Building Referral Partnerships

win win

As with all aspects of networking, a thoughtful approach to follow-up one-on-one meetings will significantly increase your success from meeting new people at group events.

Note that the following is specific to networking with new contacts for the purposes of building a strategic referral partnership. While there are elements that can be used with an old friend or new potential client, the focus of this article is to qualify new acquaintances for referral partnership purposes and then start the relationship on the right footing.

Making the Connection

Asking questions when meeting someone new is a good way to make friends. Asking about the person’s business, inquiring into his or her interests and talking about their loved ones builds rapport. And if you find common interests or natural affinities with the person ― favorite teams, kids, attended the same university or maybe you both have a passion for tennis ― you’ll elevate the conversation and move the relationship forward. You’re off to a good start.

Are they a potential referral partner?

Now you want to ask some questions to qualify (or disqualify) your new contact as someone with whom you should invest your networking time. Revealing questions to ask are:

  • How long have you been in business?
  • What do you look for in a strategic partner for your business?
  • What can you tell me about your networking activities?
  • What can you tell me about the types of people you usually help?
  • Whom do you currently partner with to give and get referrals?

The idea behind asking these questions is to gain an understanding of your contact’s ability to act as a ‘giver’ (of referrals) and possibly as a long term referral partner for you. If you find that the individual is ‘newer’ to the networking, is clearly out only for himself or herself or already has an established partner in your industry you may not want to invest much time, if any, connecting further with this individual.

One very good question to ask a new contact at a networking event is What should I be listening for to know if someone is a good referral for you?  In fact, this is an important question because it accomplishes a few critical things. First, it’s a sign of generosity that you’ve shown interest in helping someone else. Second, it’s a very professional question that is rarely asked by even the most experienced networkers. Third, it shows genuine interest in helping someone to find good referrals, which builds trust. While accomplishing all of these things it doesn’t commit you to taking immediate action. Remember, you asked “What should I be listening for”, which demonstrates interest without making an actual commitment to provide a referral.

MAJOR INSIGHT: Should your new contact ask you back the same question that would be a good sign that they see networking as a two-way street.

The Next Step    

If you feel that there’s a potential referral partnership to be had it will make sense to suggest a follow-up one-on-one networking meeting, say over coffee or a bite to eat. Before ending the conversation, you might say something like, I’ve  enjoyed meeting you. I’d love to get to know more about you and your business. Would you be open to a conversation about how we might mutually support each other’s business? Odds are your new networking contact will agree to this.

Networking tip. One of the best ways to end a conversation when you’re at a networking event is to be up front with the other person and say, I want to talk to some people here before they leave. Please excuse me.

Make your one-on-one meeting count 

Since time is money in business, we must be careful about those we choose to meet. In your call or email to arrange a meeting, I always recommend that you requalify a new potential referral partner. Ask for the contact’s agreement that the purpose of meeting one-on-one is to see if there’s a ‘fit’.

Isn’t that what this is all about anyway? You’re looking for a win-win relationship and need to establish a ‘fit’ as the goal for your meeting. You just say, I’m looking for a win-win relationship. From my perspective, the purpose of us meeting is for us to determine if there’s a ‘fit’ to work together. Does that sound good to you? In my experience, people respond well to the word ‘fit’.

When you actually meet with your contact start with some small talk. Have you always lived (or worked) around here? As you both warm up a bit, ask How did you get started in this business?

Be prepared with other questions that night help further qualify the contact as a strategic partner or prospective client. I’ve had many meetings that started out as a potential strategic partner meeting, but soon turned into a prospective client meeting due to my questions. There are also questions that might uncover the types of leads the contact has in his or her network that might be fruitful connections for you, including:

