New Advice Column for Small Business Owners

  • Photography by: Danielle Moss
  • Styling by: Alaina Kaczmarski
  • Copy by: Jessica Baggot

For just a moment, when you hear me refer to “social networking,” try and erase from your mind thoughts of Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and LinkedIn.  I want to talk about the value of actual human contact:  face-to-face social networking.

You may already be involved in networking or referral groups, which are great, but in all honesty, are these activities really driving new business your way?  Here’s a thought: have you considered building your own group?

If you are a business owner, chances are you know several other business owners, whether or not in your field.  Have you ever spoken to them about the possibility of referring business to one another?  If these are people you know and trust, why wouldn’t you try and send business their way?  And vice-versa.  Referrals are without a doubt the best way to grow your business and build solid relationships with your clients—past and present.  You become more valuable to your clients and perspective clients if you can provide personally recommended resources and business referrals for products or services which you might not offer.  Take a moment to think about other types of services that your clients might have a need for and might ask you about.

Let me elaborate…

Example: If you are an interior designer and you find that often there is a need for contracting or painting services as part of the design project, try and develop relationships with one or two of these types of business owners so that when your client asks, you are ready with a few recommendations.

Example: If you are a wedding photographer, align yourself with caterers, florists, wedding planners, tailors/alterations, hair stylists, makeup artists, etc.

Example: If you are specializing in marketing or advertising, be sure to have connections with print (newspapers, magazines, journals, etc.) and web media sources, a specialty imprinted novelty item resource (for goodies printed with the logo of the business you are working with), radio and television personalities (producers and interns are great allies as well!) and local bloggers or critics.

I call these relationships “strategic alliances,” which is really just a fancy way of saying people to whom you might refer business or people who might refer business to you.  What’s even better is that you are probably already connected with many of these people! It’s as easy as that!

Now, before you get too excited and rush out to pull together your alliances, I have just a couple of tips:

  1. Trust is key.  Be sure that the businesses you choose are ones you respect and would personally use.  If it is not someone you would recommend to your best friend, why would you recommend it to a client?
  2. Make sure they are relevant to your line of work. You want your strategic alliances to be businesses that are fairly closely tied to the work that you do so it makes sense to refer your clients to them and vice-versa.
  3. Turn your professional relationships into personal relationships.  In additional to the professional connection, foster the relationships with these business owners in other ways as well.  Perhaps invite them for a coffee or lunch.  Keep in touch with them regularly to see how their business is doing and perhaps update them on changes within your business or new services that you might offer.  Behave as you would with a friend, offering help or advice when appropriate or solicited.
  4. Communicate!  If you refer a client to another business, drop your contact a quick note letting them know you are sending someone their way.  Include a few details about the individual that might be helpful in quickly establishing the connection.  Conversely, if someone refers a new client to you, at the very least, send them a thank you card or be even more classy and send them a bottle of wine or a gift certificate to a local restaurant.
  5. Return the favor.  This isn’t just about having business referred your way.  Make sure that you are referring as often if not more than you are referred.

Finally, once you have established these “strategic alliances,” find ways to foster interaction within your network. Perhaps hold a monthly luncheon or happy hour and/or create a group message board where each member can post business updates or tips about their business. The most important thing is to keep in contact and maintain the relationships. Have fun with this and be creative!  Perhaps you could give your group a catchy name and create a collaborative website. The more you promote your group, the more attention will be drawn your way which means…. more business!

Happy Networking!

Columnist Jessica Baggot lives near San Francisco, CA and works as an independent Organizational Development Consultant.  She specializes in efficiency and productivity consulting, helping small businesses refocus their efforts in order to increase revenue.  Jessica attended the University of California at Davis where she studied Psychology and International Relations.