A number of years ago I headed up a national network of consultants, most of whom were accountants in public practice. We ran annual conferences, and in one particular year I decided to engage a firm to carry out personality profiles for all those attending the conference. While it was hugely successful and created many great conversations, it was also notable for another reason.
Before the conference I met with the managing director of the personality profiling firm to give him some background on what we did and where our members came from. Our goal was, essentially, to develop business ‘facilitators’ and make them better business advisors as opposed to compliance accountants. As I explained this I received a look of astonishment from the MD. When I asked about his response, he explained: “I have done a lot of profiling of accountants over a number of years and this has shown me that, only 15-20% of accountants have the profile to be successful as facilitators. So either my stats are wrong or you have been successful in attracting a large portion of accountants with the ‘right’ profile into your network”.
When we did the profiles it was clear that the latter was true. Just over 90% of those who attended the conference came within the profile he nominated as being required to be an effective facilitator. While I don’t put too much faith in profiles – people can’t be put in boxes – this was a result that made me sit up and take notice.
How many accountants, I wondered, are going to be able to make it in the new world?
Technology is driving changes that are disrupting the structure of accounting practices, now and in the future. This has particularly impacted compliance services – the core work of most accounting practices. As prices drop through technology-driven price competition and as technology is able to reduce the requirement for a visit to the accountant, revenues and profits continue to drop.
In response, accountants have cut costs trying to protect profits. They’ve taken work offshore.
Others have adopted a more progressive strategy: to grow fees beyond compliance work by developing ‘value-added’ services and moving into business advisory services.
Many services of professional service firms, and the accounting profession is no different, are based on the professional adviser, being the ‘expert’, solving ‘technical problems’ for their clients. The basic communication style appropriate for this type of problem-solving is called ‘advocacy’ – the professional adviser advocates the best or the ‘right’ decision. The dentist tells you what is wrong with your teeth and what you need to do to resolve it. While you may seek a second opinion your role is to make the decision as to whether you want to go ahead or not. Apart from keeping your mouth open, you have a small role in the final solution. The dentist solves the problem for you.
Accountants who move into business advisory services encounter clients with a different type of problem – adaptive problems. Adaptive problems do not have such clearly defined solutions – what works in one organisation may not work in another; what works today may not work tomorrow. Staff loyalty is an example.
Adaptive problems are ‘evolved’ rather than ‘solved’. Once a tooth is filled the problem is solved; staff loyalty is worked on each and every day.
Adaptive problems are evolved by a facilitator who uses an inquiry conversational style.
The inquiry conversational style involves more than asking questions; it requires a different skill-set than what most accountants are used to. There is a key shift: while experts solve technical problems for their clients, clients solve adaptive problems (under the guidance of the facilitator). Adaptive problems not only require a different conversational style but also a different way of thinking about value, problem-solving and how the service is delivered.
For many business people and professionals, networking is their primary source of business, while many others frequently claim to put a lot of effort into networking without seeing much return. What’s going on here? Why does networking work for some people, but not for others? What about you?
Networking, according to those who are successful at doing it — meaning they actually can attribute significant new business from the activity of networking — is NOT about finding people who may be good prospects for your products and services. It’s NOT about looking for potential new clients and customers for your firm. It’s NOT!
Successful networking is about finding and developing ongoing relationships with “advocates” — people who will refer you, recommend you and introduce you to potential buyers of your products and services. It’s “who you know who knows who you want to meet”.
Good networkers do not view the attendees they meet at an event as their prospects. That is unless an attendee says, “I should probably hire you!”
Remember, those attendees are at the event to grow their own business.
If anything, attendees at networking events, conferences, cocktail parties, etc. are potential referral sources. They know hundreds perhaps even thousands
of other people and may potentially connect you to your next prospect
and maybe even many more prospects after that.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying you won’t ever find a new client or customer while you’re out there doing a bit of networking. In some cases, you will. I’m just saying it won’t happen as often as you would like. Nor am I saying that your networking associates won’t ever buy from you. Some will, but not not nearly enough of them.
The reality is the lion’s share of your future new business will NOTcome directly from the people you meet in a networking environment. It will come indirectly as a result of those people talking about how great you are to the people THEY know. This word-of-mouth advertising advertising leads to a referral — your best, most profitable source of new business.
So here’s the rub. If networking is not working for you it means you don’t have enough advocates out there dropping your name and bragging about youand your business totheir friends and associates.
YOU NEED MORE ADVOCATES!
