What determines the success of your screen printing business? You might say it’s the ability to turn out the best prints on time to meet your customers’ needs and their deadlines. And while those are important parts of a successful screen printing business, there’s another factor that’s just as important: Connections. Your ability to connect with the people who need your services plays more of a role in building a successful business than your screen printing know-how.

One proven way to grow your business by building connections is networking. Networking is intimidating for nearly all business owners, and if you’re not networking the right way, your efforts could be wasted. With some smart networking strategies, you can grow your list of business contacts and your business. Here are some steps to get you started:

Step 1: Choose the right networking groups and events for you

Great networking starts with research. Look into networking groups and events in your area. Chamber of Commerce groups, young professionals’ networks and community groups like Rotary and the Lions Club are popular networking options for companies trying to build a name in their community. Familiarize yourself with different groups, their events and their members to determine whether those groups and events will connect you with the right business contacts.

Step 2: Have a plan

When you attend a networking meeting or event, know what your goals are. Those goals can be as specific as talking to a handful of people you feel could help you grow your business or your network, or as general as introducing yourself to 15 new people. If you’re brand new to an organization or event and don’t know where to start, a simple entry plan is to introduce yourself to the event organizer or chair. They’ll be welcoming and help connect you with people they believe are a good fit for you. Many organizations also have “ambassadors” or welcoming committees who are charged with helping new members make connections.

Step 3: Stay approachable

The number one reason people hate networking is that it’s intimidating to walk into a roomful of strangers and strike up a conversation. At a networking event, there are a few keys to starting those conversations. First and foremost, stay approachable. Keep your right hand free to shake hands and keep your cell phone in your pocket or in your purse. As you talk to people, smile and look engaged. An easy opener is to introduce yourself and ask the other person how long they’ve been a part of the organization.

Step 4: Share, don’t sell

The biggest mistake you can make in networking is to come on too strong with selling. Of course, everyone at a networking event has a product or service they’re hoping to sell. But networking is about building relationships that could lead to sales, and hopefully a long-term business relationship. By focusing too much on your products or businesses, the people you meet will feel like they’re being oversold and won’t be able to get to know you or get a feel for why they should trust you as a business partner. Listen as much as you talk, and ask open-ended questions of the people you talk to. Taking the time to learn more about their businesses and their needs will help you to know how to best serve them as future customers. It also will help the people in your business network feel that you care about their business and the success of their companies, not just making sales. That will make them more inclined to do business with you, or send referrals your way, in the future.

Step 5: Be memorable

You don’t want your business card to get lost in the stack of cards that people at a networking event leave with. This is where screen printers have an advantage: you make promotional products that are designed to get businesses noticed. Rather than taking a traditional business card, take one of your small promotional products that can be handed out. Not only will this save your card from getting lost in the shuffle, it also will showcase some of what you can do.

Step 6: Follow up

Networking doesn’t end when the networking event is over. A big portion of networking is in the follow up. After you leave an event, take the time to organize the business cards you received and take notes. Create a list of priority people to follow up with. That might mean “liking” people’s businesses on Facebook or connecting on LinkedIn. You might want to make a follow-up phone call, send an email or request a meeting. If someone expressed interest in your products or services, you might want to send some of your promotional materials, including a note about meeting them and suggesting products you think would meet their needs — proceed carefully here, however; this is where you don’t want to sell too hard, so only reach out with a sales pitch to people who specifically requested more information or hinted heavily that they were interested in your products and services.

Step 7: Be patient

People often get frustrated with networking. It can seem like you’re putting a lot of time in for little reward. The truth is that networking has been shown to pay off for growing a business, but it can take two or three years to build a network that reaps regular rewards. Stick with your networking, and you will see how it can help you grow your screen printing business over time.