Written by Chris Lambrinides
CHAPTER 20 - NETWORKING
I’m not a fan of traditional networking methods. It’s not in my personality, but many swear by them, and they do work. Like anything, you get what you put into it.
Business Network International (BNI) is self-described as the world’s largest business networking organization in the world.
With over 180,000 members worldwide, BNI generated 6.6 million referrals last year alone. That resulted in $8.6 billion worth of business for its members.
BNI has local chapters all over the world. Members get together once a week, usually for breakfast. They meet, talk, and make a commitment to send each other referrals and work. They allow only one service provider from any given field to take part. So, if your local chapter already has a window cleaner, you would not be able to join. Membership is usually $500 a year, and then you have the added expense of breakfast once a week.
My friend, who swears by them, told me this:
“BNI is a group of professionals meeting once a week at the same time. They are a tight-knit professional network of friends who refer business back and forth, all with the distinct goal of helping each other generate sales and revenue. It’s like having a group of salespeople working for you whom you don’t have to pay. It’s completely referral based, and it’s all about those relationships. The reason you see each other each week is because that allows you to focus on and keep your company top of mind.”
The expense aspect isn’t a problem for me; rather, it’s more about the fixed weekly time commitment. Aside from attending each week, you also have to spend a considerable amount of time helping other members with referrals.
To me, it seems like the time could be better spent. If I used these three hours a week for something else, it would be easier and cheaper to generate an equal amount of work. But, hey, who knows? Many window cleaners swear by BNI.
Most local markets have one of these each year; our county has two. One is at a local high school, and another is at our fairgrounds. The one at the high school is pretty neat. It features local businesses from around the county and surrounding areas. Last time I checked, a booth was about $750. These can be an excellent opportunity to meet with existing and prospective local customers.
Are home shows and garden shows right for you? I’m not sure. If you have one, and it’s in one of your best towns, it might be. Be sure to crunch the numbers and that it makes financial sense.
Keep the following costs in mind:
1) Entry fee: $500–$1,500.
2) The show setup fees and electricity. They usually charge extra for electricity after the fact. You’re going to need it, so be sure to get the costs.
3) Professional booth design: $1,000–$1,500. But it’s reusable. If you plan on doing these often, invest in a proper setup.
4) Staffing and labor costs.
Do your research
1) Be sure you ask about the traffic. How many people (prospective customers) attended last year?
2) Who usually exhibits? Get a list of last year’s vendor attendees, if you can. It’s likely listed on their website, if they have one for the show. Are your competitors there? If so, can you outdo them? Can you put together a better look and feel in comparison with them? If you’re convinced you cannot, should you go anyway?
Cover your costs
If you do it, be sure you have the ability to schedule customers right on-site. Also, offer a giveaway of your services. Do this through a random drawing, and assimilate the leads you collect into your database. After the show is over, do a mailing to any leads you collected from people who did not schedule with you. Consider offering them a specific coupon or special, and be sure to mention how nice it was meeting them.
We were never able to schedule enough work at one of these to pay directly for the costs of attending. But we usually were able to make it worthwhile on the back end. We made it back with remarketing to the attendees who entered our drawing or signed up for more information. The back-end sales usually ended up being four to one over the on-site sales.
It’s all about the staffing
Give great consideration to the staffing of your booth. You have to have the right personality for this. If you’re a friendly, upbeat person, you will be fine. I would recommend that you, as the owner, attend and make sure everything goes off without a hitch. Whom you put in this booth is the most important aspect of the whole thing. They have to be neat, clean, friendly, and knowledgeable about your company and service. Most importantly, though, they need to be approachable.
They have to exude positivity, friendliness, and approachability.
Think about it from an attendee’s perspective. You’re browsing around, walking down the aisles. You pass by one booth that’s staffed by a person sitting on a stool, looking down at their phone unenthused.
Then you pass by another booth, and a friendly, smiling face greets you with an introduction. This person proactively engages you in conversation. Whom are you more likely to stop and talk to? If you’re in the market for a home service, whom are you more likely to use? If you can’t be there yourself with an assistant, be sure the person you send is a great representative of your company.
Always have someone there to help and talk to additional people who stop by. If people are not stopping by, you will have to get out into the aisle and start conversations with passersby. Make sure your assistant or representative can handle that.
Invite attendees into your space. Start with a general conversation or information about a giveaway you are doing. Don’t talk about your service unless they ask. Talk about them, and open with some small talk.
Here is an example of a great trade show booth:
It has all the necessary elements. You have the backdrop, the side display, and the literature stand. This is a good setup. It’s warm and inviting, and the literature stand is a nice touch.
It gives your potential customers the opportunity to step into the booth and have a conversation. They can also take home some literature and an advertisement for your company.
You don’t need to have something this elaborate, but a nice professional design will usually pay for itself. Give strong consideration to this if you think you have a lot of these shows in your future.
In an ideal world, you would make a connection to and have a conversation with all attendees who come through. But that’s not ever going to be possible. Do try to meet as many people as you can, and do collect as much data from them as you can. But also have things in place to collect information. There will be times when you and your assistant get wrapped up in conversations. You want passersby to still be able to get your materials and leave their data.
