When you belong to a networking group, it can be difficult sometimes to obtain referrals from fellow networking members. But instead of giving up and looking for another group to join, there are some things you can do to encourage them to spread the word about your company.
I like to teach entrepreneurs about the three Rs of networking: relationships, reliability and referrals. First, however, let me preface my comments here with an important statistic. When businesspeople begin developing a referral-based business, they receive a vastly smaller percentage of referrals their first year. After the second year, the statistic is about twice as high as the first, and after the third year, it really jumps. (For more on the statistics of referrals over time, see chapter 8 of my book The World's Best Known Marketing Secret.) This being said, let me talk about how the three Rs of networking affect these numbers and can help you develop a successful word-of-mouth-based business:
1. Relationships: Word-of-mouth is about "relationship marketing." If you approach the first year of your involvement in a networking group with the sole motivation of getting to know the other members well, you will be far ahead of the game.
One of the most important things I've learned over the years is that it is not really what you know or who you know; rather, it's how well you know them that really counts! People do business with people they know and trust.
In order for word-of-mouth marketing to work for you, you first have to build a strong foundation with the people you hope will refer you to others. That takes time, and the amount of time it takes varies from profession to profession. Obviously, some professions are much more sensitive than others to the development of referrals. So find reasons to meet with each person outside the networking meeting. Get to them, and work on having them get to know you better. Make it clear that you value your relationship with each one of them.
2. Reliability: For the first year or so in a networking group, you are putting in your time. Your referral partners are testing you, checking you out and making sure that you deserve to have their valuable clients and contacts turned over to you.
Therefore, you must be credible to the other professionals with whom you hope to network. Bear in mind that you should feel the same way, too. Before you risk your reputation with your clients by referring them to someone who takes less care of them than you would want taken, you must be very sure that the person to whom you refer them is reliable! How else are you going to know that--unless you use them personally over a period of time?
3. Referrals: After cultivating relationships and proving yourself to be reliable, you get referrals as the end result. In order for someone to receive, someone else has to give. This holds so true with referrals. I would suggest you perform a reality check to see just how effectively you are referring the people in your networking group. You might be surprised to find how little you actually refer others, or that you consistently refer the same two or three people.
If you aren't tracking your referrals (both given and received), first read last month's article and then start tracking them. Look for patterns. I would anticipate that in the months following a month you were particularly active in referring others, you will find that you are receiving more referrals! I have seen the "what goes around, comes around" principle illustrated over and over in BNI, the networking organization I founded 20 years ago.
This is a natural progression and one that can't really be rushed. I know it can seem frustrating at times when you are anxious to see your bottom line increase quickly from all the referrals you are anticipating receiving, but believe me, if you are patient and apply these techniques, you will see word-of-mouth marketing work for you in a big way.
You can't take an orange tree and rip it up from the ground after a year and replant it on the other side of the yard, just because it wasn't bearing fruit where it was. You have to water, fertilize and care for the tree where it is. In time, it will produce fruit. Your efforts will pay off. You must approach building a word-of-mouth-based business this way. In a solid networking group, you are growing solid roots with the other participants. The worst thing for you to do is pull them up just as they are getting set.
The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author, not of Entrepreneur.com. All answers are intended to be general in nature, without regard to specific geographical areas or circumstances, and should only be relied upon after consulting an appropriate expert, such as an attorney or accountant.