meeting, ask, “Why are we meeting and are there any costs involved?”

Once you’re aware of your networking goals and the practices needed to protect your intellectual property and products, here are five tips to help you get the most out each meeting with your networking group:
1. Be selective. Identify one to three groups that are most advantageous for your business. Some groups are too large, expensive, and not aligned to your target market. Some groups met on a weekly basis while others gather on a monthly basis. Some networking groups are geared for specific members such as women or executives.
2. Go to meetings with a list of questions, needs, goals, or concerns.
3. Prepare for the meeting. Practice your 30 second “elevator” speech to promote the benefits of your business and services, bring business cards, and read about the organization on internet. Call a member to talk about the benefits of joining.
4. Bring something to give away, for example, promotional items like pens or checklists.
5. During the meeting, personally talk to at least 5 people and exchange business cards.

Follow these guidelines and you’ll be ready to enjoy the many benefits of networking while avoiding its potential pitfalls.

Author's Bio: 

Geri Markel, Ph.D. is an educational psychologist who has co-authored several books applying behavioral research to learning and performance. She developed Managing Your Mind® Coaching & Seminars to help individuals reach their Performance Breakthrough Zone. Geri’s clients include Pfizer, Ford Motor Company, Domino’s Pizza, University of Michigan School of Dentistry, and AT&T. Learn more about her tools for optimal performance and productivity at http://www.managingyourmind.com or at (734) 761-6498.