Building a referral network is easy when it’s fun for all

A.A. Milne quote works well for small business networking

Most small business owners believe what they’re told about networking. Meet as many people as you can, pass out a bunch of business cards and sell, sell, sell. No wonder it’s something most loath. That’s not a good way to build a business – or feel happy about how you do it.

Fortunately, there are easier approaches that can make it as fun (and lucrative) for you as those you are interacting with.

In the previous blog post, we explored the common “I hate selling” mantra so many small business owners utter. Besides offering a better way, the post ended with five quick tips for free or low-cost ways you can make prospecting fun for sales without needing to sell (at least not in any traditional fashion).

One of the quickest and most rewarding ways to work toward business prosperity is by building an active and loyal referral network. Read on for some easy-to-implement ideas to help you make this so.

In subsequent posts, come back for how-to guidance and some unexpected surprises on:

  • Going for quality over quantity
  • Assembling a team
  • Forget about features & benefits, get paid for what others provide for free instead
  • And, having fun

Face-to-face rules

Building a referral network is best done in-person (board positions, committee activity, attending events, one-on-one meetings, public speaking, etc.), but that’s not always possible. Look down later for a bit on building credibility without the benefit of face-to-face exchanges.

It’s a lot easier to get on boards, committees and public speaking venues than you may think. Learn what the members need, offer an idea that solves their challenges and simply ask. You’ll be amazed at how often your offer is greeted with a resounding “yes.”

The biggest mistake most make is focusing on organizations populated by peers. While this can be smart sometimes (NAWBO, Chambers, town Boards, breed associations), it’s usually best to target entities where your prospects hang.

Simply joining an association doesn’t generate prosperity. Even worse, go to only networking meetings, sound hungry and offer nothing. Are you still wondering why your membership money doesn’t net huge returns?

If you want to build a referral network – or get people looking you up to buy your wares – become a leader.

It’s more simple to meet people (they come to you vs. you having to corner them) if you’re perceived as a credible representative or knowledge resource.

Think about how what you know can be an asset to an organization. Then find someone who’s already engaged. This can help you get requests for board positions, featured speaker forays and introductions to influential people.

Find the right place to spend your time

A great quote from A.A. Milne that pertains to small business networking. Get fun, creative and easy ideas for small business success at http://NanetteLevin.comAre you a builder, an HVAC pro, a finishing craftsman or a landscaper? You might be better off finding organizations that cater to real estate agents, brokers, commercial property owners and investors than you would be investing all your time in trade organizations.

Is produce your passion? No sense hanging out with the farmers too much. They’ll share their woes but probably won’t buy your wares. Of course, if you build a network and drive customer demand those producers may have a different story. That cooperative could fill all your coffers. Figure out your ideal audience is (restaurants, busy professionals, health nuts, empty nesters, moms, singles, city dwellers?) and offer something they need that’s not being currently offered.

Quit looking for the get – give first    

Give before you get is one of the best strategies in gaining unexpected and impressive referrals from people you barely know. This requires asking questions, listening and paying attention. This strategy is most effective when your “gift” is personalized. You’re right – this may take extra time – but it’s so worth it.

Use your knowledge (and referral network) to offer easy fixes to stated challenges. Send newspaper articles that feature an influencer you’re trying to woo. Point out finds that speak to their interests. Refer business. Make connections for synergistic opportunities. Share your most valued vendors.

Once you become recognized as a good source of quality information and people – and someone who listens before they act – you’ll be amazed how quickly people come to recognize you as significant.

Connecting remotely with referral agents and prospects

If your only option is online (consider if this is true or merely an excuse to stay in your comfort zone), give before you get in groups (Linked In offers good ones for business), forums and other communities.

Watch first to recognize centers-of-influence (not necessarily prospects, but more importantly, great referral agents). Take the time to research their priorities, background and network before you ask for a one-on-one (e-mail, video conference call or face-to-face meal).

If you connect with the right people, you’ll get a lot more referral business through recommendations from others than you will from obnoxious pitch fests. Your objective should be to build a trusting relationship that spurs referrals without your urging.

Make it personal. Mass or template messages feel like spam. Determine who can help you and customize a message based on your understanding (research) on where they’re coming from. You’ll be surprised how many people will step up to help you with a simple request to do so.

Let others struggle to woo prospects alone

Too many try to appeal to the biggest audience possible. It’s a lot easier to simply find a few, or a few dozen people better equipped to encourage your prospects to become clients. Yes, it takes time and some homework to establish relationships with people in a position to help you fill your coffers, but it’s a much smarter, quicker and more effective way to bring your business to prosperity and beyond.

Why not you? Do you know of a few people who could help you build your business much faster with a simple mention? Learns what grabs them and craft a strategy that makes them want to know you better. Usually that means doing a little digging to get to know them first. The rewards can be immense. Take the leap and enjoy the ride.

14 responses to “Building a referral network is easy when it’s fun for all”

  1. Hi Nanette,

    You’ve given me some things to think about here. I love your gentle approach to marketing. In a retail centered culture, it’s refreshing and necessary. People are so tired of being sold to.

    • Thank you, Amy. It is unfortunate, even though so many claim we have moved away from manipulative selling, the majority most certainly have not. Being different makes you memorable. Being understanding and responsive instead of sell-focused gets people talking – and referring.

  2. Quality, not quantity is a great guiding principle. What points is there to collect a bunch of business cards when no one remembers who you are (and you remember no one, either)? I also like to take the pressure off myself to achieve a particular outcome. When I’m there to create connection and I have no other agenda, I can just relax and be myself, and the nervousness disappears.

    • That’s a great point, Tat, about not going into network gatherings with an agenda. Right – that speed dating mentality or collect X business cards isn’t very calming, is it?

  3. What an important post. I once had someone ask me why I was so busy promoting other people’s businesses and connecting others. They told me that I should just worry about my own. I smiled and answered, “This is who I am.”

    I think people actually appreciate my sincerity and how I care about them and their business and that I do not just go after them for ‘what they can do for me.’

    Great articles here. Thanks.

  4. Thanks, Nanette. I think being proactive is the key. Also, if you have joy in your work, I think that comes across to the customer, which attracts them to you.

  5. This is great advise Nanette and one that I will be working on employing in 2016. I want to help clients celebrate the love of their homes with custom home portraits. I need to find places where they hang out to tell share my art.
    Thanks for sharing your insight.

    • There’s a big market for that, Sue. The places they hang out are more than I can enumerate, particularly in a brief blog comment. The mistake most people make with such services/products is assuming their clientele resides in the wealthy (looking) neighborhoods. Instead, consider who’s likely to take personal pride in their home (read not hiring every aspect of their home care out to another or struggling to keep up with the Jones’). You’ll be amazed at how quickly those with (seemingly) limited means embrace what you offer. Something to think about as you peddle your wares.

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