The 3 Things You Can Do to Farm for Referrals
You'll see them at any gathering of businesspeople. They're so busy looking for the next big sale or trying to meet the "right" prospect that they approach networking as an exercise in sifting through the crowd until they bag the ideal client. They don't have time for regular people like us; they're stalking the director of marketing, chief operating officer or other high-octane connection, looking for the big kill.
"Farmers" take a different approach. Like those who plant seeds and patiently nurture their crops, they seek to form and build relationships wherever they can find them. If they get an immediate payoff, fine, but it's not their principal goal. They know that the effort expended upfront will pay off in a rich harvest later on -- much richer than the hunter's quick kill -- and that truly profitable relationships can't be rushed.
Drop the gun, grab the plow
As a business professional seeking to get more business through relationship networking, it's easy to fall into the trap of hunting for the contact who's ready to buy your product or service right now, not six months down the road.
Although we understand the quest for fast money, there's just one problem: It's exactly the wrong approach. Relationship marketing in general and networking in particular is about consistently meeting new people and reliably following up with the folks you've just met. It's about developing relationships with referral partners who can provide a steady stream of income far into the future -- the opposite of fast money.
This is why thinking of networking as farming is so important. When you're meeting people for the first time, you should be planting the seeds for a lasting relationship. Instead of thinking about whether this person is ready to buy right now, you should focus on developing rapport. Here's how.
Ask the right questions
Don't ask qualifying questions, as if you're interviewing a new hire. Questions asked in a veiled attempt to determine whether the person's ready to do business rarely fool anyone; we call them "see-through" questions because most prospects see right through them.
Instead, ask questions that demonstrate your genuine interest in the other person and her business:
- How long have you been in the business?
- What made you want to start up this business? (assuming she's a business owner)
- What kind of clients do you typically work with?
- Where's your business located?
- What's your geographic coverage?
Offer free professional advice
Let's say you're a real estate agent talking with someone at a networking event who, although not ready to buy a home today, is heading in that direction. You could say something like this:
I know you're not interested in buying a home right now, but when you're ready to start looking, I'd highly recommend checking out the north part of town. A lot of my clients are seeing their homes appreciate in the 10 to 20 percent range, and from what I under;stand, the city's thinking about building another middle school in that area.
See how it's possible to offer some value-added advice without being too salesy? A statement like this acknowledges that your prospect isn't currently in the market but still demonstrates your expertise so he'll remember and perhaps contact you when he's ready to move.
This model works for consultants, CPAs, accountants, financial planners, coaches -- just about anyone in a service-based industry in which knowledge is the main product. The concern we sometimes hear from clients is that their knowledge is valuable and they don't want to just give away their intellectual capital.
We agree. But, here's the rub: Few people will sign up with you if they're not sure you can do the job -- and in the absence of a tangible product, you have nothing but your technical expertise to demonstrate that you have the goods. Don't go overboard -- just give them a little something useful.
Not only will this open up a conversation with the person, but if you play your cards right, whom do you think they'll go to when they're in need of your kind of service? When it comes to building rapport and creating trust, nothing does it better than solid, helpful information provided out of a genuine concern for the other person.
Provide a referral or contact
Try to offer a direct referral (someone you know who's in the market for this person's services) or a solid contact (someone who could help in other ways down the road). Let's say you're networking and you run into a person who owns a printing shop. You talk for a while, you hit it off and even though you don't know of anyone who's looking for this person's selection of print services right now, you'd like to help him out. So you say:
You know, Jim, I don't know of anyone who's actively in the market for printing services right now, but I do have someone who I think could be a big help to your business. Her name's Jane Smith, and she's a marketing consultant. I know a lot of her clients need business cards, fliers and things like that printed, and while I don't know if she has a deal on the table right now, I think you'd really hit it off with her.
See how easy that was? You stated right upfront you don't know of anyone in the market right now. You then followed up by saying you do know of someone who you think could help and briefly described how. Chances are, this will sound like a good idea to your new contact.