I was recently speaking with a friend who manages a professional services company. He was contemplating how much faster his business would grow if only he could more fully leverage the professional delivery staff. I’ve found this to be one of the greatest challenges facing professional services firms. I personally encountered the issue while leading the sales and marketing organization for a Big 6 information technology consultancy. With a technical staff of 1,800 consultants and a sales staff of 100, I realized that the key to our success would be our ability to leverage our secret weapon-- the large billable staff.
The technical staff often has the most credibility, the closest relationships, and the most thorough understanding of the client’s business. My mantra became: Everybody Sells. But given our staff profile, I knew this would be a difficult cultural change. They were hired for their technical competency, not their sales ability--most would have preferred a root canal to asking a client for a referral.
So what can you do to educate and motivate your technical staff to leverage more business? Help them become better networkers. To follow is an outline of what they need to know to be successful:
Networking for Increased Sales: Fear Not
Networking, at it’s core, is asking friends and business associates for referrals. Professional networking is common practice. It’s most often the way that new business opportunities are surfaced. Some people feel that asking for a business favor may be perceived (inaccurately) as a sign of weakness or vulnerability. They fear rejection (failure), believing that their request will alienate a friend or business associate. While these fears are unfounded, it’s one of the reasons why it’s difficult--even for the most confident professionals. Remember, if you’ve done a good job for the client, it’s only natural that you would ask if they know anyone else who could benefit from your services. If they do, they would be more than happy to give you a lead. Not only are they helping you, they'll be helping a colleague that would benefit from your offerings. It’s the way business is done.
Getting Started: A Step-by-Step Process
It is never too late to get started. It’s important to approach building your personal network with commitment and discipline. If you harness your inner altruism, and commit to listening closely to the challenges of others, your efforts will be rewarded.
Step 1. Assemble a master personal networking list. Make a list from all your contact sources: email address books, LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, alumni directories, past clients, Christmas card lists, etc. Don’t be discouraged if your list is short when you first start--with continued focus, it will grow quickly. Quality, not quantity, is the key. Determine what method of interaction will best suit each contact (face-to-face meetings, phone calls, emails, or via social media). Also, create a second list of contacts you’d like to connect with. Be prepared to mention their names to your contacts and ask for introductions.
Step 2. Allocate a few hours a week to grow your professional network. Prioritize your contacts and then determine the frequency and method of contact. Anthropologist Robin Dunbar, the creator of the “Dunbar number”, claims that humans can only maintain 150 stable relationships--even if utilizing all the social networking platforms. Recent research on the optimal number of first level connections in LinkedIn seems to support his theory.
I recently met with a sales professional who was between jobs. He said his work-life balance had eroded so much due to work pressures that his network had narrowed to just a few relationships in his assigned accounts. As a result, he had lost contact with those who could help him the most. The lesson: Maintain discipline and nurture your network. Don’t allow external factors to steal your networking time, regardless of what is happening in your career.
Step 3. Prepare a few brief stories about how your company helps others. Your short verbal descriptions will help others envision how they, or others in their network, can use your products or services. Share recent examples that discuss your own personal experiences. Tailor and deliver your stories based on the industry/role/issue of the network contact you are speaking with.
Step 4. Find your personal style. Be authentic. Practice a dialog that is natural and comfortable. One of the best networkers I know used to call me every few months and leave this message: “Hi Mike, John Smith here--no need to call me back if you’re busy. I was just curious how you were doing with that _________ issue you were wrestling with last time we spoke.” or “Just had a quick idea for you regarding that _________ issue you mentioned." By leaving such a message, there was never a question if I would return his call, but how soon.
Step 5. Join an affinity group as a watcher. Volunteer to represent your firm by joining an industry association or trade group. It’s a great way to expand your network. Establishing face-to-face connections will also increase the probability of having your initial networking call accepted. Make sure to periodically prepare a formal presentation to report your observations to your firm; it’s a great way to hone your presentation skills.
Note to Millennials: Join LinkedIn
Recent research from the Student Advisor shows that millennials (ages 18–32) have one of the highest unemployment rates in the country today. In a recent survey, over 200 students from across the country were interviewed about their career goals and how they were preparing for their professional lives after graduation. Even though all students surveyed were active on Facebook, only one-third had a presence on LinkedIn, the primary online resource for networking professional opportunities. Ninety-three percent of those surveyed were unaware of the career importance of building and maintaining a professional brand online. An account on LinkedIn is a must for anyone looking for employment.
You may also be interested in reading this related post: Planning and Managing Your Career: Lessons From a Master
Remember the person you are attempting to network with, regardless of title, is doing the same to grow their business. Be authentic and altruistic. Commit to a disciplined approach and get started. Don't worry about the number of initial contacts you have, quality not quantity is key. Do your best to help your clients build their network and your efforts will be rewarded. If you’ve done a good job and have earned their respect, clients are more than happy to help.
image credit: kbunge.wordpress.com
Mike Peters is the managing director of the Whitespace Consulting Group, a global business development strategy firm. The Whitespace Consulting Group has been helping multi-cultural clients optimize their business development strategy since 2005. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.