Few people dispute the value of having a network of contacts who can feed you with a steady flow of decent business opportunities. It saves time and effort in the sales process and is generally a much more pleasant way of growing your business. One business owner I met recently commented that, when analysing their sales figures, the value of the referred sale compared to those via their website was almost 10% more. They also said they found the internet-generated customers more fee-sensitive whereas those who came via a referral were less likely to haggle and valued their offering more.
Your network should be something that sticks with you over time, and whatever that throws at you. It should be something you offer value to as well as draw value from. So if you are starting out on the road to build yourself a strong referral network, here are some thoughts on where to find those vital valuable contacts and also what to do with them.
1. Focus on an industry
Those who are seen to be a specialist or expert in a specific industry are often able to command higher fees, attract plenty of new business leads and build a loyal customer base. Their customers are happier to pay a premium for that specialist’s industry knowledge, insight and expertise. It is often perceived that their advice, products or services have greater relevance and customisation to those within that industry sector. So consider if your business could harness additional benefit by becoming an expert or a specialist provider in this way. Which industry sectors suit your commercial offering or which naturally interest you?
To be a real specialist you need to have your finger on the pulse of everything that is happening in that industry. You need to build credibility and a track record. So immerse yourself in the sector to amass valuable knowledge, meet useful contacts and spot potential leads. Think of:
- Attending the industry trade events such as exhibitions, conferences and seminars
- Reading the key trade press in that sector, either printed or digital, on a regular basis
- Following the key players (both suppliers to the industry and those within it) on social media or via Google Alerts
- Joining communities and smaller interest groups within the industry on social media or, better still, face-to-face
Use the insight you glean to spot trends and tailor what you do to be more relevant and specific to the challenges and opportunities that businesses in that industry face. You can highlight your expertise and specialist knowledge through a wide variety of communications channels:
- Twitter, Facebook, Social Media, Google+ pages and group discussions
- Press articles or interviews
- Speaking opportunities – seminars, workshops, conferences
- Commissioning research on an issue in the sector, the results of which you can use for PR
Your credibility will be helped by you not blatantly selling, but instead being an authority on a number of issues affecting the industry. Be seen to offer solutions or support that tackle these and, if you can demonstrate your interest and passion for the industry, you’ll soon draw a loyal following. Industry specialisation can often bring a better return on investment than a generalist approach as it enables you to focus your time, effort and money. Done well you can soon become a very big fish in a small pond and outshine all the competition.
Don’t worry if you struggle to think of an industry sector, consider instead what other groups of customers you excel at serving. Become an expert in their needs and situation in life as the benefits work in the same way.
2. Let others guide you to great networking groups
You only have so much time for networking and developing your contact base so you want to invest it wisely to get the best return for your efforts. Ask around for the groups that your current contacts value and explore why. Look beyond the obvious ones to special interest forums, charities, breakfast or lunch clubs, Chambers of Commerce, trade associations and professional bodies etc. Which groups contain more of the people who could buy your products or services? What do you have to do to get involved in them?
You may need to try to test a few groups to see which holds the most potential. Once you’ve discovered a good one then stick with it. Referrals will start to flow when you become a familiar face within the group. So be an active member and, if possible, offer some of your expertise for the greater good of the group. This will enable people to see, understand and grasp your business offering and proposition that much more easily.
3. Think about specific individuals who would add value to your network
If you sketch out on a piece of paper the people with the capability to refer business to you, you’ll probably be pleasantly surprised how many there are. You may also have an idea about specific individuals you’d like to include in your network or receive suggestions from others along the way. There are a whole host of ways to get in touch with these people ranging from meeting them at events and following them up, using social media, asking your contacts to introduce you or sending them something by way of warming them up to an introductory call from you. If you are going down this route, you need to consider what value you can bring to this person so they are happy to include you in their network. Also, don’t forget to check them out on LinkedIn and see how far removed you are from them and who could introduce you.
4. Don’t forget family and friends
You shouldn’t underestimate your family, friends and other social contacts in this context. Some business people are slightly nervous about mixing business with pleasure, saying that they are afraid to damage the relationship. But in reality you will probably take even greater care of those business opportunities that can come from this family and friends.
Now let’s move on to how you can stimulate the leads you need for your business from your network
5. What have you done for me lately?
No this isn’t what you should say to your contacts; it is however what they may be thinking about you. If you have fed those in your network with plenty of leads, helped them with issues they’ve struggling with, given them valuable insight or knowledge etc they will feel compelled to reciprocate. This requires you to keep in touch with them and be interested in what is happening in their life and business. Let your contacts do more of the talking to uncover business opportunities that you can help them with.
6. Do people really know what you do?
Your contacts may have a rough idea about what you do, but do they recognise the needs and issues you solve with your expertise or business offering? When you are with contacts, try to subtly educate them on the typical things you help with and the positive outcomes your customers/clients get from your involvement. This is more likely to stick in a contact’s mind rather than you reeling off a list of services to them. Try and explain the triggers that point to your expertise or business offering so, when a contact comes across a friend or business contact facing that issue, they automatically recommend you. And be prepared to expand your knowledge of your contacts’ triggers so you can reciprocate and help them.
7. Be sure you’re a safe pair of hands
If you want contacts to refer time and time again, you have to do an excellent job with the leads they bring to you. That includes, not only delighting these customers, but also keeping your contact in the communication loop so they know their professional judgement in recommending you isn’t being undermined. Perfect the art of under-promising and over-delivering (rather than the other way around) so you always exceed expectations and deliver a high quality output. And don’t forget to thank your contacts for any leads they pass your way.
8. Keep in touch
We are all very busy and it’s easy to drop out of touch with a contact for several months. During that time, they or you may be working on a business opportunity that you could both benefit from. So diarise ways to keep in regular contact with your contacts. You don’t want to be continually in their face, but you do want to remain on their radar. There are numerous keeping in touch ways to choose from. Pick channels of communication they most engage with and also vary them to remain fresh and interesting. Try using social media updates (responding to theirs as much as broadcasting your own), send them valuable insight/stuff, pass business opportunities their way, give them special offers, ring them up for time, meet for coffee/lunch/ glass of wine etc. Don’t forget to sprinkle in face-to-face contact as it enables a greater dialogue between the two of you from which business opportunities are more likely to flow.
You don’t have to be an extrovert or ooze charisma to establish a rock solid referral network. You do, however, have to have a genuine interest in the people in your network and want to support them. This is one of the reasons why it’s sensible to go for quality rather than quantity when building your network. You want to be with these people for the long-run and, if you flit in and out of your relationship with them, they’re unlikely to send decent business opportunities your way. Do stick with people even when they change roles, as the next job down the line may well need your services/products. It may also mean they become a valuable source for another contact in your network. And finally, be patient – rock solid referral networks take time to build and if you’re expecting sales to come straight away you risk showing this in your attitude and actions. People will sense your impatience and be put off.
Let me know in the comments below, if you have any tips you’d like to share for creating a great referral network!