You can grow your business almost entirely by referrals—even in the current economy—if you take a strategic approach, and if you persevere over a two- to three-year period. Use the following process to create your own strategic networking success.
Find Your Focus
Identify which area of your business you want to grow the most. For example, is it landscape maintenance? Lawn care? Design/Build? Irrigation?
Identify the client profile that is ideal for that area of your business.
Focus your networking efforts around this target clientele.
Identify Key Influencers
Identify those people who know or influence this target client. Break this into two groups:
The trade and professionals. Which groups and associations in your area are the best to target? Examples of trade groups include BOMA (Building Owners & Managers Association), ASLA (American Society of Landscape Architects), AIA (American Institute of Architects) and your local association of realtors.
Start with one association for every one or two networkers in your company. Make assignments and teach your employees how to network.
The influencers. Which community organizations contain the most influencers and are most active within your target geography? Examples of community organizations include the Rotary Club, Chamber of Commerce, church groups and your local garden clubs. For every one or two people in your company who will be networking, assign them to one organization. (Expert networkers can join multiple organizations.)
Plan on going to every meeting. Also spend time with members outside of meetings at their offices, and over meals and outings. Also, try to bring these people on as your clients so they can experience your services (even at a reduced rate, or for a partial service). Don’t be pushy, though. Use a soft sale approach.
Stay in Front of Them
By the end of 12-18 months, each networker at your firm should have built up a list of 25 people who are referring you or could be referring you. Stay in front of these people using direct mail, email and phone—along with the meetings you are attending. Don’t go overboard, though. If you see them frequently at meetings, then adjust-down the other touches.
Keep the List Fresh
Cull your list of key influencers you’ve been staying in front of. Drop some people who have no interest or potential. Then add new people to the list—so you always have about 25 people with whom you are nurturing relationships.
If one of your top 25 becomes a client, have one of your employees now nurture that relationship. That will free you up to continue expanding your own list.
Referrals & Testimonials
Ask for referrals only after you have delighted a new client, because at that point you have made deposits in your “goodwill bank” with them. But instead of just asking for a referral, ask for a testimonial you can use—and ask for new clients to literally introduce you to potential clients.
Use Events Cautiously
Events are good for networking only if you can be assured of finding a preponderance of clients or influencers. Your time is valuable, so pick your events cautiously. Guard your time.
Experiment with Online Social Media
While trust is built though face-to-face, social media can help establish contacts. Facebook and LinkedIn are the most effective for networking, though Twitter is increasing in its effectiveness. Don’t try them all right away. Pick one and experiment for a while.
The key to building your referral base is finding ways to give back. Pay it forward! The more you give to your associations, community organizations and people in your network, the more goodwill you will build up—and the more natural referrals and direct referrals you will receive.
Look for ways to do free landscaping, cleanups, holiday decorating, etc. Show off your abilities.
Networking can take two or three years (sometimes more) before it pays off, but nothing beats a lead that comes from your network—it is worth the long-term investment.