Starting a word of mouth network is no easy task. It will take persistence, flexibility, and a lot of failures to get to the point where you have a successfully built network.
In July of 2012, I moved to North Carolina knowing only one person in the area, a friend of mine from college. I had done extensive research and knew that the Raleigh-Durham area was a place I wanted to move to and start my own law firm, but I still had to build a network from scratch.
Before opening my own law firm, I had done very little networking. I had 3-5 good connections in the legal community plus my professors (at least the ones who liked me) at Drexel University School of Law in Philadelphia. None of these connections would be a huge help working with small businesses and startups in the Raleigh-Durham area.
The goal of any word of mouth network is to funnel referrals to you through trusted relationships. Intrinsically, the goal is to save you time and effort by having others do the work for you. This results in more money, which yields all the things that money can buy.
Step 1 – Setting the Stage
Determining what you need to do in order to build your sales funnel is the very first step. Knowing who is likely to send you referrals and how many sources you’ll need to maintain your company is important.
You should also do some research to find out who the major networkers are and if there are any networking events that are must-attends for anyone seriously looking to build a network.
Step 2 – Set a Budget
You also need a budget. Without one, networking can get out of hand and you’ll end up wasting money on events and strategies that may never pan out to anything. I, for example, was very low on funds, so I set a budget of $60 per week to cover gas, events and coffee. Considering over half of that was gas, I did not leave myself much to go off of.
Step 3 – Find the Events
The next step is finding the events you’ll be going to. This depends largely on your budget, industry, community and types of people you’re looking to meet. For example, if you’re looking for business owners, chamber of commerce events and business associations are great places to look. If, however, you want to meet doctors, perhaps look to attend associations of doctors or medical conferences.
The purpose of the events is to walk away with business cards of people you like and think that you can build a relationship with. If you find the person unrelatable, boring pushy or standoffish, you probably are not going to build a strong relationship after that first impression. That doesn’t mean completely ignore the person, but they should be your third concern after customers and good connections.
Tip: You never know where a referral could be coming from. Some of your best customers will come from those people you never expected. For this reason, and dozens of others, you should never be disrespectful or completely dismiss anyone you meet. This will be a very hard principle to keep!
Step 4 – Follow Up
This is a huge mistake by much of the networking field. Following up promptly and saying the right thing will set you apart from the rest of those out there vying for the same referrals. Though there’s no set rule, typically, you want to follow up within the first 24 hours. Your follow up, whether by phone or email, should reflect who you are and you desire to help the person you’re following up with. Talking too much about yourself or being overly salesy are great ways to ruin a relationship before it gets off the ground.
Imagine, for example, that this is a date. You just met the person and ultimately you want to kiss her. (Keeping things PG) You typically cannot come out and talk about how good of a kisser you are or how much you want to kiss her because these will be offputting. You also have to keep her interested, and talking about yourself the whole time will typically not work. Disclaimer: I’m not an expert dater and these rules don’t apply to every situation.
With everything in business, you’re playing the statistics game. What strategy is going to yield the highest result? In this case, being genuine, keeping the conversation two-sided and avoiding the sales pitch have the highest chance of yielding future sales.
Step 5 – The One on One
This is the date. Same with the follow up and the event itself, you’ll want to be genuine and keep the conversation two-sided. This is a chance to get to know about the other person’s business and the other person’s personality.
What you’re looking for are ways to add value to what they do and ways to form a personal connection. To that end, you’ll want to know, at a minimum, the following business facts:
- What they offer;
- What an ideal referral looks like;
- Who makes a good strategic partner for them;
- Something they need that can make their life easier.
You should also discuss his or her background to see if there are any common interests or things you can relate to. These common connections increase a person’s desire to like you. It’s not guaranteed, but it helps.
After you’ve had this initial one-on-one meeting, you need to continue to follow up in order to keep the relationship fresh. Relationships take nurturing. You cannot expect that someone would make a referral to you (risking their own reputation) if they barely remember who you are.
Step 6 – Utilize Your Network
We build networks to use them. Being inside someone’s network means that you’re going to get those calls, emails, letters, etc that let you know about events or new products and services they can offer, and you should so long as those communications are kept tactful.
People are in your network because they presumably want to help you while you help them. The best ways to utilize your network are where both people win. Take, for example, strategic introductions between someone you just met and someone who is in your network. The connection, if mutually beneficial, will benefit you and the person in your network because you’re keeping the relationship fresh and scoring points with your new connection and your prior connection is gaining another vetted person in their network.
Making mutual introductions is my personal favorite way to utilize your network, but there are other ways. Each way keeps your relationship fresh. If you’re someone who enjoys keeping up to date with current events and the latest studies in journals, you might want to consider being a source of information for your network, forwarding articles to people who would benefit from receiving them. You can do the same with pertinent events as well.
As long as your utilization of your network adds value in some way to your network, they’ll look forward to every interaction and hold you as a valuable piece of their business.
A word of mouth referral network does not happen overnight. It will take years before you start seeing a positive rate of return, but building and maintaining a network is fun and rewarding. You were receive far more than you put in over the long run. Because of the relationships and the interactions you’ll have, you will learn how to run your business better and be exposed to many different ways of thinking about similar problems. Having a strong network means you’ll never have to look far for a solution to the problems you will face.
The main thing to remember is be consistent and persistent. It’s too easy to give up on networking after not seeing any returns, but like anything great, it takes a lot of time and effort to build.
Hopefully this information is helpful if you’re starting a word of mouth network.