By Howard Feinstein, EWI Board Member
A weekly blog for EWI students and graduates, passing along news, events, articles of interest, and tips on growing your business. We are all on this journey together, and no one – certainly not yours truly – has all the answers. Accordingly, I hope you will periodically contribute your ideas and news to this forum, c/o email@example.com.
Monday, February 25: This is the second of three posts on the basics of networking. Last time, we discussed business cards and websites. Those two critical items, along with the self-confidence that you will communicate to potential customers — because your business is also your passion – are your key tools at this point. Your friends, family, and colleagues probably know about your venture, have expressed their support, and perhaps have already placed orders for your product or service. These people should be acknowledged and thanked – they can help spread the word for you. However, this “instant network” will ultimately not be sufficient — you must take the next step and expand your entrepreneurial universe.
Contrary to popular belief, this does not mean transforming yourself into a door-to-door saleswoman, becoming a 24/7 living infomercial, wearing a name-tag, and joining every organization under the sun. Next week, we’ll review the four basic types of networks, and explain how you can decide which are most appropriate for you, and how to can engage them, painlessly! For now, let’s focus on certain habits that you need to develop: as we’ve previously discussed, what you are really selling is not so much your product or service, but yourself. Your main goal is to create long-term personal relationships which will result in repeat customers coming back to you again and again, because they feel comfortable doing business with you. Take it from an entrepreneur who started from scratch, without a clue: the old saying that over 80% of your business will come from less than 20% of your customers is true.
To cement these continuing relationships, certain characteristics are essential:
Reliability. Deliver what you have promised, every time. In fact – particularly at the preliminary stage when you are building your customer base — throw in a little something extra (this is known as “lagniappe” down in New Orleans). If the order is for a dozen desserts, make it thirteen. If you’ve contracted for a one-hour performance, make this first time an hour and a half for no extra charge. This distinguishes you from your competition. Make no mistake, in the capital region, your customers will have no shortage of options: make yours something special!
Timeliness. It has always baffled me, but punctuality remains the leading cause of problems in business relationships. Yes, there are always reasons for being a few minutes late to a meeting, or delivering services and products a day or two later than promised, but there are never acceptable excuses. It doesn’t matter whether you’ve have been kidnapped by aliens or your grandmother had to be taken to the hospital — that is your problem, not the customer’s, and they will turn to one of your ever-present competitors the next time. Being on time should not be a difficult task, and trust me, it is extremely important to customers in the fast-paced Washington area. In fact, this is an opportunity to really showcase your professionalism by being early. Deliver an order a day ahead of schedule, be the first bidder to arrive at a pitch meeting, and you will be amazed at the impression this creates.
Dress. Speaking of impressions, remember: this is the nation’s capital. We may be politically progressive, but we are relatively traditional socially. This is not Greenwich Village or Key West (I’m a dyed-in-the-wool Californian, so I had to make this transition myself!). Make it a point to dress a little more formally than the standard for your business area. Again, it is not that difficult, and it will set you apart from the competition.
Maintaining Contact. Sometimes networking means walking a fine line. You don’t want to be a pest (when was the last time you heard anyone complain of not receiving enough e-mails?), but you do want to remind people that you are out there, ready to serve their needs. The timing and method will differ, depending on your business. As a musician and writer these days, I don’t let a month go by without sending out a brief, straightforward e-newsletter, giving my schedule of public appearances; particular items I have for sale; and upcoming events to put on one’s calendar. Now, I understand that few people are going to brave NoVa traffic to see me perform at a restaurant in Annandale on a cold, rainy Friday evening in February, but what I’ve done is keep my name out there. This will — and I’m speaking from experience here — yield subsequent offers to perform at private functions, host book parties, etc. This is a key aspect of networking: it is generally not about making an immediate sale, but keeping the long-term relationship thriving.
Another example: every December, I send out holiday cards to everyone I do business with: this means venues, private hosts, fellow musicians and authors, suppliers, fans, former colleagues — everyone. The postage cost is minimal (and deductible as a business expense), and I have never failed to pick up some business, either directly or through a referral. The same goes for thank you’s. You might think it is standard to send a note (e- or snail mail) thanking your customer after each transaction, but believe me, it isn’t. This simple step tells your customers that you appreciate them. You will reap the rewards.