There seem to be a plethora of ‘experts’ online these days claiming networking is dead and referrals don’t help grow your business. I totally agree with them if your business is 100% online. There are far better ways for you to spend your time than lurking around the terrestrial world trying to build a network – unless you’re actually seeking to connect with real people, but that’s another post altogether. But if you, like the majority of us, operate in the physical world, there is no better type of business than that which is referred to you by someone within your network who you know, like and trust.
So up front, I am going to declare that I own the Melbourne franchise for BNI, the world’s largest professional networking and referral business. Some might say I am biased. Perhaps. But unlike all the online experts selling you their amazing programme that will do away with referrals (and yet none of them seems to have a business other than telling you how to do your business…interesting), I believe in networking so much that I still work with hundreds of new people a year of people helping them to generate quality referrals by being ‘in the business’. I generate the majority of my work via word of mouth. Of course, I use other ways to market, but referrals are by far the best.
I want to share with you what I have learnt from working with all thousands of BNI members and my own referral generation efforts prior to BNI. Networking and referral generation takes work (which is why its called net’working’). In fact, most people waste their time doing it, get poor results, then say networking is dead and subsequently, flounder around trying to grow their business by any means possible.
The first thing I have learnt is that a network takes time to build and even more time to generate quality referrals. Unlike internet promises, networking is a long slow process, think “farming versus hunting” to quote BNI founder, Dr Ivan Misner. But like farming, if done properly, will feed your business even in the leanest of times. This is where most people first come unstuck, they are looking for a ‘quick fix’. Everything today has to be faster, easier, smarter. I’m sorry to say, filling your referral funnel through networking is not going to meet that criterion. So if you want it ‘now’, invest your time and money elsewhere because networking will just frustrate you.
Secondly, I hear all the time that Gen Y and the millennials can do it better and do it online. What I have seen over the past 5 years is a growth in the number of <30-year-olds looking to build a network of real people. Often they invest a lot of time with ‘online’ opportunities but are left spinning their wheels and getting very little traction (and very low bank accounts). I am not saying for one minute don’t look at all opportunities - this is exactly why I find Gen Y is driven to start networking. They understand that a multi-pronged approach to their business will give them an advantage over the competition. These young business women and men are hungry to learn the skills of relationship building and I find are often the members who build deep and meaningful relationships that drive real success into their business.
Which brings me to my next point. Relationships. Spoiler alert...networking is ONLY about one thing - building relationships and then using those relationships for mutual gain. If you get nothing more from this article, know that relationships are the basis for all networking and referrals. This is also where new networkers come unstuck. Again quoting BNI founder Dr Ivan Misner, “premature solicitation kills referrals”. There are three ways a relationship evolves:
You start with visibility and then you build on that
You then move into a stage of credibility
From there you can move into a position of profitability.
This is not a ‘formula’ as such, but a process that all human relationships move through.
My good friend Hazel Walker talks about a first date who after one hour in a bar invited her to ‘head out to the car to act like teenagers’. Hazel states the guy tried to move straight from visibility to profitability, needless to say, he never got past visibility with her. Unlike Hazel’s date, you need to invest time and effort to be able to extract from a relationship in the same way you need to invest in our bank account for a while until you can start taking some of the profits.
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So you have probably worked out that to get something from networking, you have to give something. It can be time, referrals, opportunities or knowledge. When you help someone and expect nothing in return, the universe has a strange way of helping you. I found younger members of my BNI network understand this better than most. They often freely give their knowledge and expertise.
This does two things:
It helps someone else (which makes you feel good which is a good enough reason in my book anyway)
It sets you up as an expert and where do you go if you need help in an area? An expert of course.
Long before I was in BNI (or even knew such thing existed), I worked in commercial textiles selling fabric to interior designers and architects. I absolutely loved this job and was quite successful in it ending that career after having launched the business in another country and been country manager for 3 years.
My first boss and mentor taught me that I needed to build relationships with potential clients and I had to plan how I could do this and set myself up as an asset to my clients. I went and studied textile technology, attended conferences and events and became the ‘subject matter expert’ in the field.
Often firms would call on me to help in areas where they were knowledge poor. I remember one time I worked for a client on a project for aircraft seat refurbishment. I was never going to be able to supply the product for the airline because they always purchased directly from the US manufacturer, but I helped with developing the spec for the designer who had no idea where to start. It took a lot of my time and I was not going to get work from that, but I really enjoyed it and I made a great friend as well. That designer never gave me any significant work, but over the years he referred me several large jobs with colleagues in the industry. In fact, the airline itself ended up working with me because they’d heard I was the subject matter expert and I ended up helping them to refurbish all their offices nationally. I expected nothing from any help I gave, but always seemed to get tenfold back (which, if you have ever volunteered anywhere, seems to work on the same principle).
Networking is like any skill; you need to practice it. You’ll make some mistakes, you’ll get frustrated, you’ll want to give up, but eventually, if you practice enough, your new found skill will be a pleasure and an integral, rewarding part of your business life.