Foranyone that claims to put a lot of effort into networking without seeing much return, there’s a paradigm shift that needs to take place if they’re going to get the results they’d like to get. That shift is to move from looking for “prospects” to looking for “advocates”. Meaning, if you’re focusing solely on finding your next client or customer, you’ll miss out on making a lot of valuable connections who can refer business your way.
If you have no interest in establishing relationships, and you just want to sell to the people you meet, you are missing the opportunity to discover whether or not they might be useful advocates for you and your business. It’s your loss!
To make networking work for you, think beyond this person as a client/customer for me or can this person hire me when you meet people. The person you’re talking to may not need your services but someone or several some-ones in their network may. The idea is to develop a trusting relationship with the people you meet by following up and staying in touch with them. Over time you want to ensure that they know what your products/services/solutions are, what problems they solve for what type of people and the typical results you tend to achieve for your clients. If you get the relationship right — it takes time; one cup of coffee is never enough — and you have a good enough message about your offerings (i.e. it’s easily understood), they will happily refer you and recommend you to the people they know. And if they see your product or service as a solution to their problem or the means to achieving their goal, they’ll happily buy from you too.
Remember it’s “who you know who knows who you want to meet”.
Think of every person you meet as someone who could refer
business your way or help you gain valuable information.
Build relationships with people so that they will refer
others in their networks who need your services.
DON’T MAKE THIS BIG NETWORKING MISTAKE………….
It’s easy to dismiss people after talking to them for 60 seconds if they don’t fit the profile of our perfect client or customer. It’s easy to think, “I should cut this conversation short and move on. This person doesn’t need what I sell.” It’s easy to forget that this person knows a lot of other people. For example, their best friend maybe the owner of a business that is an ideal prospect for your services. Instead of eliminating this person, you can build a friendly rapport with them and have a warm referral (or even hot personal introduction) to a great prospect.
AND REMEMBER THIS………….
One of the biggest turnoffs at networking events is people that are solely there to build their own businesses. Don’t get me wrong ― that’s a reason we’re all there! I’m talking about the person who is keen to talk about what they do and explore how you can help them but they never ask about what you do and how they may reciprocate. The most successful networking conversations are win-win, give-and-take encounters. By focusing on how you can help others, people will be drawn to you and want to help you back. It’s human nature.
Those who are successful at networking don’t
build relationships to “get”, they build them to ‘give”.
So think referrals, think introductions, think word-of-mouth recommendations. Think about who can make those happen for you. In other words, focus on finding and meeting potential advocates — and if you find a good prospect for your firm, that’s a bonus!
An advocate may be the CEO of your local chamber of commerce. S/he may be in the marketing, finance or human resources department. They might be another business owner or professional. They might be responsible for sales or business development in a non-competing company. They might be a supplier to your business. They may sit on a committee at your surf club or head up a not-for-profit. Typically, they are well-connected and well-regarded.
Advocates may not buy your product or service today, or ever, but in time they may put you in touch with numerous others who could.
One advocate can bring you 5, 10 or more clients while if you pursue one potential prospect you will often end up frustrated and with zero new sales. Successful networking requires a shift in focus from trying to meet prospects to trying to find and meet advocates.
Approaching networking in this way takes the pressure off you to “sell” and means the other person feels no pressure to “buy”. You won’t be “elevator pitching” your products and services to everyone you come into contact with, trying to make a sale. You won’t be spraying your business cards around like confetti. And you won’t be turning people off. Instead, you’ll be better received, you’ll make better connections and, ultimately, you’ll have much more success in winning new business.
If you just go looking for clients and customers, there is always that
tension that you are sizing people up and down, trying to
figure out if it is worth investing time in someone.
I have said it repeatedly; networking is all about building relationships. I’m not trying to directly sell my services to “potential clients”; I look at networking as attempting to build relationships with people who could refer me business. I don’t have to sell directly to people I meet because if they need my services, they’ll find find me; they’ll let me know.
Take the stress out of your conversations altogether. Rather than
looking to turn your contacts into clients, look to
turn THEIR relationships into clients.
The real power of networking is in
who THEY know: there are many more opportunities there.
Remember, it’s “who you know who knows who you want to meet”.
So who are your potential advocates? Think about the businesses, the people who are in regular touch with your ideal clients or customers. How will you find them and when you do find them how will you approach them and what will you say to connect with them? Then how will you go about building a relationship right with them and ensuring they understand the value you bring to the table so they will want to refer you and recommend you? It takes some work and patience, but it pays off BIG TIME!
Ron Gibson, Associate Advisor with ATL Network.
Ron can be contacted on 0413 420 538 or firstname.lastname@example.org