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While COVID-19 has forever changed the business landscape, building and sustaining strong relationships remains a key component of success, especially for startups and businesses that are new to a specific market or industry. With social distancing measure in place, however, the normal routes used to form and nurture these relationships — in-person meetings, coffees and networking events — have all but vanished.

It is therefore vital that business owners find and create new channels to share business know-how and increase their profile in their respective industries. In the age of COVID-19, you can no longer depend on industry events and it is instead up to you to find new ways to connect with others in an authentic way.

If you’re not sure where to start, here are some tips:

1. Play the long game

It’s important to remember that relationships take time to develop and are built on genuine interest and mutual benefit. The key is regular contact, but it does not have to be monotonous. Interactions can vary from a call to say thank you, to introducing a useful contact, sending an interesting article or referring a client. Even asking for advice is a good way to make someone feel important. Don’t leave these things to spontaneity – plan and schedule them.

2. Focus on internet-based social networking

In today’s digital-first world, social network tools are no longer a nice-to-have. Be sure to maintain your presence on sites such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn as you would your appearance – neat and fresh.  It is very often the first impression that a potential customer or contact may have of you.

3. Get a system going

Approach networking for what it is – a crucial business system; just like your accounting, human resources, or production system. This means that you must spend some time thinking about it, working on it and maintaining it. Ask yourself pertinent questions around the goals of your networking efforts and revaluate your approach on an ongoing basis.

4. Start small

Before reaching out to strangers, start with your existing clients, suppliers and business associates, but be sure to add new people over time – a healthy business network has a constant stream of new contacts coming in, as well as having old ones removed as their relevance fades. As a busy business owner, you might not have a lot of time for networking, but start with an hour a week, be consistent and build from there.

5. Get involved

Getting involved with business councils and other networking groups is a great start, as you’ll be able to ‘mingle’ with others on the same journey as you, albeit online or within social distancing measures. Sharing your business knowledge and experience will contribute to the stability and growth of another small-to-medium-sized enterprise (SME), and will no doubt be returned in kind, sometime in the future.

6. Clean up your contact list regularly

Do this by not only removing redundant entries, but also re-prioritising each contact so that you invest most of your time and energy in the most important ones. Ensure that you keep contact details up to date and that you at least have more than one way of connecting in case an email address changes, for example.

About the Author: Gugu Mjadu

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Gugu Mjadu is our Executive General Manager: Marketing. As a daughter to entrepreneurs, Gugu is a passionate about entrepreneurship and supporting entrepreneurs to succeed. She has been working in the entrepreneurship space since 2003. One of Gugu’s proudest moments at Business Partners Ltd was leading the rebranding of the company in 2014. Gugu is interested in the advancement of rural areas and early childhood development. Gugu is our go-to-spokesperson for our SME sector lobbying initiatives, youth and female entrepreneurship, marketing, and mentorship articles.