I get asked a lot how I find new clients. Really, I don’t. I have a network of people who find them for me (and a web site that is properly SEOed so that they find me, but I digress).
Have you ever heard the advice, “Never eat lunch alone?” That’s what they teach sales people who need to schmooze clients and referral sources in order to get new business. It’s not bad advice, but it is woefully incomplete.
It is not enough to simply go to lunch with people you like and call it networking. It’s not enough to show up at chamber of commerce meetings, bar association luncheons, and networking happy hours. In the world of networking, the “work” piece is the important part.
If you do any organized networking – like Toastmasters or BNI – you will receive training on how to network. But really – getting referrals is not rocket science. And that’s the only reason to network: to build a stable of referral sources. Here’s what I’ve learned about networking in the past six years:
1. Work the Room. If you are at a networking event, talk to several people. Don’t just hang out with people you already know. Grab a host and get introduced to some new people. Chat up the guy standing next to you in line at the bar. Sit at a table with complete strangers and talk to them. Find out about them.
I once was so overeager at a dinner event that I plopped myself down in a chair and started blabbing to the table about my law firm while pouring myself a glass of wine – from someone else’s bottle. Mine wasn’t at the table yet. Don’t do that. Pay attention to them and worry less about yourself. Everyone is there to build their business, so this is a great time to ask them about what they do.
2. Follow up. Chances are, you you left that networking meeting with a few business cards of people with whom you want to spend more time or who expressed interest in spending more time with you. Now call the numbers on the cards and get breakfast/coffee/lunch/dinner/cocktails scheduled. And do it right now. Or at least send a “nice meeting you” email. But don’t let that business card get cold sitting on your desk. It is absolutely worthless a week from now.
3. Make a date with a purpose. Know why you are meeting this person for breakfast/coffee/lunch/dinner/cocktails. Know something about them and their business, and how you can help each other. Have a reason for meeting them. Oh – and find out what they look like. You only have to walk up to the wrong table once, and be embarrassed when you turn around to find the person you are actually meeting standing behind you, before you learn this lesson. There’s this new-fangled thing called the Internet – use it to do a little research before your meeting.
4. Be on time. Yep – it’s really important. This is the hardest thing for me, because I am perpetually five to fifteen minutes late. But people notice when you run late for a lunch. They feel like they are not important to you, or that you are disorganized, or both. If you do run a little late, call ahead and let them know. Nothing kills a networking meeting like a bad first impression.
5. Ask questions. Get to know them. Think of it as interviewing them the “referral source” position, and you want to know if they are up for the job. Ask them about their work, hobbies, and family. Ask about the kind of clients they work with and what they like about their profession. Then ask yourself: Do you like them? Would you accept a recommendation from them? How do they talk about others – and how will they talk about you?
6. Be a giver. If you want someone to send business to you, it doesn’t hurt if you have sent a client or two their way. Of course, you cannot give referrals in a quid pro quo fashion. You just can’t. But you undoubtedly have people telling you about legal issues you don’t handle or asking you who does your taxes. So be prepared with a list of other professionals you know, like, trust and are happy to recommend. Maybe even the prospective referral source picking at her salad while telling you about her business over lunch.
7. Ask for referrals. Again – this isn’t the same as setting up a quid pro quo arrangement. You aren’t promising to send referrals to them if they send referrals to you. Nuh-uh. This is simply saying, “I really like you and I hope we can work together sometime. If I can ever assist one of your clients, have them call me.” You won’t get the referrals you never asked for.
8. Be specific. You have to tell your referral source who to send your way. This can be as detailed as asking them to introduce you to a certain someone at the next chamber of commerce breakfast, or as general as saying, “I really only work with small business owners, ” or, “I practice family law and estate planning.” If you don’t tell them who to send your way, you’ll get the wrong kinds of work referred to you – or none at all.
9. Say thank you. This is pretty obvious. Send an email or a handwritten note to say thank you for the meeting. And if you get a referral from them, send them another thank you. And if they send a GREAT referral to you, send a small gift. By now you should know if they hate wine, like bourbon, are allergic to flowers, or are addicted to pedicures, so put a little thought into it.
10. Keep score. One last thing: track your referral sources. Know who sent you what clients, and the dollar value to your firm of each one. You’ll know pretty quickly who your top referral sources are. They send you top-notch, paying clients who love you and the work you do. Take ‘em to lunch and say, “Thank you, again.”
All opinions, advice, and experiences of guest bloggers/columnists are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions, practices or experiences of Solo Practice University®.