Regardless of the industry, networking is a must. There are so many career growth benefits to making connections with other people. But when taking care of business in your industry means constantly putting in an effort to stay on top of the competition, things can be a little trickier.
You still need to network. But, if just about every possible connection in the industry is a competitor, it might be hard to figure out a relationship with those same peers. So, how do you go about building those valuable relationships without losing out on your competitive edge?
Step Outside the Industry for Non-competitive Networking Options
There’s plenty of networking potential out there that doesn’t rely on your competition. Networking is really just about meeting new and interesting people, and they aren’t necessarily limited to your own industry. You can learn a lot from those in different fields, so it’s a great way to find mentors and other career resources outside of your field altogether.
Learn from Diverse Perspectives
While they may not be dealing with the same sort of stuff that you are, hearing about what’s going on outside of your industry— their failures and their successes— can help you gain fresh ideas of your own. The knowledge to be gained from other professionals will allow you to get a new perspective.
Also, there are plenty of areas that overlap when it comes to owning and running a business, even if the industry is significantly different. With time, you might find that people outside of your industry can offer feedback, discussion, and perspectives of their own that are incredibly helpful. Think of it like an exchange of ideas, for which you can look for new opportunities and inspiration.
See Also: The Art And The Science Of Networking
How to Network Outside Your Field
But if they’re not in the same industry, how do you even meet them? Professional connections don’t require a professional base to form. You might actually find some of your best connections in settings that aren’t in strictly professional contexts. Consider something that you enjoy, regardless of how related it is to your work or industry.
Maybe participate in a book club, volunteer with a non-profit, or join a different organization that’s related to something you care about deeply. The relationships you make through these activities will form around common interests, and that’s one of the hardest parts of building any relationship. This common ground is also an excellent basis for potential professional conversation and relations going forward.
Network with your Competitors
Just because you can avoid networking with your competition, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you should. Of course you don’t want them stealing customers or using shared information to find an advantage and get ahead, but there’s no guarantee of that. And it could certainly be a two-way street.
In a highly competitive field, there’s a conception that everyone is out to get you, but not unlike the social psychological counterpart, it’s easy to forget that people are probably thinking about you significantly less than you assume they are.
Crafting connections with competitors can be mutually beneficial, and if you happen to work in a particularly prosperous industry, chances are there’s enough work for everyone. Being friendly can also help reduce stress and drain the perceived malice from working in your field, and that’s always a helpful feeling.
Gain Valuable Industry Knowledge
It may seem obvious, but people working in your field, even if they’re a competitor, have lots of valuable knowledge and insight that’s actually applicable to the industry. You might be hesitant to exchange information with a competitor, but having access to a network of professionals that actually understand your industry is very useful.
It’s worth paying attention to what they do from a more clinical perspective. If your competitor is excelling, it’s worthwhile to set aside the competitive lens and consider what they’re actually doing to achieve success.
Conversations, meeting up at industry events, and being generally social can still provide a great deal of information. It doesn’t mean giving away trade secrets is a required prerequisite to building a social and professional relationship with the competition.
Even if you find out about a convention that your competition will attend, you might attend together and go your separate ways for the duration of the convention. Something as small as that could introduce you to a great resource, and it requires very little actual interaction.
The most important thing to consider is that the perception of competition is a limiting factor. It’s certainly true in many industries that two people doing the same business vie for the same customers and clients. This, of course, gives rise to an economic, competitive atmosphere.
And there are certainly times where one person will feel, act on, or say things in an attempt to downplay or interrupt your success. Still, you shouldn’t close your mind to ideas and opportunities simply because the competition is acting a certain way. Some ideas, some actions, and some business decisions are objectively good and useful. So don’t neglect your own success by comparing it against the success of another.
Create a Referral Relationship
Since they’re competitors, they’ll likely work with similar customers. But there doesn’t have to be competition over every single client. Have you ever experienced a time when you have so many projects that you just can’t take on another?
What if your competitor is in this situation and they send the client over to you? It may seem too good to be true, but if you agree to do the same, there’s no reason a friendly competitor couldn’t agree to send some clients your way.
You might not even have a reason to fight over certain customers at all. Even if a competitor might offer very similar services, each company is unique and provides something different.
If you are approached by a customer that seems a better fit for a competitor or that you just can’t take on at the moment, why not send them to the competition? The next time a client comes looking for a solution that a competitor knows you’re more prepared to provide, the favor might just be returned.
Referral relationships such as this benefit professionals in many industries, even highly-competitive ones. Accounting firms can refer to the competition to avoid auditing and consulting within the same client company.
Staffing agencies may turn to each other to find the right fit. Law firms of different specialties recognize when a competitor would be better for certain cases. Competitor referrals benefit everyone, especially the client. And making the client happy, even if you don’t end up with their business, can significantly help your reputation.
It’s a complicated relationship that requires a lot of consideration, of course. And it’s easy to get cold feet with concerns like “what if they don’t return the favor?” The point is, it’s a personal choice and consideration. While most businesses would love to serve as many clients as possible for profit reasons, that doesn’t always align with reality.
Rather than passively losing clients to the competition, it can be beneficial for your business to take control of the situation and direct clients you can’t take on strategically. Being active with a client that requires your services also builds a better relationship with that client. Depending on your industry, that may even lead to future business built on goodwill and professional relationship building.
Networking Outside the Industry or with the Competition Itself
Connecting with other people is essential to evolving professionally and growing a business. While networking in a competitive industry can be a bit more complicated, it absolutely can be done. Professionals outside of the industry have just as much value as knowledgeable mentors and peers. And while you might not think of competitors as good connections, they offer valuable industry knowledge and opportunities for referrals. By adopting a new way of approaching networking, you’ll have no problem tackling it amongst strong competition.
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Author: Alli Cannon
Alli Cannon is the youngest female lawyer to become a lawyer-scientist. She uses her networking skills to create success for her own DWI law practice in Houston, TX.