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Don't Sell to Your Network--Educate Them

Educate your network on your product and your customers so they can help expand your client base.

When entrepreneurs try to develop a qualified, consistent and dynamic circle of networking partners who are going to provide them with referrals for new business, their tendency is often to "sell" those individuals on their product. It's as if by showing them all the finer points of what's available, convincing them to try their product and closing the sale with their networking partners, they'll somehow realize an influx of referrals.

I don't disagree that in order for the members of your networking group to refer you effectively they must be familiar with what you have to offer; however, it's important to resist your urge to sell to group members. What do I mean by that?

Educating your networking group's members about the type of referrals you want--specifically, where applicable, even the names of the individuals with whom you want to meet and develop relationships--is much more important to the success of your networking in a closed contact network than selling to other members. This demands a shift in how you see your networking partners. They're not the clients; they are, in effect, your sales force. And for your sales force to sell you effectively, they have to know who to sell you to and how to sell you.

Below are four tips for incorporating this educational style into your networking meetings:

1. Teach your network members what your "dream referral" looks like. If you could go to your next networking meeting with a walking, talking dream referral in tow, what would he or she be like? Describe this person in detail to your networking partners. The more details you can provide, the greater the chance that your partners will recognize that person when they come across him or her outside the meeting.

2. Share customer profiles and case studies of current customers. This is a highly effective way to educate your networking partners about what it is you're looking for in a new client. By sharing the qualities of your current clientele, you're illuminating the canvas for the rest of the group so they can see the picture you're painting for them. When appropriate, consider bringing in a customer or client to talk about how you've helped him or her. These kinds of interactions go a long way toward educating the group as to the type of person you wish to have referred to you.

3. Break your business down into its lowest common denominators. It's very tempting to start your personal introduction with a statement like: "We're a full-service XYZ." Resist this urge! When you have 52 opportunities over the course of a year to talk about your products and services, don't waste the opportunity to highlight one aspect of your business by painting with the full-service brush. Get detailed! Educate your networking partners week by week about the specific things you provide. Bring support material to provide a visual. Do demonstrations, when possible.

4. Ask specifically for the referral you want. I often hear members of networking groups say things like "Anyone who needs . . ." or "Everyone who's looking for . . ." Usually, when I hear "anyone" or "everyone," I tune out, because I know so many anyones and everyones that I end up referring no one. This is an interesting dynamic that has to do with information overload. When you're asking for a specific type of business referral, your request from your networking partners should be specific. Using a broad, generic catchphrase will limit the effectiveness of your results.

By keeping your focus on educating your networking partners about what type of referrals you wish to receive, you'll find that the referrals you begin to get will be of a higher caliber and offer more chances of becoming closed sales than if you try to sell the members on what you're offering. You should be trying to educate a sales force instead of trying to close a sale. Shift your intention in the group, and you'll find that the quality of your referrals will improve.

The author is an Entrepreneur contributor. The opinions expressed are those of the writer.

Ivan Misner is founder and chairman of BNI, a professional business networking organization headquartered in Upland, Calif. He is co-author, with Hazel Walker and Frank De Raffele, of Business Networking and Sex: Not What You Think (Entrepreneur Press, 2012).
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