  • With whom do you network to find new business?
  • Where do you find you get the best networking results?
  • What are some of the networking methods you use to advance your business?
  • What referral sources are best for you?
  • Who are some of your best strategic partners?
  • What industries or ‘verticals’ (groups of people within a certain industry) do you serve?
  • What size companies do you typically work with?
  • Who at the client companies buys your services?
  • Can you describe your clients? Who is an ideal client for you?
  • What makes you or your company unique?
  • Who’s your competition?
  • What are some of the challenges your company faces every day?
  • How does the economy affect your business?
  • What are your expectations from your best strategic partners?
  • Where do you see yourself or your company in 5 years?
  • Can you tell me why you love what you do?
  • How can I bring you/your skills/services up in conversations with my clients?
  • Is there anything more you’d like to tell me about you/your firm that might help me refer business your way?
  • Have you referred any of your clients to people in my field in the past?
  • How can you see me providing value to your clients?
  • What can I do to help you refer clients to me?
  • What can I do to earn referrals from you?
  • If one of your clients asked you to recommend a good (your skill/service) is there someone you trust that you’d recommend to them?
  • I’m very interested in developing win-win relationships with other professionals who are mindful of two-way business. Do you see any barriers that would prevent us from working together in this way?

While there are hundreds of questions you can ask, try to zero in on three to five that make sense for you and the person you’re meeting with. Your ability to listen, ask questions and dig deeper will dramatically improve your success in these one-on-one networking meetings.

If there IS a ‘fit’…..

At the end of the meeting if both of you see that there’s a clear fit for you to help each other, suggest you try taking a small step forward together, such as making an easy connection for one another or inviting one another to attend an upcoming event. Then ask your contact, How would you feel about that? Again, in my experience people respond well to a suggestion like that.

The reason this is so effective is because it advances and emphasizes the quid pro quo of the ultimate goal in meeting: connections. Think about what your new contact might be seeking from you. Most likely it’s the same thing you’re after: a positive connection that benefits both parties. By agreeing to start small you’re not investing too much of yourself and not receiving so much that you might walk away with a sense of obligation to the contact. The goal of the ‘baby step’ is to test the connection without over- or under- committing, much like tasting a wine before buying the whole bottle.

What if there ISN’T a ‘fit’?

If the meeting isn’t going well and you realise that there’s not a fit, don’t hesitate to speak up and gain the contact’s agreement to move on and not work together. Remember, not everyone will be a good fit for you, and that’s okay. If prospects for a mutually beneficial, two-way business relationship aren’t looking good you might say, In lining up this meeting we agreed that the purpose was to see if there was a fit to work together. Based on our conversation so far, it doesn’t appear there is a good fit. Take another 30 seconds to explain why there might not be a good fit and help the contact understand. If you’re completely uncomfortable bringing this up to someone, just let the meeting run its course over the hour and simply move on.

It’s not always black or white.

With some people, it can take years to develop the type of trust and relationship that makes the person comfortable working with you. Sometimes being in the ‘number two’ position pays off when the person’s current referral relationship falls away. You’ll want to be there and come into your contact’s mind when someone else drops the ball. In which case, you’ll want to keep the connection ‘alive’. Plan a follow-up contact with this person. Put them on your calendar to contact them again in four to six weeks. Take note of any special events they mentioned and call around these times to ask how the event went. From time to time, send a note on something pertinent. Look for something helpful, interesting or relevant that you can forward to your contact. Ideally, you identified an issue where you can be of assistance and you’ll communicate on that topic.

Networking Is Not a One and Done

Remember that one meeting does not make a referral partner. It’s essential that the first meeting lead to a second and to a third, a fourth, a fifth and on and on over the long haul. That’s how productive strategic referral partnerships are built and maintained.

And by the way, you’ll want to implement a system to manage your relationships and stick to the system.

I hope you find this article helpful. If you’d like to review some of the main points and dig into a bit more detail just drop me an email and I’d be happy to discuss over a coffee.

Some last words…..

The golden rule in making referral partnerships work for you is your partners need business too. They need referrals to quality prospects, just like you do.

If you fail to generate opportunities for your partners, their commitment to referring clients to you will fall and the relationship will dissolve.

If you can’t refer business to your referral partner, help find him/her someone who can.

Author: Ron Gibson, Alliance Advisor with ATL Network

Ron runs a Web-based Business Growth Masterclass for Professional Advisors. Next Program is scheduled 6th July. More information: CLICK HERE