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Hook Me Up, Buttercup

The real value of networking groups revealed

Lean on me.

Or better yet, let me lean on you.

That's the basic (albeit somewhat cynical) principal of most networking groups. From chamber of commerces to business clubs to leads groups to the semi-secret, marginally mysterious fraternal orders of this or that, networking organizations have been around since the small but effective inaugural networking meeting where Adam introduced Eve to the Serpent, who then proceeded to trade our immortal souls for a taste of knowledge. Talk about deficit spending!

Eve was the preliminary, primordial prospect, successfully networked by the world's first and foremost fork-tongued, slippery, slithering salesman. And here we are several millennium later (give or take a few million years, depending on your interpretation of the space-time continuum) still trying to use our fellow original sinners to help us with introductions to ripe, juicy prospects.

I have used networking groups over the course of my career with mixed results, depending on the area, the group, my product and, most important, my commitment to making it work to my benefit.

Let's set ground rules

Rule Number 1: Everybody's in sales. I know that must be depressing for many of you, but we're all out on the street soliciting, flashing our goods and plying our trade (figuratively speaking, of course). Even you doctors and lawyers who went to school to distance yourselves from the rumbling horde are up to your stethoscopes and habeas corporaselling your services, only with fancier degrees and more arcane products.

Rule Number 2: Those who are smart and industrious in selling their product or service will prevail while all others will fall behind. The world of doing business has changed and if you don't change with it, you'll be left in the wake and end up swimming with the fishes.

Smart and industrious selling starts with smart and industrious prospecting. There are many ways to prospect and find new customers, but they basically fall into five categories, listed in ascending order: 5. cold calling, 4. networking, 3. referrals and recommendations, 2. existing and past customers, and 1. contacts through your rich and influential family.

Say you're deficient in number one due to an unfortunate accident of birth, then your existing customers and your past customers represent your best opportunity for new business. Look, I've been around the block a time or two and I know most organizations take the position that renewal business is easy and grows on the money tree in the backyard. Don't fall for that neatly packaged sophistry. Repeat business can sometimes be harder to keep than new business is to develop. All billing you obtain is new business. Period.

Getting referrals and recommendations is where most salespeople fail miserably, and we all get night sweats over cold calling.

That leaves networking, which is a relatively painless and effective method for meeting new prospects, if done correctly. If done incorrectly, it can be a huge waste of time and money. I built my first business through contacts I made at the chamber of commerce, and a guy I used to work with made a lot of money using his contacts through his Freemasons Lodge. One of my neighbors built up a nice clientele from his involvement in the Lions Club, and I had a salesman who developed 100 percent of our business in a medium-sized market through a paid membership in a leads club.

On the other hand, I've had salespeople who got nothing out of leads clubs, and I've been part of business groups that were too large or so diverse that they offered no real help in networking my business.

On top of all those choices of where to put your time and money, there's a proliferation of free business groups and lead clubs springing up all over the place; a sign of the times. However, like everything else, I have seen some good ones and some not so good ones.

So the trick is to find the right group for your product and your market, and that can be difficult and time consuming. Talk to local business leaders and get their opinions. Go online and read up on the different groups -- their websites should give you a pretty good indication of their proficiency. Most groups will let you attend at least one meeting free, so take advantage of that and talk to as many members as you can. Get their business cards and call them; ask a lot of questions. Do your homework upfront and it will pay off in the long haul.

However, it doesn't matter what group you join if you don't work the group. The key to success with any of these types of organizations is putting time and effort into getting to know the members individually. You'll get a chance to meet many of them at the meetings, but the real value comes from getting together one-on-one, an area where many people are less than diligent.

Like the guy who buys the most expensive smart phone, chock full of neat bells and whistles, but ends up using only about 10 percent of its capabilities, if you don't work the group, you're just there for show, a collection of blinking lights and pretty graphics with no discernable use.

Richard Plinke has over 35 years of experience in the areas of sales, sales management and sales training. Find out more at www.howtoselltheplague.com.