Networking is more than just shaking hands and passing out business cards. Based on a survey I conducted of more than 2,000 people throughout the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia, it's about building your "social capital." The highest-rated traits in the survey were the ones related to developing and maintaining good relationships.
For years I've been teaching people that this process is more about "farming" than it is about "hunting." It's about cultivating relationships with other business professionals. It's about realizing the capital that comes from building social relationships.
Master Networking Traits
The following traits were ranked in order of their perceived importance to networking. They're the traits that will make you a "master networker."
1. Follows up on referrals. This was ranked as the No. 1 trait of successful networkers. If you present an opportunity, whether it's a simple piece of information, a special contact or a qualified business referral, to someone who consistently fails to follow up successfully, it's no secret that you'll eventually stop wasting your time with this person.
2. Positive attitude. A consistently negative attitude makes people dislike being around you and drives away referrals; a positive attitude makes people want to associate and cooperate with you. Positive business professionals are like magnets. Others want to be around them and will send their friends, family and associates to them.
3. Enthusiastic/motivated. Think about the people you know. Who gets the most referrals? People who show the most motivation, right? It's been said that the best sales characteristic is enthusiasm. To be respected within our networks, we at least need to sell ourselves with enthusiasm. Once we've done an effective job of selling ourselves, we'll be able to reap the reward of seeing our contacts sell us to others! That's motivation in and of itself!
4. Trustworthy. When you refer one person to another, you're putting your reputation on the line. You have to be able to trust your referral partner and be trusted in return. Neither you nor anyone else will refer a contact or valuable information to someone who can't be trusted to handle it well.
5. Good listening skills. Our success as networkers depends on how well we can listen and learn. The faster you and your networking partner learn what you need to know about each other, the faster you'll establish a valuable relationship. Communicate well, and listen well.
6. Networks always. Master networkers are never off duty. Networking is so natural to them that they can be found networking in the grocery store line, at the doctor's office and while picking the kids up from school, as well as at the chamber mixers and networking meetings.
7. Thanks people. Gratitude is sorely lacking in today's business world. Expressing gratitude to business associates and clients is just another building block in the cultivation of relationships that will lead to increased referrals. People like to refer others to business professionals that go above and beyond. Thanking others at every opportunity will help you stand out from the crowd.
8. Enjoys helping. Helping others can be done in a variety of ways, from literally showing up to help with an office move to clipping a helpful and interesting article and mailing it to an associate or client. Master networkers keep their eyes and ears open for opportunities to advance other people's interests whenever they can.
9. Sincere. Insincerity is like a cake without frosting! You can offer the help, the thanks, the listening ear, but if you aren't sincerely interested in the other person, they'll know it! Those who have developed successful networking skills convey their sincerity at every turn. One of the best ways to develop this trait is to give the individual with whom you're developing a referral relationship your undivided attention.
10. Works their network. It's not net-sit or net-eat, it's net-work, and master networkers don't let any opportunity to work their networks pass them by. They manage their contacts with contact management software, organize their e-mail address files and carry their referral partners' business cards as well as their own. They set up appointments to get better acquainted with new contacts so that they can learn as much about them as possible so that they can truly become part of each other's networks.
Do you see the trend with these 10 points? They all tie in to long-term relationship building, not to stalking the prey for the big kill. People who take the time to build their social capital are the ones who will have new business referred to them over and over. The key is to build mutually beneficial business relationships.
Create a Word-of-Mouth Marketing Network
Some people think word-of-mouth is something that just "happens"--like the weather--and they let it take its own course. But if you want to be successful at developing word-of-mouth for your business, you should be as organized and thoughtful about it as you are about other types of advertising and marketing. In fact, if you take this approach, eventually, you can get almost 100 percent of your business exclusively through word-of-mouth.
The key to creating a successful word-of-mouth program lies in developing a formal plan for systematically meeting people and cultivating relationships with them. Here are 11 ways for you, or the salespeople who work for you, to get your own word-of-mouth marketing program off the ground.
1. Don't be a cave dweller. Get out and meet people. Start by setting a goal for the number of appointments you'll establish with people you wish to develop networking relationships with every week.
2. Know how to ask for the referral. There are specific techniques you can learn and develop that will help you hone your ability to ask for the referrals you want. One such technique is to ask "Who do you know who...?" You would then list several types of people you can help, such as someone who is new to the area, someone recently married or someone who has just started a business.
3. Consciously select at least three different business or networking groups to join in the next three months. These groups might include chambers of commerce, community service groups and trade associations. When joining various organizations, make sure you select a well-rounded mix of business groups in which to participate. Try to avoid being in more than one group per category (i.e., two chambers of commerce), as this will divide your loyalties and put you in a position where you'll be making promises to too many people.
