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Choose to Network

We all know that networking with current and potential customers can add to your sales volume in a big way. We also know that a lot of networking takes place in organized groups at events held after business hours. And we know that networking should be a part of every retailer’s marketing plan. Problem is, if it were easy, we would all be doing it regularly.

Choose to Network

“Networking is an investment in your business. It takes time and, when done correctly, can yield great results for years to come.”—Diane Helbig

By Fran Carville, CRM, Carco Awards/

We all know that networking with current and potential customers can add to your sales volume in a big way. We also know that a lot of networking takes place in organized groups at events held after business hours. And we know that networking should be a part of every retailer’s marketing plan. Problem is, if it were easy, we would all be doing it regularly.

Everyone knows the old saying, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” So, who do you know? Do you ask current customers for referrals? Do businesses that you patronize do business with you? Do your employees tell their friends and families about what you do? Do you make cold calls to find customers? Are you active in your community as a representative of your company? These are all opportunities to make new customers.

Over the years, I’ve had retailers tell me that networking in any way, shape, or form just does not work for them. If you feel that way, maybe it’s time to look at your approach to networking and revamp your strategies, rather than just throwing in the towel. So, let’s start with me sharing five mistakes that I’ve made over the years with networking.

Networking Mistakes

  1. Join a new group without doing any research. Membership in many organizations is declining because younger consumers do not feel the same way about joining groups for altruistic reasons that baby boomers do. Many consumers feel that being active on social media is all the networking they need. Some organizations have consolidated or disbanded due to a lack of funds and the inability to recruit new members.

    The very organization that might have been the perfect match for your business 5 years ago may not help your company at all in the future. Joining a group just because it was easy to find may not be your best option.

    Instead, take a good look at what is available in your community. A well-known, established organization may have a new group that revolves around a certain profession, special interest, or good cause. How about joining the convention bureau, a neighborhood association, a religious organization, a professional fraternity, an alumni chapter, or a group with a philanthropic mission? Once you have narrowed your selection to a couple of organizations, ask if you can attend a meeting as a visitor to see if the group’s members are a part of your target audience. Only then do you join!

  2. Join a group, pay your dues, and never attend an event. Been there, done that! What’s that old saying about good intentions? You took the time to do your research, you chose an organization that is filled with members of your target audience, you are primed for success—and then you’re too busy, you’re too tired, you’ll attend next month, you’ll get it together soon. And before you know it, it is time to renew your membership. No new customers, no new prospects, and you drop your membership.

  3. Attend a group’s event and pretend to network. Think about what you may have done in the past. Most of us (or maybe just me) walk into a gathering, look around like a deer in headlights, and immediately go to visit with someone you already know. It is comfortable to spend time with those we already have a relationship with. It may result in a nice evening, but this strategy will probably not get you even one new customer. Not one! If you make a commitment to be active in a group to build your customer base, you will need to meet new people. Shake hands, smile, make introductions, pitch in and help. Get off the sidelines and into the game.

    Join a committee. This gives you an opportunity to interact with fellow members. Volunteer to register attendees at functions. Welcome new members with a hand-written note. Talk to the person in charge to ensure you are doing the awards for the group.

  4. Make a hard sales pitch to other members. No one wants a salesperson talking products or services at a function designed to help an organization. As soon as other members see you as a member interested in the mission of the group, they will start to ask about what your business does. When that happens, be prepared with a good, solid answer that will entice others to visit your store.

  5. Join a group you disagree with. No matter how many potential customers are in an organization, if the group’s philosophies or values are very different from yours, it would probably be better to pass on membership. A Republican joining a Democratic group. A picky eater joining a fine dining club. A baseball aficionado joining a soccer club. Chances are, you will be miserable surrounded by consumers with different views. In fact, you just might lose potential customers if you are vocal about your feelings.

Networking Successfully

  1. Whenever possible, circulate during events. Meet as many people as possible, without appearing to be jumping around with the sole purpose of finding customers.
  2. Be prepared. A quote by Christine Lynch says that “networking is marketing.” Take the time to determine how you can reach fellow members in the most positive way.
  3. Be patient. You probably won’t get lots of new customers from the first function you attend. Probably not many from the second or third function, either. Give yourself a full year to determine if your active participation will pay off before you evaluate your membership.
  4. Offer members-only specials in your store. Work with your group’s leadership to offer specials to members or to donate a percentage of profits to the group any time a member purchases from you.
  5. Learn to listen. That saying about how you have two ears and only one mouth is true in networking. While everyone else is trying to get their elevator speech in, people will have a good feeling about the awards retailer who took time to listen.
  6. Market to organizations, even if you cannot join. Pick up the telephone, call the group’s director, and ask how you can help as a merchant. Many groups, especially nonprofits, need silent auction donations, sponsorships, or just businesses to advocate for their cause.
  7. Support groups by offering your store for events. Put a drop box in your store or serve as a collection point for charity drives. Consider selling a fundraiser project in your store.
  8. Become a part of an online group. Several social media platforms have communities filled with your target audience. You might join a marketing professionals group, a high school alumni group, or a group focused on the betterment of your community.
  9. Offer to promote a group’s events on your website or Facebook page.

Still not sure about what type of organization is the right one to grow your business? Try one of these: sports groups, a merchants’ organization, a booster club, SCORE, a sorority or fraternity alumni group, a community service club, the symphony league, a reunion group, a professional group with affiliated members, a charity or nonprofit, the volunteers in public schools or a hundred other clubs, groups or organizations.

Do your homework. Join and be active. Market. Listen. Reach out. Choose to network regularly and watch your sales grow!

Fran Carville, CRM, is an Awards and Personalization Association past president, educational speaker, 2008 Speaker of the Year, a member of the Hall of Fame, and winner of an Award of Excellence from the APEX Awards for Publication Excellence. Fran and her husband, Tom Carville, CRM, own Carco Awards in Baton Rouge, LA.

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