As an entrepreneur, one of your primary goals is to continue to fill your pipeline with new business. One of the most cost-effective ways to do this — particularly for a smaller business — is through networking.

Before you can begin to be an effective networker, it is important to identify some of the strengths and skill sets that you bring to the table as a business professional:

* Are you a people person?

* Do you enjoy public speaking?

* What kind of professional background do you have?

* How long have you lived in the area where you do business?

* What other natural skills do you have (such as time management, organisational skills or keeping clients focused) that may not fall directly into your business expertise but are valued by people?

One of the biggest roadblocks to networking is the fear that you do not have the personality for it.

In fact, a question I get asked quite frequently is: “How do I network if I’m not a naturally outgoing person?”

The truth is, even people who are not gregarious or outgoing can form meaningful relationships and communicate with a little practice.

Here are some ways to get started:

1. Become the host

Many techniques make the networking process markedly easier, especially for those who consider themselves a bit introverted.

For example, volunteering to be an ambassador or visitor host for a local business networking event can be a great way to get involved without leaving your comfort zone.

If you are wondering how being a host can help your introversion, just think about it: When you have guests at your house or office, what do you do?

You engage them, make them feel comfortable and perhaps offer them something to drink.

What you don’t do is stand by yourself in the corner thinking about how much you hate meeting new people.

Try it! You will find it much easier to meet and talk to new people.

2. Build your social capital at your desk

Thanks to technology’s continuing advances, you can also network without ever leaving your desk.

Online networking is a very effective way to connect with potential clients and referral sources.

It gives you broad reach with low cost and effort.

What online networking does not do, however, is provide a forum where relationships can deepen.

The nature of the medium strips away essential communication cues such as facial expression, tone of voice and body language. 

It is usually better to use online networking with people only after you have established a relationship with them by traditional means.

To develop trust, respect and true friendship, it is hard to beat in-person conversation and the occasional handshake or pat on the shoulder.

3. Offer advice to break the ice

In face-to-face networking, if you are not sure how to break the ice, start by offering some free professional advice.

Let’s say you are a real estate agent talking with someone at a networking event who, although is not ready to buy a home today, is heading in that direction.

You could say something like this: “Well, I know you’re not interested in buying a home right now. But when you’re ready to start looking, I’d highly recommend checking out the north part of town.

“A lot of my clients are seeing their homes appreciate in the 10 to 20 per cent range, and the city is building another middle school in that area.”

See how it is possible to offer some value-added advice without coming across as too “hard sell”?

A statement like this acknowledges that you are not trying to push him, while still demonstrating your expertise. 

This model works for just about anyone in a service-based industry in which knowledge is the main product.

If you play your cards right, who do you think your contact will go to when he is in need of your kind of service?

When it comes to building rapport and trust, few things do it better than solid, helpful information provided out of a genuine concern for the other person.

4. Be a trusted source for quality referrals and contacts

Another way to ease into networking is to provide a referral or contact.

This could be a direct referral (someone you know who is in the market for another person’s services) or a solid contact (someone who might be helpful down the road).

Let’s say you are networking, and you run into a person who owns a printing shop.

You would like to help him out, so you say: “Jim, I don’t know of anyone who’s actively in the market for printing services right now, but I do have someone whom I think could be a big help to your business.

“A lot of her clients need business cards, flyers and things like that printed. I think you both would really hit it off.”

You see how easy that was?

You stated right up front that you do not know what will come of the contact.

But you then followed up by saying you do think this person could help and briefly described how. Chances are this will sound like a good idea to your new contact.