This article is a ten minute read.
Over the past six months, and following various COVID restrictions, I've found myself at quite a few social / work events. You could call them networking events, but whenever I hear that phrase, I think of those prescriptive speed dating-style events that would see me run a mile faster than Steve Ovett.
I have realised two things at these events, many of which have been alongside people in professional services. Firstly, many people struggle with the formality of putting on a facade and don't want to put a foot wrong representing their business. Secondly, the opportunities are brilliant if you choose the right events and work your network in the best way possible. It's rarely an immediate return, but when you are dealing with people, what better way to create, enhance and develop a personal brand that people remember.
So, here's my advice on leveraging your network as a local professional and how you can make the most of (still) one of the strongest ways to grow a customer base, all with a strategic approach and some productivity tools.
The Local Evolution
Before the Internet, people had limited local choices. If you wanted a solicitor, accountant, or any other local professional, you had to ask someone you trusted for a recommendation or skim through the adverts in the local paper. Because of that, professionals didn't need to try that hard, especially the men, if I dare say so.
That's changed. The Internet has brought about ultimate choice, instant comparison and the automation of many processes, reducing the amount of available profitable work. That means that if you are a local professional that wants to grow, you will have to work much harder to acquire clients (and retain them) while competing in a much more crowded space. And that's why you must develop a personal brand and become a salesperson whether you like it or not. The good news, though, is that it's not as daunting as it sounds.
Your Personal Brand
When people talk about brands, we often think of Apple, Nike, or the like. The truth is that we all have a brand whether we think we do or not. And, I'm not just talking about your business; I'm talking about you as a person.
You may think of this simply as your personality, something that is immovable. But, I am sure you can see the difference of how you are with your friends and family, say, and how you adapt your personality for work; or in a meeting.
You adapt. You have already created choices about the job you do and the person you are at work. Yes, it's still you, but it's a version of you that can be developed in the same way a performer creates their persona.
Defining Your Own Brand
I absolutely think this is essential. You can not be all things to all people. Some people automatically define themselves as the 'cheap option' because they don't do anything to define themselves. Because they don't stand out, they take what they can get, and the spiral continues.
Personally, I learned a very long-time ago that not everyone warms to you. And that's fine. You can waste a lot of time trying to fit a square peg in a round hole but when you have clarity on who you are and what you bring, as long as it works within the remit of your employer, it helps you focus.
What kind of work do you like doing?
This sounds self-indulgent, but it's not. And, you won't always get your way. But, if you can define the type of work you want to do within your field and hone in on it, it becomes much easier to be identifiable in the market.
Wherever you are in your career, a realistic appraisal of what you can offer - and to who - gives you a strong foundation to build upon in terms of creating your sales proposition.
How much can you sell it for?
This is the classic price question. Market forces dictate, especially in the early days, as you build your reputation, but sometimes less is more, especially when it comes to profitability.
Pricing your services based on what someone wants to spend suits their agenda, not yours. Stay on top of market prices, so you are not out of touch and pitch accordingly. And remember, in the race to the bottom, there are no winners.
Who will buy into it (and you) ?
Ultimately, having good clients comes down to respect. You respect the work they give you, and they respect your value. If those two elements are missing, someone will not end up fulfilled. If you want your customers to become your external sales team, you need to delight them. (Online, you very rarely get average reviews - it's always very good and very bad).
So, make sure that you focus on the people who will value you and become your advocate.
How are you going to share your message?
This is an important one. Where will you find like-minded people that match your target market? Is it a networking event? Are you going to do social media? Whatever you choose needs to be:
- Realistic - It needs to combine with your day job, so start small.
- Scalable - How big does it need to get, so it remains manageable.
- Relevant - You need to remain focused on the end-game.
- Consistent - It's an ongoing process, not a short-term project.
How much time can you spend growing your brand and expanding your reach? There is a balance. The more focused you are on the points above, the easier it becomes to be more discerning.
When I first started in business, I was scared. I hated networking and sales and lacked focus. Then one day, I took a look around and realised all my clients were similar. They were sales-focused business owners.
I asked them, "why me?". The main answer I got back was that I was straight-talking (sometimes too much for my own good). I was honest and always questioned why people should spend money on what I offered. They loved it. They were advocates.
Meanwhile, I also got frustrated working with most marketers that came my way. They focused on things I didn't think mattered. They'd churn out stats to make it seem like they were doing a great job without delivering anything tangible. Me, being me, I couldn't help pointing it out.
So that became my thing - A straight-talking marketing consultant who doesn't bullshit. If Craig says it's a good idea, it's because he means it.
I obviously need to be consistent with that brand proposition, which I am; my persona aligns. I am also often disparaging of some of the marketing techniques small businesses use as part of this. I only work with clients who fit my agenda, and I have built a robust and focused reputation.
To balance that potential perceived gruffness - in reality, I am a pussycat - I help people. I take a lot of free coffee meetings to give people objective advice. I connect with like-minded people with no agenda other than helping them. My network has grown.
