Money is tight. Cash-flow is a problem. You need more business, but enquiries have slowed. All the experts say you shouldn’t stop marketing, but how do get your name in front of potential clients without spending?
Well, this is exactly the situation I have found myself in over the last year or so and the good news is that it’s possible, but it does require some effort. So, for anyone in the same boat, I though I would share what I have learned. There is quite a bit of info so I have broken it up and will send it out over the next few weeks. To begin with, we’re going to look at network marketing.
“Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap, but by the seeds you plant” Robert Louis Stevenson
What is networking?
Though hardly new – my parents generation used to refer to ‘the old school tie’ and the somewhat sinister overtones of the masons – networking in the 21st century does have a new vigour, with a much less elitist outlook and a more constructive and organised approach – it can appear even scarily regimented to some (rest assured, there are no funny handshakes or rolled-up trouser legs). At the core, however, networking is still about building relationships with trusted partners and using those partners to generate business.
How does it work?
Networking can be a great tool, but it can be misused. While sales are obviously the ultimate objective, selling to the room is not the best way to achieve this. Simply going round a crowd of people and asking them for business is not a long term strategy. The aim, in organised networking, is to farm and not hunt: to look at who you may be able to help, to listen to the people in your business community, to look at ways you can give something first, to build trust and confidence – to plant those seeds. In turn, they will come to believe in you and look for ways to repay your generosity – the harvest.
Why does it work?
This kind of reciprocation works because if someone sees you working hard on their behalf, they will want to help you in return. This is how we develop strong relationships. The goal is to become part of the marketing force of the people you meet and equally to encourage them to become part of your marketing strategy. This ensures you are proactive in looking for opportunities where you can refer business to them instead of relying only on chance opportunities.
We all have a natural, close network of contacts – family, friends, business colleagues and associates – that we have built relationships with. We do this automatically, investing time and energy in these relationships without even thinking about it. Why? Because we want something back – love, friendship, support, confirmation of our worth, to help connect us to the world we live in and not feel isolated. We put effort in to get what we require in return.
Because we share so much with our close network, they will trust our word. If we recommend a film, book, holiday, restaurant, etc., they will be willing to try because they believe we have their best interests at heart and would not do anything to hurt them. It is a referral, though we barely know we are doing it.
In our networking activity, we are trying to recreate this trust and confidence with our business partners.
We will be believed when we recommend someone and that recommendation is then looked on favourably. It goes without saying that your referral partners are equally believed when they talk about you. You could never reach prospects with the same level of authority and positive pre-disposition (did I say that?) in any other way.
Where do you do it?
There are a proliferation of groups and events geared towards helping you network: BNI, B4B, NRG, 4Networking, Business League, to name but a few. Most of the groups will end up costing around £500-1,000 per year, once membership and regular breakfasts/lunches are factored in. There is discipline and procedure in most of these groups, but it is important to have some focus – after all, everyone there is trying to improve their business. And all the organised groups encourage visitors to attend and see for themselves the benefits of membership.
There are numerous ad-hoc events with organisations like the Federation of Small Businesses (a membership support organisation), GWE Business West (you don’t have to be a member, but you pay a little extra for each event if you are not) and Business Link (where events are free) as well as individual businesses organising their own networking and seminars – take a look at the events pages of sites like Business West, Best of Bristol, Bristol Media, Business Scene, etc.
Who should you do it with?
Businesses you have synergy with and people you like. You may share an industry – eg IT expert, cabling, sparky, programmer – or you might share a client base – eg an accountant and a commercial solicitor. You have to like people, because it is hard to work with and recommend anyone who you don’t get on with.
When does it work best?
The business network strategy should be built on the same foundations as your personal network. It works best when you have taken the time and effort to get to know someone, understand their needs and help them.
Should you spend time on someone else’s business when your goal is to increase your own sales? Well, there’s meaning in phrases like: ‘do as you would be done by’ and ‘what ye shall reap, so ye shall sow’ (or something like that!). Surely, it is common sense that if you want someone to do something for you, then you must prove your worth first – otherwise, what is their motive?
This is how we farm, by sowing the seeds, then reaping the harvest.