The Four Streams of Your Networking River
In the same way, when you’re developing your networking strategy, you need to think of your ideal network as a broad, powerful
Dr. Ivan Misner
In this chapter we talk about four of these streams, the four we consider particularly important to having a well-developed referral network. We don’t claim these are the only ones that exist. Some networkers, depending on the nature of their business and their own proclivities and experience, prefer to identify other kinds of organizations, such as women’s networking groups and community service organizations, as distinct types. To simplify our discussion, however, we have included these in either the casual-contact or the strong-contact category, depending on their structure and practices.
You’ve probably attended meetings of some general business groups, and in the course of these meetings you’ve probably met many businesspeople from a wide variety of professions, including competitors in your own field. Such groups typically meet once a month and hold mixers where people mingle and meet informally. There often are guest speakers, special presentations and activities such as breakfast meetings designed to facilitate networking. They are devoted mostly to discussion of community affairs, political issues and local business. The primary example of a casual-contact networking organization is the local chamber of commerce.
Because casual-contact organizations are not tailored primarily to help you get referrals, you have to exert some effort to make them work for you. For example, you can volunteer to be a chamber ambassador, a position that doesn’t cost you much time but puts you in touch with a lot of people. Sitting on committees helps you get to know members better, especially the ones who devote the most time to the organization and are therefore good candidates to become diligent, conscientious members of your own network. Most of all, you need to attend regularly so you can take advantage of every opportunity to strengthen the relationships you form.
Professional associations have been around longer than almost any other kind of group, from the medieval guilds to crafts associations to today’s professional groups and industry associations. Membership in a group is usually from one specific industry, such as banking, accounting health services, legal services or architecture. Some groups limit membership to their own industry; others are open to all, with vendors and others becoming associate members rather than full members. The primary purpose is for the exchange of information and ideas, whether intra-industry or inter-industry.
Keep in mind, however, that you’re not the only person to think of crashing the party. Some of your competitors have probably joined as well, and for the same purpose. Full members sometimes do not like being “sold” by associate members, so be careful in your approach. Remember that a master networker seeks first to help others. Go in with the idea of helping people solve problems and improve their business. By making friends first you will gain customers later, even if they are not the same people.
The other part of your knowledge network should be groups in your own industry. Yes, you’ll be rubbing elbows with competitors, but there are advantages. You’ll stay abreast of developments in your industry, find out what your competitors are up to, study the competition’s brochures and presentations, and discover opportunities to collaborate with competitors whose specialties are different from yours or who need help on a big project.
Networking is as old as civilization, and it changes and adapts as the community changes; so, naturally, you would expect networking to show up on the web as soon as the world’s second computer went online. This is pretty much what has happened in the last several years. Online business networking systems such as Ecadamy.com, Linkedln.com and Facebook.com put businesspeople in instant communication with one another, making it easier than ever before to pass along information, referrals and time-sensitive opportunities, especially over a great distance.
The main thing that online networking lacks is, with some exceptions, the face-to-face interaction that is so important to developing and deepening relationships. Although teleconferencing is growing in popularity and technical sophistication, there’s nothing like sitting down to breakfast or lunch with a contact to deepen a friendship or a business relationship. For this reason, we recommend online networking as an adjunct to traditional networking, to be used after the relationship is established and with the purpose of getting in touch quickly and passing referrals efficiently. Online networking is hard to beat when used for purposes best suited for communicating ideas, sharing knowledge and raising your visibility to a larger group of contacts.
Organizations whose purpose is principally to help members exchange business referrals are known as strong-contact referral groups. Some of these groups, BNI for example, meet weekly, typically over breakfast; others meet every two weeks or monthly. Most of them limit membership to one member per profession or specialty. If you’re a CPA and join a local BNI chapter, then you’ll have locked out the competition by joining; no one else can fill the CPA category in that chapter. Each weekly meeting usually lasts about 90 min., and you might want to stay another half hour or so to network afterward and solidify your relationships with other members of the group.
1) You need to have a schedule that lets you attend most or all meetings. Regular attendance is vital to developing a rapport with the other members of the group and getting to know their businesses. Otherwise, how can you generate a referral for someone if you don’t know him or what he does? How is anyone going to get to know you better and generate referrals for your business? Attending every weekly meeting needs to be a priority. The good news is that since most of these meetings are held in the early morning, they won’t intrude too much on your day.
2) You have to buy into the team approach that defines these organizations. You need to feel comfortable going to a networking event and being on the lookout for prospects who can help other members of your group. This can be counterintuitive for some, since businesspeople usually are focused on their own business. But if you’re a real-estate agent and you find out that someone just moved into a new home and is no longer in need of your services, you need the presence of mind to ask about other areas in this person’s life where someone else in your group could help (e.g., electrician, handyman, lawn service). This can be a little tricky at first, but the group will be watching what you do—take our word for it. If you’re not fulfilling either of those two requirements, either you’ll be asked to leave or referrals will stop coming your way.
A good strong-contact networking group typically tracks the amount of business that is conducted. This is an important measurement of its effectiveness. BNI, for example, tallies up the total number of referrals from the previous week, the amount of revenue attached to that total, and a couple of other metrics that give visitors and members alike a sense of how the chapter is progressing. This is vital information; it tells you what kind of return you can expect on your investment. When you consider potential referral groups, find out how they plan to measure your return on investment.
Another type of strong-contact group is the service club. Unlike the more business-oriented groups discussed previously, the service group is not set up primarily for referral networking; its activities are focused on service to the community. However, as a practitioner of the Givers Gain philosophy, the master networker is a natural fit. In the course of giving time and effort to civic causes, you form lasting relationships that broaden and deepen your personal and business networks. If you go in not to benefit but to contribute, the social capital you accrue will eventually reward you in other ways and from other directions—business among them.
Friends on the Big River
Developing and coordinating the four major streams of your networking river is essential for getting the maximum amount of referral-based business possible. Why? Because it gives you many different ways of making new contacts, puts you in touch with other people’s networks, and multiplies the power of your networking by making you the link between a number of diverse networks—professionals, salespeople, trade workers, retail business owners—whose combined reach is broader and richer in coverage than any single group. It will reach beyond the horizon and from the ground to the sky.
Now, here’s one more element in this river that we didn’t mention earlier, one in which you will find yourself in mutually beneficial contact with more than any other part of your network. Close around you, like the knights around King Arthur’s Round Table, will be your most trusted and intimate friends, colleagues and family members. The most successful networkers usually have six to 12 people in their inner circle, relationships that have come from any or all of the streams of their network. The deep relationships with these strong contacts bring them most of the business they need and provide a steady, high-quality supply of new contacts and prospects. Referrals from outside this inner circle are simply icing on the cake.
Once you’ve established this inner circle, make it a priority to meet with a member of that group at least once every other month. That way you won’t lose touch with any of them, and they’ll always be on top of what’s going on with your business. MF
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