I'm not selfish with it either; I bring relevant people into the fold, especially younger people who show promise. I also work with local causes that proactively accept straightforward advice.
I realised a few years ago that I get my business through face-to-face interactions. Perhaps it's an environment where my passion for what I do doesn't come across as arrogance.
When I found myself being asked to go to local business events - awards, rotary club events, rugby lunches, etc. - I said yes. I did early mornings, evenings and weekends. These events also fitted my personality as I matured and became more confident.
As soon as I stopped worrying if everyone liked me, things fell into place.
Relationships & CRM
In the old days, we had the Rolodex. Then the Filofax, which went digital with the Palm Pilot. Nowadays, we have sophisticated CRM systems (Customer Relationship Management) for storing and recording our interactions. But, whether you are still paper-based or have an all-singing, all-dancing CRM solution in place, it isn't the system you have that's important; it's how you use it.
In a world where we are told that no one wants to share their data, we are given it in so many ways. We're also giving it away ourselves when you think about how online stores like Amazon, or Tesco on the high street, not only measure your interactions but leverage them to sell you more stuff.
So, I am not advocating keeping detailed dossiers about people, just capturing and utilising their details to help you manage relationships better.
I'm not really the best person to advise which route to take if you want to get a CRM system, but I've been using Hubspot for some time now, both for myself as well as clients.
The first rule is that when you enter stuff, enter it upfront when you get it. When you start cutting corners with your data entry, you'll find it much harder to remember details later. Set up custom fields to segment people for further down the line as your data sets mature, and enter data methodically.
By keeping good quality data, tracking conversations and setting task reminders to continue them, you can create much more engagement; and you'll remember more detail. You can even integrate your email with Hubspot so that a conversation trail can be kept all in one place for reference.
Ultimately, a CRM system allows you to manage your conversations and reputation because you are taking control. When you work so hard to make new connections, why would you not work hard to enhance the relationship, as long as you remember to cherish the integrity.
It's worth a reminder here. Although we are talking about data and relationships, people are people. As soon as you start treating them as opportunities, you'll get pushed away. The most effective way of selling yourself long-term is by being magnanimous and working hard to build your reputation.
Growing Your Reputation
When you are a seasoned pro - a little bit older and wiser - and have had time to cultivate a reputation, it's a little bit easier. But, when you're starting out, maybe at an earlier point in your career, how should you begin?
Well, first things first, it takes time. After all, you are looking to build trust. In the same way as a personal relationship develops, it's a case of one-step-at-a-time. But don't let that put you off. The sooner you start, the closer you get to cultivating better relationships.
Understand and accept your current position, realise it takes time to change and look to leverage other people's authority if you need to. And, as you progress, be careful who you sit with.
Alignment Example One
When I decided to leave an agency and go it alone as a freelancer, I aligned myself with a local networking-type person who had a crossover with the same kind of work I did. Within six months, I realised that if I remained with them as an ally, in the circles they moved in, I would end up being too far down the food chain, working for people who did not value what I did. So I jumped ship and found new people to connect with.
Alignment Example Two
I recently went to a networking event for professionals, and one law firm had sent their junior members to attend. From chatting to my contact at the law firm, I know that this was because they wanted the younger team members to grow their own networks.
It's intimidating as a 20-something, being in a room with more senior people, and they were a bit quiet. But, what if they played up to that supposed weakness as a strength. We were all young once, and we know the drill, so why not play the game?
Yes, my firm has sent me as one of the junior members. I'm here to create new connections as I am looking towards a younger generation of clients. Do you have any similar connections in your own firm?
You could own that market. Remember, you can choose who you compete with. Why compete with experience when you are young and vice versa?
If you are working hard to build your personal brand, we've already discussed consistency, relevance and perseverance. These are even more important when it goes online, where nuance gets lost, and you are up against the world.
What you say (and don't say) goes in the pot of how you are perceived, so authenticity and a focus on your end-game are essential.
That said, don't be scared to experiment as your personal brand evolves. You have an excellent opportunity to connect faster through association, and if you combine your online presence with a local one, you should be able to leverage your connections with even more authority.
In the same way that any connection you make should be geared towards your end game, so too should your social footprint. Be bold, be opinionated, but stay 'on brand'.
As your network builds, you can start to pay more attention to the connections you have, rather than trying to attract new people. As long as your relationships align with your goals, you just need to work hard to maintain your reputation with the people who matter - engaging dialogue and a continued magnanimous approach to networking. The day you stop doing this is the day people start talking about someone else.
Your CRM can guide you if you use it effectively, highlighting events and conversations to follow up on. Always remember, they may be someone hungrier waiting in the wings.
Take clients, for instance. If the only time you ever speak to them is when you want something, the relationship is too one-sided. In reality, the sale has already been made or lost by the time an order comes around based on your actions (or inactions) up to that point.
There is no magic way of developing a great local network. But, if you are a professional looking to establish a long-standing career of quality and relevance, it's essential to understand that you have a brand whether you like it or not.
You can either go with the flow and let other people decide based on your own inaction. Or, you can take control and determine what that brand might be and how you are going to work it.