The word conjures up all sorts of interesting pictures. Men in recliners smoking cigars and making deals in back rooms. MLM dealers cheering at training sessions and trying to recruit everyone who comes within 3 feet of them when they're done. Even computer wizards doing arcane things behind the scenes to make your Internet connection work.
Networking is about connections. For your purposes in business, it's making connections that bring you customers. That's what this article is all about.
A couple of basic working definitions are in order. These will be very specific to the ideas used in this series, and might not be applicable in everyday usage.
Networking, in the business sense, is nothing more complicated than working out ways to get other people to send you business, based on word of mouth or direct introduction.
Networking is the single most cost efficient form of advertising you can plan for. Yes, you may get some, or even a lot, of referrals without making a conscious effort at it. You'll get a lot more if you pay attention to the process.
It not only leads to more business, but it usually means better business. If a customer always pays their bills and never gives you hassles, do you think they're liable to send someone your way that is a deadbeat and a trouble customer ? Not often. The two types don't usually mix, and when they do, the good customer will normally value the relationship too much to jeopardize it with unnecessary bad referrals.
What are the advantages of networking ?
What's in it for you ?
Networking has a lot of advantages over traditional advertising and marketing. These are the most important advantages :
More business : As you develop networking skills and contacts, you'll find that the amount of work you get from referrals accounts for the largest part of your new business. And the most profitable.
When properly handled, networks of contacts have a real tendency to grow. This will mean a constantly growing stream of new customers.
Better business : The business you get from referrals will usually be from happy customers. This will mean that your best customers, those who pay on time and without headaches, will be the ones who send you the additional business. Or those business contacts who value their association with you and respect your integrity and quality of work. Either way, good quality referrals.
Cost savings : As you get more business through referrals, you'll find less and less need to advertise and market your business. This means less of the associated costs. And since you'll be getting better quality business, it means less bad debts.
Time savings : Less need for cold calling and selling of work. Most of the referrals you'll get are for people who are already prepared to pay for your service and simply want to find someonethey can trust to do the job properly. You'll be able to spend your time working at paying projects, rather than chasing questionable prospects.
Picking up the pace : Business slow ? Just starting ? There is no better way to get things going faster than through a solid referral. Or better yet, through a network of them.
Broader range of opportunities : Networking gives you exposure to more people and, as you develop relationships with those people, often leads to early information on new business opportunities. It also opens the option of initiating new ideas where you introduce contacts to make for a whole new business.
Why and how does this work ?
Simply put, people trust the judgment of those they respect. And they will often make decisions, even large ones, on that basis if they feel the other person has better knowledge than them in the area in question.
I know a man who went to follow up on a referral for a roofing job and was greeted at the door with : "Oh yeah, you're the guy who's going to replace the roof !" He hadn't even done an estimate and he had the job !
All based on the strength of a referral. How often have you done this ? Or seen it ? Or even been the one whose recommendation carried that kind of weight ? Probably quite a lot, if you think about it.
The Contact Concept
Simply put, this can be said as :
As you meet people, make a real connection with them. Ask them about themselves. Learn to really *listen*. Find out who their best prospect is and keep your eyes open. Show them respect, and refer them to people who can use their services.
How does this get you what you want ?
People will almost always return a favor. And they tend to assume that anyone who sees the quality of their work and their worth as a person will share the same values. They recommend people who are like themselves.
This will also help you develop a deserved reputation as a helper. That reputation is a major plus when dealing with networking. People like to be associated with those who are seen as being helpful.
Many people in business have a healthy respect for those who have "connections". They are seen as movers and shakers. This is an old and established view that holds up across the business scene no matter what part of the world or what culture you are looking at. The most important thing in having connections is *being* a connection.
There is also simply no better way to develop a relationship of trust than to make the first move. If they don't return the favor, you have lost nothing but a short amount of time. The returns from this type of "Putting the other guy first" thinking are tremendous. The downside is quite small. Try it. You'll be pleasantly surprised.
Keep this in mind as you read the rest of this article. It will make a lot more sense as you see how it's applied. Remember, this is the biggest open secret in networking.
How to make this work for you
This may seem like an obvious thing to you, but it might not be to the people you deal with. You have to be specific when you let people know your ideal customer. Examples are a better way to explain this.
* You sell insurance. Don't say "Everyone's a good prospect." Say something like : "I'm looking for middle income people who have recently bought homes or had children. The types of changes that make them start thinking about the future."
Get the idea ? Sit down right now and come up with a short, clear description of the person who is most likely to want, use, and afford your product or service. Define your ideal customer.
This is a valuable exercise not only for networking, but for your marketing efforts as a whole. You might find that it gives you a clearer focus on where and how you advertise, what you can do to be more efficient, and who you *don't* want as customers.