If you have an iPad, consider bringing it and using it to collect leads. MailChimp has a great free app called Chimpadeedoo, which collects e-mail addresses. You can set it up to have people opt into a giveaway with it. Their e-mail address will automatically go to your new “home show list.” You can also use a Google form and a laptop. That will get all your collected data into one neat spreadsheet for review after the show.
Do a giveaway
What to give away? I think a free, complete home service could be good. I have also seen iPads used as trade show giveaway gifts. I mean, who doesn’t like an iPad? Even if you already have one, you’d take another, as it has value. You’ll have to decide what to give away; just be sure it’s a cost-effective and highly desired item. It comes down to giving something away that you think will drive the absolute most sign-ups. Of course, you want to remarket to them later. What’s the hot gadget this year? Maybe that’s what you want.
What type of literature to have? Think business cards, trifold brochures, refrigerator magnets, and maybe a recent direct mail piece.
Add a candy bowl or mints, as well. Standard giveaways include promotional items like company-branded pens, water bottles, and key chains. However, I’m not a fan of those; they seem tacky and overused.
I have also seen window cleaners take it a step further and enhance their booth with audio and video. If you have a great video about your company or even a YouTube video, you may consider setting that up on rotation.
I’ve also seen booth setups with a demonstration window. Staff it with a window cleaner, and show people how the process works. I’m not sure either of these two extra items will help with converting attendees into customers, but they are worth mentioning for your consideration.
Most importantly, go in with a plan. Go in knowing your costs and what you need to make to recoup them. You likely won’t do it on-site, but you can on the back end.
What else do you want to accomplish there? Connecting with existing clients is a good one. It’s nice to reconnect and often meet them for the first time in person. They may know of you and your staff only from over the phone. I have often met customers I have talked to only over the phone or through e-mails for years. It’s nice to finally make a real connection and put a face to the name. It can help solidify the relationship.
A strategic alliance is an agreement between two or more parties to pursue agreed-upon objectives, all while remaining independent organizations.
With this definition, it’s safe to say we can consider a strategic alliance a form of networking. This can be perfect when you share a group of potential customers with another noncompeting service provider.Window cleaning companies could align with the following types of companies:
House cleaning services, glass installers, landscapers, pooper- scooper companies, maintenance companies, etc. You get the idea.
To get started, create a list of potential alliances in your service area.
1) Make a big list, and find five different companies in ten different verticals.
2) Tabulate all their contact information in a spreadsheet.
3) Research them a bit; read their reviews.
4) Narrow down your list to one or two professionals in ten verticals.
5) Reach out to them with an introductory e-mail.
It can be a simple e-mail, and it can go something like this:
“Hi, Mike. My name is Chris from Sparta Window Cleaning. My company gets requests for recommendations for the service your company offers. We are not interested in providing this service. But we would like to have a reputable local company to recommend to our clients. If you have any interest in this or would like to chat, please let me know. My number is 862-266-0677, or I can also reach out to you. Thank you very much, and I look forward to speaking with you soon.”
It’s super informal and the start of a friendly conversation. Have a meeting with Mike, and confirm his company would be a good fit for an alliance. If so, work out a deal where you will attempt to refer work back and forth. Take a few hundred of his business cards, and give him a few hundred of yours.
From there, all you need to do is rinse and repeat. Keep reaching out to people until you have a solid list of referable companies. Put them on your e-mail list—a “special segmented list,” of course. And stay in touch with your alliances on a regular basis.
Keep track in your CRM of how much work you receive from each of the alliances. Put in a special campaign code so you can pull a report at a moment’s notice. Also, consider getting together once or twice a year with your alliances. Reinforce the relationship over a coffee, and talk about ways you can refer each other more work in the future.
I used this marketing method for many years. A local cleaning company was the first to reach out to me. Over the years, we ended up recommending hundreds of jobs back and forth. This led to me setting up many other similar relationships. Build this into your marketing plan, and take regular action to set up relationships. It will prove to be a great and long-lasting form of referrals to your business.
Strategic Alliances Expanded
Consider taking your strategic alliances a step further. Create a great core group of business friends in parallel yet complementary businesses.
Let’s say you have a great relationship with a local landscaper and cleaning company. Consider doing some co-opt advertising. Take yourself and two other companies and go in on the price of a direct mail campaign. Create and send out the piece to the shared database of all three companies. This can work and create a great synergy.
1) Expand your reach and potential customer base.
2) Reduce the cost of marketing.
1) You have to have a great and trusting relationship with the partner companies.
2) You have to trust that they will treat your customers as well as or better than you would.
3) You have to trust that this company has no plans in the future to get into your space and compete against you.
4) Your brand message can get a little mixed up when crammed on a direct mail piece with three or four other companies.
There are two different ways to do it:
1) Split the card with three other companies, and you each subsidize 25% of the total cost.
2) Split the card with four other companies and charge each of them 25% of the total cost. This will get your message out for free, but you will have to handle all the legwork. Coordinate the companies creating the offer, and do the artwork. You will also have to prep the data and handle the ordering and mailing.
The whole trick is forming your circle of highly trusted, like-minded business owners. They are out there; you just have to find them and make the connection.
Send an e-mail about these offers to your list, and your strategic alliance returns the favor. You can also do this with your mailing list and vice versa.
Be sure to control the communication and to keep your customers’ data private. Do it in such a way that you’re not handing over proprietary information. Institute a data-management policy to ensure sensitive data does not get abused.