Networking is a handshake, not a handout.

Networking. It was the hot term of the 90s and it remains a prime way to build your business. But these days, it seems that several new business groups that would be great for networking have become forced referral machines.

You know the groups I’m talking about. The groups where there can only be one person in each profession on the roster. I’m not going to name any of them but there are a few that I know of that have been around for years and are thriving. Those are the ones that are truly a networking group and not a referral group. They function well as a group and business is shared naturally.

The value of networking is that you meet people you like, you learn about what they do, you might even spend time with them outside of your organized networking meeting, but recognize that to truly network, you don’t have to go to a meeting. You can choose the people you want to know, in the fields that compliment your own business, and meet them for coffee or lunch or a glass of wine after work. There’s nothing that says the only way to build a great network of people is through a mass meeting. Those mass meetings are great for making an introduction to people who match your values and serve a mutual target audience and then it’s up to you to build a stronger connection with those people. You need to choose carefully by first getting to know the people before you ask them to refer you or commit to referring them. If there’s a match, then you will be able to refer each other business effortlessly and collaborate on a project when the opportunity arises.

I am not suggesting that you neglect to talk shop. You definitely need to clearly communicate what work you do and what work you want, and express that you look forward to working with them at some point. You leave it open. Networking is not a series of closing meetings. Don’t add pressure or suggest a time frame by when you need a referral. Business, for the most part, does not work that way and a premature, high-pressured ask, comes across as greedy and presumptuous.

Here’s a tip for choosing meetings. I have learned to evaluate meetings from a return on investment (ROI) perspective. If there is a luncheon for $35 or more, then there needs to be a speaker, and the speaker needs to be someone I want to hear. A luncheon does not allow a great deal of time for conversation. Rather, for $35 I can treat one member of that group to a nice lunch and get more out of a one-on-one conversation over a Chinese chicken salad than I can get to know nine other people at a table over a $35 plate of chewy chicken piccata.

In stark contrast are referral groups that rely on forced agreements with people you might not even like, let alone want to endorse with a referral. I joined one of these a few years ago when a good friend of mine was spearheading a new group. I was looking at expanding my client docket and thought this might be a great way to do it. After a few months–during which I hired the cleaning lady, frequented the massage therapist, and had a number of one-on-one meetings with some lovely people—it was clear that I wasn’t going to benefit from any homerun referrals. The other members just did not run in circles with people who make decisions about their company’s marketing and public relations needs. It was awkward with people whose expectation was that I was going to transfer all the contacts in my personal directory to them so they could solicit them for life insurance. It just doesn’t work that way and the expectation diminished any rapport I would have created with them if we had simply networked.

The premise that it is one-of-a-kind in each business slot is also one I don’t believe in. My friend told me how well it had worked for her in a previous group. But it’s only as good as the group. When I left, all the networking I had done left too. There’s no loyalty once you are out of the group. Real networking has longevity and is based on relationship building, not club membership. The referrals simply become a mechanism of the club and not a sincere, thought-out attempt to make a match. It’s extremely superficial and almost a juvenile approach to doing business. Where I saw it working best was mostly home repair services where the trade is oftentimes more important than the personality of the workers.

Be mindful when you are building your business that a successful referral base comes from networking not net-asking.

McCormick L.A. has been helping businesses and organizations in and around Long Beach with their public relations and marketing needs for over 20 years. 



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