The purpose of this section will be to explain the various types of networking that are available to you. They are in many ways distinct, but they all succeed well based on the essential components :
Casual : Casual networking can happen anywhere, any time, and for any reason. It is the sort of thing that is spontaneous, usually based on recommendations from friends, and is normally just a matter of being in the right place at the right time.
These types of referrals are based on personal feelings more than anything else. They are better than trying to run down new sales, but they are not normally the highest quality referrals. That will depend on the person you're dealing with, but overall, people think they're doing you a favor by simply sending you work. They forget to think about the payment end of things. Or just what a nuisance their brother-in-law can really be.
These tend to be haphazard things that many people consider an extra, rather than a regular part of doing business. That's a mistake. If you can get to the point where you are selective about which jobs you accept this can be a lucrative source of extra business for you.
First, you have to recognise that it's not going to do you, or your friendships, any good for you to take work that costs you more than it's worth. You'll resent the person who recommended you, and likely make an enemy of the person to whom you were recommended. Be tactful always, but don't take the trouble jobs. Unless they are willing to pay the higher price you need to make it worth the time and effort.
Once you have made that decision, life is much easier.
Get into the habit of making sure that the people you meet know what you do for a living. Don't hit them with commercials during a social gathering, but it never hurts to say something nice about a customer. This gives them a very good image of you, and helps to make sure they remember you.
Perhaps something like answering the question "How are you ?" with "Great ! I've been doing a kitchen remodeling job for a couple this week who are tremendous. This guy knows more funny jokes ... Super people."
What image does this portray ? You respect and like your customers, first of all. Secondly, they like you, which usually means they like your work. Trouble free business, where everyone's happy. Does that sound like someone *you* want to do business with ? I'll bet it does...
It also gets out the line of work you're in without making that an issue. That's secondary in your comment. The main point is how nice the people you are working with are.
You have just created a solid, pleasant mindset for this person concerning you and your business. Yes, it's that quick.
The reverse can also happen if you talk badly about customers.
By thinking of these sorts of things in advance, you have just stepped into the next phase of networking....
Directed/Personal : Still on the seemingly casual side, this is a more deliberate form of networking. It involves being aware of the opportunities involved in making sure people know what you do and have the kind of thinking that will encourage them to send you business.
The person who uses this type of networking is usually known for their contacts, but not in an overt way. They'll often be the ones you hear people talk about when they say "I don't know. Ask Chris. Chris usually knows who to go to..."
This is the person who has made the decision to take the first step and make the referrals to good businesses. They have learned to listen well and identify those businesses. And they treat others with respect and genuine concern for their well being.
They also look for ways to match people up. The first thought in mind when they hear about a problem is "How can I help this person ? Who do I know that could handle this well for them ?"
This type of networking evolves into actually putting yourself in situations where the people you meet are potential sources of referrals. This happens almost naturally, as people see that you do business on a quality level and treat them well. They will be comfortable introducing you to their friends and helping you along just as you have helped them or their friends. At this point, if you are consciously working on these areas, you have moved into the next level of networking skills ....
Planned/Personal : This is the most profitable aspect of personal networking. It is also surprisingly easy to do. The idea here is to make sure that you have a conscious and active plan to make new contacts each week.
Do things that get you out and around new groups of people. Make yourself accessible to them. And remember the basics. Keep in mind that your circle of acquaintances is not necessarily limited to the people you know now.
That last is an obvious statement, but it's one that people forget. If you make a real effort to be helpful or pleasant to people you don't know, they will likely return the favor, and will certainly be more receptive to getting to know you better. You know that already, but do you use that idea to widen your circle of contacts deliberately ?
What kinds of activities are the best for this ? Anything that will put you in a setting where you get a chance to talk with new people.
Some suggestions :
While at these places, keep in mind that you have a purpose of your own in addition to participation in the groups activities. Meeting people who can help you to get more business. The way to do that is to help them get more business.
Some of these activities will overlap with the next type of networking, which is .....
Directed Professional : This type of networking involves making yourself available in professional settings, usually in associations that are related to your field. These are not usually created for the purpose of promoting ones own business, but it is clear that such promotion is standard practice in most of them.
This can be both good and bad. If the association has too many members from the same profession you are in, it can lead to infighting or other unnecessary hassles. Be aware of this before getting into the organization. And if you do find yourself in this situation, make sure you are paying attention for the often hidden opportunities in the setting.
Keep an eye out for the quiet members that seem to be the ones that get things done and don't like the noise. They will often be your best, and most overlooked, allies.
Each setting will be different, but if you remember the basics, [Connect, Respect, Refer], you'll do well in all of them.
The one potential drawback is, again, that these groups are not usually set up with the specific intention of being lead generating groups. That is handled best in the next phase of networking....
Structured Professional : This is active involvement in groups that directly focus on generating or exchanging leads between members. These groups will usually have more specific and limited numbers of members from any one profession.
