By Salesforce for SMB

Networking skills: sometimes it feels like you either have them or you don’t. Putting yourself out there at social gatherings comes so naturally to a lot of folks, while others struggle when forced to strike up conversations with strangers.

Networking can be especially overwhelming for small business teams, who usually don’t have a safety net of colleagues at networking events — or a big company name in their back pockets. Yet networking has clear benefits that can help your company and career.

Not only does it expand your network of contacts, it introduces you to new opportunities, advice and opinions. Put in a little practice, and networking makes you more visible and even helps boost your self confidence.

Next week is Dreamforce, Salesforce’s annual user and developer conference, and we often hear that it’s overwhelming for small businesses to connect among the tens of thousands of attendees on site. So here are seven tips for small business leaders to use networking to your advantage — at Dreamforce and beyond.

Set a Goal
What will networking success look like for you? Perhaps it’s one or two solid contacts you enjoyed speaking to and look forward to seeing again at future events. Perhaps it’s news of a job opening at an up-and-coming company. Or perhaps it’s learning about a new product or resource for your own small business. Whatever you’re looking to do, spell it out so you can work toward it.

Make Contacts in Advance
Events these days often have a social component to them — like an attendee community portal or Facebook page. Make friends and get to know people ahead of time, so you’re ready for a face-to-face meeting at the event. Go ahead and put yourself out there: Post a message letting others know you’ll be at the event and want to make new contacts. Odds are, there are plenty of others looking to do the same.

Bring a Wingman
Bringing a buddy or colleague to the event is a great confidence booster. Not only is it one other person you know in the room, but your friend may be able to use his or her connections to make an introduction to someone else. Just be careful not to lean on your buddy too much; otherwise you’ll defeat the whole purpose of networking.

Educate Yourself
What issues and trends affect your business or industry on a regular basis? Before you attend an event, be sure to check out some new thinking and give yourself some talking points. TED Talks, Sal Chats, and industry podcasts like How I Built This offer thought-provoking presentations designed to encourage ideas, innovation… and great discussions.

Look Across, Not Up
A lot of people think of networking as introducing yourself to someone in a position of power — yet those “up” interactions are soon forgotten and likely won’t get you anywhere. A better bet is to “network across,” or meet people in positions similar to yours. Share stories, find commonalities, and form a bond. These lasting connections are more likely to help you down the road, and let’s be honest: they’re a lot more fun.

Be Authentic
Arguably the most important aspect of any networking conversation is authenticity. Be yourself and try to connect with people about real things that have meaning for you. There’s no need to fake it until you make it; even just one new connection is one more than you arrived with… and that one authentic conversation will prove much more helpful than just stating your name and credentials.

Practice Ahead of Time
Even if you do all of the above, you still might not feel completely comfortable schmoozing at an industry conference or event. But you can make the process less stressful by attending networking events on a regular basis. There’s a reason they say practice makes perfect, so also try flexing your communication skills back at the office; it’s as easy as striking up a conversation with a new colleague in the break room.

Now Get Started: Network Like a Pro
Ready to practice networking like a pro? Grab a free Expo pass to Dreamforce and join us November 6-9 in San Francisco! Can’t make it this year? Check out our other Salesforce networking events, coming live to a city near you.