Many of us fear the thought of “networking.” The whole idea of chatting up people we don’t know is awkward and time-consuming. And for the most part, we might get a great collection of business cards, but the whole process is random; we end up connected with people who don’t truly understand what we need to be more successful in our business.
A better way to create mutually beneficial business relationships that can help you grow your business is to focus on creating a pro-to-pro network that actually puts you in touch with like-minded professionals who understand your challenges and can support your efforts. Customers are always a great source for referrals, but when another trusted vendor recommends you to one of their clients, they immediately validate you and create an opportunity for you to get work without having to do any marketing. People in the field services industry are constantly asked if they know someone who can perform this or that. If they know you do great work and are trustworthy, they can recommend you and deliver a customer primed to do business. It also gives them a new way to deliver value to their own customers.
Even though many of us spend our days focused on solving customer problems and organizational issues, the real work we do is all based on relationships. If we can demonstrate competence, integrity, and a willingness to truly connect with the people we work with, it creates positive results in the form of goodwill, loyalty, and support. When we spend time developing relationships with other professionals in our field, we have a real-time sounding board and support system that can help us figure things out when we’re stuck, connect us with customers through word of mouth, and give us perspective about how we run our business. Relationships are critical to everything we do, and when we are good at relationships, we can use them effectively in building our network.
It sounds great; a bunch of people who understand the trials of building and running a successful business, who you can bounce ideas off, and who sends potential customers your way. In turn, you do the same for them, and it’s like you all have a built-in growth tool. The reality is that you have to work at it to create and sustain a successful pro-to-pro network. Here are some things you can do right now to get started:
How to build a professional network
Create a structure that works for colleagues and customers
Imagine this scenario: a homeowner wakes up to discover his toilet has flooded the bathroom floor overnight. His first call is to a plumber; it ends up being a quick fix. To do it, however, the plumber needs to cut into the drywall to access the pipe. Rather than wait for the customer to freak out when he sees a hole in the wall, the plumber preps him by saying, “I’m going to need to cut a 2’x2′ chunk out of the wall, but I work with a very competent drywall installer who can fix it easily, and because he and I work together, I can get him here today and he’ll give you 20% of his regular price.” That plumber just solved two customer problems and two business are going to get paid that day.
Think of the opportunities you’ll have to get your name in front of customers who are in need of your service, and the recurring potential for being put in touch with those people because you’re also doing the work to get colleagues gigs as well. The impact of your network gives you opportunities that others won’t have because you are being delivered directly to a paying customer by a fellow professional who vouches for your work.
The potential monetary rewards are great, especially because your investment in building these relationships is relatively small. While you still need to maintain your regular marketing efforts, you should recognize that when other professionals are sending you business, it can almost be considered like incremental revenue on top of what you’re already earning through regular customer acquisition efforts.
Use a smart strategy for creating the right network
To put yourself in the best possible situation, you have to first know “the guy” who gets the business. You actually have to know a lot of guys who get business, and you yourself need to be “a guy” who can get business for others. Remember that being successful is mostly about preparing to be successful, and a few helpful tips:
An important piece of this is to pick the right people to be in your network. Avoid competitors. They can still be your friends, and while many are certainly good people, they aren’t going to send any business your way. Look for complementary businesses and get to know those owners. If you’re an HVAC guy, maybe you want to connect with plumbers or air duct services. Find ways to make the relationship win-win for each other, and for your customers.
Network to build a network
Reach out to people by every means necessary. You can do this through social media (retweet and like the things your colleagues post – it may sound like high school all over again, but it works), online discussion forums (get in there and ask if people want to partner), and local clubs (your Chamber of Commerce most likely hosts mixers and open houses frequently, which you should make a habit of attending) are all opportunities to connect with people you may want to include in your network.
Get out there
If anyone is going to recommend you, they have to know and trust you. In addition to online efforts, there are all kinds of things you can do to get in front of potential supporters. Go door-to-door among your work neighbors or host an open house at your office; invite people to come in for some free food and to see your work. Stop in on businesses and make phone calls. It may not sound like fun, but remember that in addition to building your own network, you’re also helping others build theirs.
Pay it forward…and backward
Remember that a network is kind of kind of like a loop, and you have to keep feeding it in order for it to feed you. So with your own network, you need to be providing value as much as you’re getting value. It’s important that you’re giving leads to your colleagues and helping them build their own businesses. There are a few key ways to do that:
Give the people in your network the ability to offer discounts for your services on your behalf. This is will be a huge value to the customer, which will then be an incentive to work with you. It also makes your colleagues look good because they delivered a deal to their customer. The customer, of course, loves it because they get a sweet deal and didn’t have to waste any time looking for a vendor.
If you develop relationships with these other businesses and they drive business your way, make sure you show your appreciation. Showing up at their place of business with a gift basket or a gift card for a nice restaurant is a nice way to demonstrate that you value what they’ve done for you. These aren’t kickbacks and don’t present a conflict of interest; they’re just a friendly gesture that goes a long way towards cementing a successful and long-term relationship.
It’s one thing to just say, “Yeah, I know a guy who can do this job.” It’s of far more value, however, if you can connect the customer and vendor with actual details about a potential job. It prepares both parties and offers context to prepare the customer and your colleague for engaging.
As the song says, we all get by with a little help from our friends. If you dedicate time to building a pro-to-pro network and foster good relationships within that network, you will develop opportunities to generate new customers and in turn, become a resource for other professionals. The network effect will provide customers with access to preferred vendors and will give you a new, robust channel for new business.