A tax professional recently complained that he thought the whole "networking thing" was over-hyped and just didn't work.
"Why do you say that?" I asked.
"Because I belong to several associations and I've never gotten a single lead from any of them," he said.
"Are you active in the groups and attend meetings regularly?" I asked.
"Well, no. I don't have time. But I think I'm listed in their membership directories."
Networking does work for professionals in all fields, but there's a lot more to it than putting your practice's name in an industry directory. To benefit from networking you must be organized and proactive. You need to choose a target, plan a strategy and then work your plan. Here are several tips to help you succeed.
Don't try to market to everyone. "Everyone" is much too broad a target to market effectively to. Businesses and individuals like to do business with people they know and trust. Instead of wasting time and advertising dollars trying to reach a broad spectrum of clients, choose one or two niches such as small retailers, middle-aged consumers who have parents in nursing homes, or technology companies, for instance.
Join the associations or civic groups that your targeted customers join. Focus on just a few key industries. Don't be a no-show or passive observer at meetings. Get active. Go to meetings as often as possible and work on one or two committees. Arrive early to meetings and be slow to leave. Your goal: to be the first person everyone remembers and suggests when others ask, "Do you know anyone who…?"
Build your own small network. Look for other professionals who serve the same clients you want to reach, but who don't compete directly with you. Get together formally or informally to share business tips, referrals, leads and even mailings.
Give talks related to your area of expertise. Talk to libraries and industry associations and get on their list of presenters for meetings. It will usually take several months to get scheduled, so plan ahead.
Use your slow periods to write articles about subjects your practice specializes in and contribute them to appropriate web sites and newsletters published by local associations. Be sure to include not only a byline, but also your email address and a link to your web site. Then, remember to read your email and respond to it daily. Most publications have several weeks to several months lead time, so plan in advance.
Get prospects and clients to talk about their businesses and personal lives. And listen to what they are saying. Are they pressed for time? Are they worried about some particular problem? Use what they tell you to sell potential clients what they really want to buy. Although you may be offering tax preparation services, Mary Smith may really want the time-saving benefits of your service. And, John Jones may want the peace of mind that comes from knowing that all his tax work is done properly.
Make yourself known to the media. Let them know about your area of expertise and that you are available for interviews or to be a guest on local cable TV shows or local talk radio. To set yourself apart from other experts in your community, don't just send one press release and forget about it. Compile a series of press releases containing brief tips or information about your specialty. Then send one release a week over a period of a month or two to make your name familiar. Call ahead and find out what reporter or show host should get your press release.
Keep in touch with contacts you've made in the past. Call now and then just to say hello or to pass along some general piece of industry information. Ask how projects they are working on are going, mention news articles you've seen about them, and congratulate them on any recent successes they've had. Keep the details straight by making notes in a contact manager each time your talk to a client or prospect. Remember, sales grow out of relationships, and this is a good way to establish relationships with key contacts and prospects.
Attend local industry trade shows. Even if you don't have a booth at the show, be there to meet and greet people in your industry. If you do have a booth, get there early and stay late. Networking with other vendors at the show can be a good source of business and leads.
Follow up on leads. All the leads in the world are worthless if you don't follow up on them. Make notes on the back of business cards to help you remember specific contacts. Make the phone calls or send the information you promised. Then, follow up at regular intervals just to stay in touch. Marketing isn't a one-time hit-or-miss proposition. Building a successful practice takes patience and ongoing marketing.
Don't forget to ask for the business. Like it or not, selling is part of any business.