By Jason Gillikin | October 23, 2011
It’s a truism of business success that people tend to conduct trade with others with whom they are already familiar and have established trust. Yet a subset of entrepreneurs — the introverts — disdain the hard work of relationship management. As a result, their referral networks remain anemic and their skills get less exposure than they deserve.
Lots of people have five- or 10-point lists detailing the specific steps small business owners must undertake to grow their referral networks. Steps are great — if you’re a recovering alcoholic. For the rest of us, the outlines of a broader strategy should suffice, and with less artifice. Better to roll your own than to connect someone else’s dots.
For example, consider the biggest point of all: Own the fact that relationship management takes time that could be otherwise invested in other activities. An hour a day spent sending cards to new contacts, mailing clippings to acquaintances and having coffee with prospective referral sources undeniably takes time that could have been directed toward direct revenue generation. The payoff, though, is in the long run. Being well-connected leads to opportunities that would otherwise pass you by. Taking the time today to grow a network means that tomorrow you are less likely to have to hunt for new work. The work will come to you, through the network. Referral management is the strongest growth strategy for very small businesses, or B2B enterprises.
As obvious as it sounds, the one and only way you can grow a network is to do the heavy lifting of relationship management. You must start with the basics in place, including a well-designed business card, an up-to-date online presence, a professional brochure and a practiced “elevator pitch” to explain your business and its value proposition to others without sounding unsure, incoherent or apologetic.
It helps to have a good filing system: Keep all the business cards you receive, and start a short dossier for every new contact. Include a correspondence history. Microsoft Outlook’s journal function works well for this, or build your own database to track not just contacts, but your longitudinal history with that contact. Knowing you haven’t chatted with someone in three months helps prompt you to send a postcard or a friendly email.
With the basics established, the next step is to act. The culture of each community is different. In my hometown of Grand Rapids, there is an active chamber of commerce with frequent networking events. There are several BNI chapters and several business-networking MeetUp and LinkedIn groups. It’s a trivial task to get two or three social mixers on the calendar each month — the trick is to make the time to actually attend them and be ready to pitch your products or services.
Social networking for business relies on building relationships with others as referral partners, not necessarily as direct clients. Avoid making a hard sell with everyone you meet. Better to share your business (with its value proposition) and let others make additional inquiries. Your goal is to build long-term networks with whom you can share referrals for business. Pushing hard for the immediate sale threatens to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.
And the “share” part is important — a referral network requires a two-way trade. Don’t be that guy who always accepts referrals but never passes one. The art of success as an influencer is to understand how to connect people together. If you are a plumber and one of your clients comments about her son’s legal woes, refer her to the lawyer who helped you get a commercial contract six months ago.
Of course, you must manage your reputation effectively; don’t refer people to deadbeats simply to “make the referral.” Don’t accept a referral for which you cannot deliver. Don’t waste people’s time with long-shot prospects.
Local clients provide a ready base of work and referrals. Get out there. Join the chamber, join a BNI chapter, attend networking mixers. Do not rely on advertising alone to build a client base: Without actively cultivating a referral network, you’re leaving money on the table.