They will have a structure that is designed to maximize the results for each member. And they will also charge for membership. This is good, in that it keeps out the curiosity seekers, and makes sure that only those willing to carry their end of the deal get admitted.
These groups usually fall into one of three types :
Clubs now will usually have more open membership rules. Fees can still be quite high in some of them. Check with members for their feelings on the value of the club before joining.
The professional networking groups will be more fully explained in the next section.
All of these groups are a step up in value from personal networking. They aren't a substitute for it, but a serious addition to the networkers arsenal. The leads you get from these sources will generally be better leads, because they will be coming from business people. Folks who know the value of a quality customer. And they know the value of having a serious working relationship with other businesspeople.
The next section explains more on professional networking groups, and shows you how to outline a strategy for maximizing your contacts.
Professional Networking Groups : These groups exist for one purpose only. To create an exchange of leads between members. They are structured to ensure that this is effective for all the members.
The basic concept is simple. The group meets at regular times at a specific place, usually once a month or once a week. Each member tells the group exactly what would be their best customer, and they keep an eye out for possible leads for the other members during the course of the week. At each meeting they exchange leads.
These groups are your single best source for referrals.
They limit membership, in most cases, to one person from any specific profession. This alone makes for a more certain result. The better groups also check carefully to make sure that prospective members are businesses operated with integrity and a good record of customer satisfaction. And they require a fee for membership. While the fees aren't usually anything huge, they do discourage the curiosity seekers.
What this all means is that you can be confident in the quality of work that will be done for someone when you refer them to a member of the group. Since each member has the same level of assurance, it is easier for them to send people to YOU.
Professional networking groups will have programs in place to track leads, train people in the skills of networking, and ensure that no member who is contributing to the group fails to also get something tangible back for their efforts. These groups, in effect, guarantee new business.
They also provide the added advantage of the highest quality of new business you will usually see. The people they recommend are their own customers and friends, and they stand to lose if either side is less than happy at the end of the transaction. Thus they will be a bit choosy about who they will refer to you. Nothing is guaranteed in this sort of case, but it certainly increases your odds a lot.
These people are also quite often ready to buy and simply need to decide who to buy from. That's a tough lead to beat.
Planning for contacts
Now that you know the options in networking you can decide how you want to use them to boost your own business.
What kind of business can benefit from networking ? Any. Not all forms of networking are a good fit for each type of business, though.
A local grocer might not be a good candidate for a professional group, but community activities and personal networking can lead to substantial increases in their customer base. Those who provide big ticket items or services, like real estate or construction, or the professions and business service industries, might benefit more from the professional groups. Consider what types of customers you want to add, and determine a best fit based on that.
The object of this section is to show you how to plan out a strategy that will produce results. Measurable increases in business. That means first having a goal. Just how much extra business do you want ? Do you want to cut the time you spend in acquiring new customers and spend that time with your family ? Do you want to cut advertising costs and bad debts to increase your profit margin ? Pick up the rate of growth of your business? Get larger contracts or a more profitable client base ?
You can do all of these and more if you plan appropriately.
Another thing to think about while you do this planning is the "Six Step Rule". This is the idea that every person on the planet is no more than six steps from any other person. ANY other person.
Example : You know a police officer who knows a politician who knows a diplomat who knows the King of Sweden. That's 4 steps.
Now let's say that you have some compelling reason to want to contact the King of Sweden. If you know about the six step rule, you'll at least realize that it is possible to be introduced. You may not know which person will be able to start the process, but if you know it can be done, you'll keep looking until you find them.
Which is going to be easier to arrange - an introduction to the King of Sweden, or to a friend of a friend ? If you approach them right, they take the same effort. You just have to make sure the right people know what you want. To be honest, if the friend of a friend is going to be a paying customer, you'd probably rather have *that* introduction.
You can find these people one of two ways. The first is to figure out the shortest logical route and take that. While you may not know who would be the one that could lead you to the King of Sweden, you can probably figure out who locally is most likely to be able to send you business. This is a focused and deliberate process. It is helped along by having a wide network of personal contacts.
The second is to simply make sure everyone knows what you're looking for in the way of business. A straightforward broadcast approach. Also helped along by a wide range of personal contacts.
The first step in reaching your goal then is to decide to develop as many contacts over time as you reasonably can. Again, stick with the basics repeated in each previous section :
Don't neglect any of the areas without a close examination of the potential in them. Each can be a big boost if you approach them with a specific plan in mind and a good idea of what you want.
To start with, figure out who your personal network of contacts consists of right now. Start with the following memory jogger list. Get a pen and paper out, and write down each answer as it occurs to you. Also, write down each person whose name comes to mind as soon as you think of them if they might be willing to refer you to another person.