4. Develop a creative incentive to encourage people to send referrals your way. A music store owner, for instance, sends music tickets to people who refer business to him. Another example is the chiropractor who posts thank-yous on a bulletin board in his waiting area to all his patients who referred patients to him the previous month.
5. When attending meetings and other networking events, bring the right networking tools with you. These include: an informative name badge, business cards and a business card carrying case to hold others' cards.
6. Spend time developing your networking skills. Read books and articles on networking, listen to tapes, and talk to people who network well. Networking is an acquired skill.
7. When attending a business mixer, act like a host, not a guest. You are wasting your time at mixers if you stand around visiting with coworkers or others you already know rather than meeting new contacts and introducing them around. These events offer a great way to increase your visibility. If appropriate, ask to be the ambassador or visitor host in the organizations to which you belong. As such, it will be your official duty to meet people and introduce them to others.
8. Invest time in developing a 60-second message about your business that explains what you do. Try to think of a "memory hook"--a brief, ear-catching phrase that so vividly describes what you do that people will be able to visualize it with their eyes. For example, a travel agent uses this to describe his services to a large audience: "Ninety percent of all accidents happen in the home...so travel!" When you introduce yourself to groups of people, use your memory hook. Chances are, this will help them remember you and what you do.
9. When you meet someone and exchange cards, take a few moments to flip the card over and jot down some information about them or their business that will help you remember them and refer business their way. If a new contact sees you actively doing something that will benefit them, they are more likely to take your need for referrals seriously. Let them know as you are writing your notes that you will keep them in mind if you find someone who needs their product or services. This is a very simple, yet powerful, way to make a great first impression that can be developed into a mutually beneficial networking partnership.
10. Talk less and listen more. Remember that a good networker has two ears and one mouth and uses them accordingly.
11. Connect with people outside of business meetings whenever possible. Drop notes, letters and articles that might be of interest to them in the mail. Call to check in with them or invite them to events you may be attending that might be of interest.
You are potentially linked to a vast network beyond your own sphere. By implementing the tactics above, you will receive benefits from that network. Maximize your opportunities to cultivate networking relationships with others, and you will see just how effective word-of-mouth marketing can be!
Develop a 'Contact Sphere'
A contact sphere is a group of business professionals who have a symbiotic relationship. They are in compatible, noncompetitive professions, such as a lawyer, a CPA, a financial planner and a banker. If you put those four people in a room for an hour, they're going to do business together. Each one is working with clients that have similar needs but require different services. Hence, they're working that symbiotic relationship.
My favorite example of a contact sphere is the caterer, the florist, the photographer and the travel agent. I call this the "wedding mafia." If one gets a referral to a wedding, then they all get a referral to the wedding. These professions, more than most, have truly learned how to work their contact sphere.
Here are some other examples of contact spheres:
- Business services: printers, graphic artists, specialty advertising agents and marketing consultants.
- Real estate services: residential and commercial agents, escrow companies, title companies and mortgage brokers.
- Contractors: painters, carpenters, plumbers, landscapers, electricians and interior designers.
- Health care: chiropractors, physical therapists, acupuncturists and nutritionists.
Let's take a computer sales and service company as an example. That contact sphere may include sales reps for telecommunications hardware firms and photocopier companies. Also, contractors who specialize in installing wiring may fit within this contact sphere to assist in wiring installations. Also, don't forget the computer trainers, who work with people and their computers on a daily basis, as well as business coaches and accountants, who may have clients that need to improve their company's technology.
To get the most out of your contact sphere:
- Identify as many professions as possible that fit within your company's contact sphere. Take a look at what professions your industry tends to work with to get an idea of repetitive and reciprocal referrals. Create a list of these professions.
- Identify specific individuals who could fit into your contact sphere. Go to various networking groups and consult your business card file and database.
- Invite these people to participate in networking groups with you so you can formalize your relationship and have a way to stay in regular contact. Maintaining the relationship is key. A good way to do that is to participate in groups that put you together on a regular basis.
- Evaluate the professionals in your contact sphere that you are presently referring. If they are not reciprocating, you may have the wrong profession or the wrong person. Fill the spot with someone who is willing to reciprocate.
Although developing a solid contact sphere will greatly increase your business, you must remember that it alone is not enough. Because contact spheres consist of small groups, you're not likely to gain exposure to a large number of individuals. Hence, work on developing your overall network of contacts at the same time you are developing your contact sphere.
The author is an Entrepreneur contributor. The opinions expressed are those of the writer.