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ncLin Fish, a marketing and communications consultant, gets together with 30 or 40 friends every Friday morning, enjoys a nice breakfast, and develops new business for her company at the same time. Fish is a member of a networking club. These clubs have been around for years, and they are gaining popularity as more and more people open their own businesses and start to work from home.

Networking clubs are groups of business-people who meet on a regular basis to interact, trade referrals, and exchange business ideas and advice. Whether you live in a small town or in the heart of a big city, you should have no trouble locating (or forming) a club in your area.

When I started looking for ways to expand my practice as a certified public accountant, I decided to join a networking club. Our community newspaper lists business meetings scheduled each week, so I was able to locate four groups that meet near me. I visited three of them and joined the Northwest Houston Business League. I’ve been a member for just over a year, and in that time I’ve seen my business double.

HOW CAN A CLUB IMPROVE YOUR BUSINESS?

From my networking experience, I’ve seen several ways that a club can help anyone run a better business.

Obtain other club members as your clients. This is the reason most people join a networking club. If your product or service is something needed by individuals or small businesses, you should be able to gain club members as your clients. Cheryl Russell, a caterer, prepared the food for our club’s anniversary celebration last year. Now that we’ve had a taste of her delicious creations, she’s the one we call when we need a caterer.

Obtain other members’ friends and clients as your clients. This is a major benefit of being in a networking club. Bob Beaver, a commercial real estate broker, is a member of our club. With just 35 members in the club, there is limited potential for him to do business with other members. However, at a recent meeting, he mentioned that he had space available in a local building and was looking for someone to lease it. Kim Stankiewicz, another member, mentioned it to a friend, and within the week Beaver was holding a signed lease. When you begin to think about how many people you know and how many people they know, you realize the potential each of us has for helping others increase their business.

Find sound business advice. Most clubs invite guest speakers to discuss business topics of interest to the group. A recent speaker at our club was Sandy Vilas of Discovery Seminars. Vilas operates seminars on “power networking” and was able to give us some insightful advice. Other recent speakers have provided us with tips on marketing, financial planning, personal leadership, and how to make a good first impression.

Vilas is also involved in a large networking club. His club has formed roundtables that meet once a month to focus on the needs of one individual. Each member of the roundtable has a session devoted to his business in which he is able to present his problems or concerns to the others. The group then works to develop a plan of action for that individual and his business.

Keep yourself motivated. For those of us who work out of our homes, it’s easy to lose contact with the outside world. We all can benefit from having others around to congratulate us when we land a big contract, or help us work through our difficulties during slow times. Since networking clubs are generally made up of people who share your goals and concerns, you won’t find a better group to get you on your feet during the slow times and cheer you on during the good times.

HOW CAN A CLUB HURT YOUR BUSINESS?

Belonging to a networking club is not just a matter of making contacts and raking in the dough. Here are two things to look out for.

Building a bad reputation. Just as word of mouth from other club members can work for you when you provide a quality product or service, it can just as easily work against you when you provide an inferior product or service or fail to follow through on your obligations. By the same token, if members of the club have bad reputations in the business community or experience conflicts with one another, your business could suffer the consequences. People tend to judge you by the company you keep, so choose wisely when you join a club.

Wasting your time. Although networking clubs work well for many people, they can be a waste of time if your business or personality doesn’t match the needs of the group. Jean Yount, a management consultant with Personnel Matters, recently visited our group. She was quick to realize that her services, which are targeted to companies with large labor pools, would be hard to market in our group of entrepreneurs and small-business people.

You can also waste your time if you join too many groups. You might make a lot of acquaintances by joining every group in town, but you won’t develop too much business that way.

HOW CAN YOU START A NETWORKING CLUB?

If you can’t find a club in your area that fits your needs, start your own club. Consider these five steps.

1. Start with a core group. Get together with some other business owners who are also interested in forming a group. If necessary, run a small announcement in the local paper announcing your intentions and inviting those interested to an initial meeting. Follow up with the people who attend the first meeting and ask them to bring a guest to the second meeting. Our club grew quickly when we used this tactic.

2. Establish a regular meeting. Make it easy for people to attend by establishing a consistent time and place to hold your meetings. Our group meets every Friday morning from 7:00 to 8:30 at Wyatt’s Cafeteria. When choosing a location, we looked at restaurants that are not open to the public for breakfast. We also considered hotel meeting rooms. Factors such as privacy, location, price, and menu were the basis for our decision.