RELATIVES WHO IS MY: WHO SOLD ME MY: Parents Milkman House Grandparents Mailman Car/Tires Sister Paperboy (Parents) T.V./Stereo Brother Dentist Fishing License Aunt Physician Hunting License Uncle Minister Business Clothes Cousin Florist Wedding Rings Lawyer Glasses/Contacts Insurance Agent Vacuum Cleaner Accountant Boat Congressman Camper Pharmacist Furniture Veterinarian Office Equipment Optometrist Appliances I KNOW SOMEONE WHO IS A: Nurse Golf Pro Student Fashion Model Security Guard Sheriff Fire Chief Secretary Welder Music Teacher Art Instructor Seamstress Carpenter Pilot/Stewardess Bus Driver Bank Teller Garage Mechanic Editor Lab Technician Printer Restaurant Owner Office Manager Surgeon Librarian Real Estate Agent Interior Decorator Lifeguard Fisherman Waitress Notary Public Antique Dealer Contractor Chiropractor Electrician Motel Owner Dietitian I KNOW SOMEONE THAT: Lives Next Door My Barber/Hairdresser Teaches My Kids Was my Best Man Was My Maid of Honor Repaired My TV Was my Photographer Is My Baby-sitter Was My Teacher Goes Bowling with Me Is my Former Boss Teaches Ceramics Were in my Car Pool Cuts My Grass Painted My House Owns My Apartment Is in Rotary, Lions In My Book Club Dry Cleans Clothes Hung My Wallpaper Sells Me Gasoline Delivers Parcels Sells Ice Cream Was My Navy Buddy
When you finish this, you'll have a list of at least 100 people that you know right now. People you know well enough to give them a business card and mention that you are looking for "X" type of customer.
The first thing you need to do is start asking them what kinds of customers *they* are looking for if they're in business. If they're not, listen for the things they need and think of good people you can refer them to. Make sure they have a business card to hand the person so they know who referred them. This helps both contacts at once.
The next thing is to make a list of all your satisfied customers. The people who you believe would hire you or purchase your services again if they needed them. Get in touch with them. This might be to let them know about a special you're running, to see that things are going well regarding your work, or even just to send them a card thanking them for their past business. Include one or two of your business cards in the note.
You may want to include three or more. Remind them that if they really appreciated the service and value they received from your business, that you would appreciate them passing the cards on to others who might also enjoy the same level of professional service.
Tell them you are available if you can be of any help to them.
Keep this list handy. As you learn more of the networking skills and it becomes more second nature, this will be a very valuable asset.
As you go through these steps, start to pay attention for opportunities to help others along, or to make new contacts. Initially you may want to work on this as part of your normal daily routine. This will help to make it a habit.
Every day, for three weeks, write down the new contacts you made that day. Small or large seeming is not important. Just the contacts. The object here is to develop the awareness involved into a habit. And remember the "Six Step Rule". You never know where that seemingly small contact could lead.
Now, look at your goals again. What kind of people are going to be able to refer you to the types of clients who will help you to reach those goals most effectively ?
What groups do they belong to ? What activities do they participate in ? Where are you most likely to meet them ?
Does anyone on your contact list have these types of contacts ?
This is where the actual development begins. These will be completely new resources in most cases. People you would not have met or done business with without making a conscious effort. You may know a few now, maybe even a lot, but there are always more people who could help you, and whom you could help along.
Think about these people. How do you meet them ?
Look back through the first two sections of this series and you'll find that a lot of possibilities will come to mind. Then brainstorm with a friend. Explain the process and ask for suggestions. No matter how silly they may sound, pursue the ideas until you have exhausted them. It often helps to keep a tape recorder running while you do this. Later you can write down all the ideas that came up, and probably come up with a few extra as you do so.
Follow through on the best of these first. Get out there and make it happen. It's not a difficult process if your main goal at first is to listen. Easiest way in the world to meet new people. Get them talking about themselves and pay attention. The rest will take care of itself.
Make sure you have your description down for what you do and what your best customer would be, in case someone asks. They will, soon enough. Your descriptions should be short and benefit focused. Think of it as a thirty second commercial. Make it sound real, and know it cold, so that when someone asks, you can tell them as though it were the most natural thing in the world. It should be.
Next, as you explore the newer circles of associates you are making, consider the professional networking groups. You might want to jump straight to one of these, since they will also usually help you to learn the networking skills outlined here. Personal instruction is still the very best way to learn.
Look around and see if there is such a group in your area. Ask people about them. See how they like the organization they're with. If you can't find one, consider starting your own. Contact one of the groups and find out what their criteria are and what you need to do to get something going. Being the one to start a group like that is a great way to make sure you expand your circle of contacts fairly quickly.
If you follow these steps, you can achieve your goals for new business and expand beyond them into whole new areas of business. All based on who you know, and more importanly, who you ...
ProfNet is a professional networking group with over 30 chapters throughout the US and expanding to international markets.