Could better networking help your company?

The emphasis on social media and web-based marketing sometimes overshadows what is still the most effective marketing technique – networking.

According to some experts, 80 percent of business-to-business sales come through referrals and networking. The first thing many home or commercial property owners do when they need a contractor is to ask contacts for a recommendation.

Of course, an attractive website or portfolio with photos of your past work can be impressive – and comforting to those wondering about your quality and experience.

Professional marketing materials can also position you pricewise, important if you do high-end projects. For some tradespeople, creating such a package is a little more difficult because their work may involve systems, not construction or finish work.

For example, it’s hard to take pictures of an unclogged drain or pumped septic. In any case, static marketing methods are a beginning, not nearly enough in themselves. Someone might admire that kitchen you built, but they are still going to check into your reputation.

The goal is to position yourself and your business so that when someone is looking for your type of service, you are top of mind for a broad spectrum of people. Because most trades and construction companies work with other businesses on projects at least part of the time, networking in that community is important.

Another important target is your existing customer base, a rich source of referrals and references. Anyone you know personally may be a source of referrals.

Networking is about cultivating relationships. Yes, you hope to garner business, but it’s also a process of give and take. Approaching it with the aim of helping others achieve their goals creates goodwill and a desire to reciprocate.

Offer your expertise, pass along leads, help others brainstorm. At the same time, have clear networking goals. Don’t forget to tell people you’re looking for opportunities. Each group you target may require a different strategy.

Let’s look at business-to-business networking first. Think about the professionals who are in a position to recommend your company. These may include real estate agents, bankers and loan officers, attorneys and CPAs, town officials and building inspectors, vendors and other contractors. Depending on what you do, vendors might include lumberyards, plumbing, electrical supply, furniture stores and nurseries.

Many of these people can be approached individually during the course of business. It makes sense to start with those you already see on a regular basis. Take some extra time at the lumberyard or the paint store to talk shop. Ask the other person how things are going for them, chat about the weather and local news, and seek their insights into industry and business trends.

Too many interactions are focused on a tiny point of contact, but each person is a rich source of contacts. For example, your bank teller might make a recommendation to a customer needing a contractor for their new house – one purchased with a loan from that bank. Meet the loan officers.

This doesn’t mean to come on too strong, especially if you are new to an area or certain contacts. The goal is to be friendly but natural, allowing the relationship to develop.

Business gatherings can be a good place to network, although the ones labeled as such may feel forced. Find meetings and other events where people come together for a mutual interest or purpose. This might include a seminar, a charity event or an association meeting.

Volunteering and offering your expertise are two ways to demonstrate commitment and willingness to be involved. Those go much further than showing up, throwing around business cards, and disappearing. When you make a new contact that looks promising, be sure to follow up later.

Letting existing customers know that you welcome referrals is key. If they do send someone your way, make a point of saying thank you by telephone or even a note. It doesn’t hurt to touch base once in a while to see if they need anything else. This works best if they know you are genuinely interested in them, not just drumming up work.

Finally, tapping your own personal network can deepen your reach into the community. How many people at church, the bowling league or the PTA know what you do? Again, the focus is on your common interests, but it doesn’t hurt to let them know what you offer. Depending on your expertise, you might have an opportunity to do some volunteer work or donate materials for a project.

Don’t think of networking as a chore. Think of it as a way to make friends while filling your company pipeline. – Elizabeth Penney, M.B.A.

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