3. Set ground rules. Decide how you will handle some of the following items:

* Price. How much will you charge for dues and for each meeting? Our club charges $25 per year for dues plus $6 for each weekly breakfast (or $16 a month if members prepay). These amounts are enough to cover the cost of breakfast and administrative fees, with enough left over to finance our Christmas party. We operate is a nonprofit group, so we try not to charge our members more than necessary.

* Categories. Will you limit the number of members from each profession or let an unlimited number join? Our group allows two people per category–that is, two attorneys, two insurance agents, and so forth, so the club will not become dominated by one profession or another.

* Agenda. What will you do at your meetings? After we go through the serving line and take our seats, we go around the room and members introduce themselves and their businesses and tell the group whom they’ve done business with during the week.

At some meetings, introductions are followed by a guest speaker. Our speakers usually cover topics that will help us in our businesses, but we also have an occasional speaker on crime prevention or personal safety. The first Friday of each month is our business meeting, where we vote on new members, discuss upcoming, events, and so on.

When setting your agenda, keep in mind that your club is for your members. Whatever you find works well for them should become a regular part of your meetings.

4. Promote the group. Now that your club has stabilized, has acquired a few regular members, and has established some basic operating rules, it’s time for you to actively seek new members by publicizing the club. Press releases are an excellent way to do this. For groups that meet less often than we do, a newsletter sent to members and recent visitors is an excellent way to keep in touch and to inform everyone of when and where upcoming meetings are being held.

We encourage our members to recruit visitors. To make this easier, we’ve printed business cards with the name of the club, the location, the time we meet, and the price. Each member has a supply of these to pass out to potential visitors. We also send postcards to new visitors, which entitle them to a free breakfast when they come back for their second meeting.

5. Additional matters. You should consider forming a board of directors. Our group set one up early on, consisting of a president, vice president, secretary, treasurer, vice president of programs, and membership chairman. This group makes all the policies for the club and keeps things running smoothly. You might also consider incorporating, to protect your individual members from liability. Our group recently became a nonprofit corporation.

GOLDEN RULES OF NETWORKING

There’s little sense in joining or starting a networking club without trying to live by the following rules.

Do unto others. If you want others to refer business to you, send some business their way. When you refer someone to a business acquaintance, you’ve helped your acquaintance, you’ve helped the person you referred, and you’ve made your acquaintance want to help you in your own business.

The first project I did for a club member was for Jim Stallard, of Custom Signs and Graphics. I was so pleased that Stallard had used my services that I began to look for people I could refer to him. Shortly after I finished Stallard’s project, I noticed that one of my clients needed a new sign for his storefront. I gave him Stallard’s card, and they were able to do business together. A couple of weeks later, Stallard introduced me to a man who put me in touch with someone who is now my biggest client.

Acknowledge. If someone uses your services or sends you a client, thank him or her. If a club member does a good job for you, announce it to the group. I don’t know too many people who don’t appreciate being thanked for a referral or told what a wonderful job they did in front of a roomful of people. If you can’t do your thank-yous in person, send a note of appreciation. For example, I recently received a handwritten note from Patsy Organ, thanking me for an insurance referral I sent her. It was such a thoughtful gesture that I’ll be sure to send more business her way in the future.

Build relationships. As you get to know the other members, make a sincere effort to learn all you can about their businesses. Learn what types of referrals they need, how they do business, and who their target market is. The more you know about their businesses, the better able you’ll be to refer clients to them.

We have member presentations once a month during our meetings. By hearing a member talk about his or her business for 10 to 15 minutes, we all get a better understanding of how we can help.

Don’t expect immediate results. During the time that I’ve been involved in networking clubs, I’ve seen a number of people attend two or three meetings and then drop out. When asked why, the reply might be “Well, I wasn’t getting any business from your club, so I joined a group that meets on Tuesday mornings.” Unfortunately, they don’t stay there long enough to develop any business either.

Just as it takes time to build personal relationships, it also takes time to build strong business relationships. Although some new members get referrals right away, it took me three months before I started doing business with any of the others.

Ask for what you want. You’ll be surprised what you get if you simply ask for it. Joe Abney, an exterminator, discovered that recently when he went into business for himself. Many members of our club were already using Abney’s services when he announced that he was starting his own company, but when he asked us to help him get off to a good start, the response was wonderful.

Do a good job. A few weeks back I was working on a project with a Friday afternoon deadline. My computer quit working at 4:30 on Thursday afternoon. I called George Stratton, a computer specialist in my club. Right after our meeting Friday morning, he was there to help me. He made a quick diagnosis, fixed the problem, and gave me a reasonable invoice. I was so pleased that I’ve sent him four referrals in the last two weeks.


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