One of the most common pieces of advice given to professionals who want to develop business is to network: attend industry events, get involved in professional associations, and become a member of non-profit or community boards. Yet I frequently hear from professionals that despite the time they spend meeting new people and cultivating relationships, it rarely turns into new business. What explains the disconnect between the proven advice and these professionals’ real world experience?
The challenge is that a network is like raw material that needs to go through a process before becoming new business, but most professionals don’t know the process. To help you get started, here are five tips to turn your professional network into new professional engagements.
1. Clearly communicate what you do and how you can help
It’s very hard for someone to give you work, or recommend you to their own network, if they don’t know what you do. Yet too many professionals fear that specialization will close off opportunities. So lawyers will list off all of the types of law they’ve ever practiced, and consultants will use vague descriptions about solving business problems, so as not to disqualify themselves from potential opportunities. But the truth is that specialization opens more doors than it closes, because it tells people “this is why you should call me” and “if someone you know has this problem, I’m the person you should talk to.”
For new relationships in your network, or people that you’ve never worked with before, this means having a succinct description of what you can do for their business. You want your description to be tangible enough that they understand the methods behind your work, while strategic enough that they understand it’s value. For ongoing relationships with people who broadly understand your practice, it’s often more beneficial to describe a recent client engagement that will help them expand their idea of what you’re capable of doing.
2. Think one step beyond the people you know – and ask for specific introductions
The core of the word networking – network – implies a series of related connections. Yet too often it’s misunderstood to mean “the people I know.” This is a lost opportunity because it’s very likely that the people you know well have already given you any business that they have. Instead of thinking of your relationships as business opportunities, think of them as pathways to introductions. The people you know directly are a way to get warm introductions to potential clients.
Asking for those introductions should be a thoughtful process. In general, people respond poorly when asked if they know anyone who would be interested in their services. Instead, try to find people you think would be interested and ask for a specific introduction to them. Tools like LinkedIn are invaluable for spotting those connections, but there are low-tech ways to find relationships as well. For instance, if you know a marketing executive at a company that you’re targeting, but you sell consulting into the IT organization, it’s reasonable that your contact should be able to make the right introduction.
3. Bring your connections new ideas
When you’re talking with your connections, you want to reinforce that you’re an expert in your field while also giving them a sense of what it would be like to work with you. The best way to do that is to bring them new ideas. You can divide these ideas into two types: ideas to get them thinking and ideas for how you can work together.
Ideas that get people thinking are general thoughts about your area of expertise that help establish your credibility, show prospects that you understand their problems, and clarify who may benefit from your services. For instance, you may have an idea about how a new regulation or technology will change business practices going forward. Ideas for how you can work together identify a specific way you can help their business, such as a project auditing their organization’s readiness for the new change.
Of course, it’s not enough just to have these ideas, you have to make sure people see them. That means creating a tangible article, blog post, brochure, or presentation and sending it out to your network. You can communicate the idea broadly online and through social networks, but it’s more likely to get seen if you also send it to interested contacts with a personalized note.
4. Stay top of mind
Because services are specialized, the people in your network may not always need what you have to offer right when you’re talking to them. But while they may not have pending litigation, a PR crisis, or a business process problem today, it doesn’t mean they won’t have one in the future. The challenge is to make sure you’re top of mind when that need comes up. To do that, you need to make sure you’re regularly nurturing your relationships and communicating what you’re up to, even if it’s in a low touch fashion.
You have three tools in your portfolio to stay top of mind. Passive tools like a social media presence or e-mail newsletter will help you pop into your prospects head once in a while. But to really stay in their thoughts, active engagements like personal e-mails, phone calls to catch up, or in-person meetings are much better. The important thing is to touch base often enough that it seems fluid.
CRM tools can help you stay top of mind with your contacts, but they often require more work than most busy professionals are willing to put in. Often, short lists, ongoing processes, and rules of thumb are enough to keep a reasonable business development engine going.
5. Ask for the business
Finally, knowing the right people doesn’t help if they don’t know you want their business. If you hear them talking about an opportunity, ask if you can submit a proposal. Let them know that even if you can’t work together now, you’d like to in the future. Sometimes it takes time for the right opportunity to manifest itself. In those cases, let a prospect know that even if you’re not going to work together today, you’re actively interested when the time comes.
Behind all of these tips is the implication that turning a network into business doesn’t happen by accident. It requires the disciplined implementation of a strategy and a process, a set of accountabilities to keep you on track, and thoughtful content to give people a reason to talk to you. A strong network is critical to winning new business, but without the right approach, all you really have is a collection of friends and acquaintances.