When we started our plumbing company, we made our first million dollars in revenue by networking. To this day, networking is an essential part of our marketing strategy.
The top three advantages of networking your local service business are:
- Great Return on Investment
- Building a strong referral network.
- Getting comfortable talking about your business.
Networking Provides the Best Return on Investment
Time and money are scarce for new business owners. There’s never enough of either. Focusing on this problem will only frustrate you.
Every marketing activity either costs time, money, or both. Deciding which to ‘spend’ on can be tough.
Instead, focus on your return on the investment. How much business do I expect to earn if I spend x-time or x-money?
When it comes to marketing efforts, few provide a more significant return on investment than networking and word-of-mouth. If you know how to approach these opportunities, a return on investment is almost guaranteed.
How to Find Local Networking Opportunities
A few places to start looking for networking opportunities:
- Local Chambers of Commerce
- Facebook events
I always recommend that new business owners start with Chambers of Commerce events like ribbon cuttings, business luncheons (not usually free), or business before or after hours.
I like suburban chambers for several reasons:
- The groups tend to be smaller and more inviting.
- They typically allow you to attend a few events before you join, so you can see if it is a good fit for you.
- Sometimes networking events, open houses, and ribbon cuttings are open to the public and membership isn’t necessary at all.
- The suburbs are where people live, so the mix of businesses is typically better for referrals to a home services company.
If you aren’t sure if an event is open to the public, call ahead or check the online registration page — in other words, do your research.
Build a Strong Referral Network
Any contractor service business will tell you that word-of-mouth is the best advertising. Networking is a great way to fast-track your word-of-mouth.
People who go to networking events want to give and get referrals. It’s easy to forget that networking meetings aren’t just about doing business with the people in the room. The real goal is to connect to the people they know outside of the room.
If you are preparing to go to your very first networking event, consider these tactics:
- Let the organizer/check-in person/greeter know that it is your first time. Their job is to run a successful event. They can probably introduce you to someone whom you may have something in common with.
- Do a lap, scanning the place to see if you recognize someone. Chatting with this person can ease your nerves, and they might be able to introduce you to someone new.
- Even if you don’t know anyone, that’s okay. Get some snacks or a drink. It helps to have something in your hand. (Don’t drink more than two alcoholic beverages!)
- Look for someone else – anyone else – who isn’t in a conversation and start one. They will likely be grateful that you took the initiative.
- As a last resort, you can join a conversation already in progress. Jumping in is awkward and tricky to do with confidence.
It can be tempting to treat networking events as a social hour. Don’t lose sight of your goal. You are there to market your business and find new contacts and customers.
Don’t spend all of your time talking to people you know well. Whatever you do, don’t stand against the wall with a drink in your hand. Be brave and introduce yourself.
That’s easier if you come prepared.
Get Comfortable Talking
Before you arrive, practice introducing yourself. Yep – I’m recommending you talk to yourself. It sounds crazy, but it works.
I do this most often in the car on the drive to the event. It helps me get my head in the game.
Why? Sometimes social pressure makes us fumble.
Be prepared with the following:
- Your name.
- Your business name.
- Your role in the company.
- What your primary services are.
- What a good referral is for you.
You don’t have to spew your talking points all at once – a conversation has ebb and flow, give and take. Be socially conscious and a good conversationalist.
You know your name, but you would be surprised how many people forget to start with that. Be sure to speak loudly and clearly, especially if your name is uncommon. Ideally, wear a name tag or “hello my name is” sticker.
Keep the Convo Flowing
You can ask open-ended questions to keep the conversation going. Look for an idea about how you might be able to refer to each other.
If the person you are talking to doesn’t have a name tag and you can’t remember their name (but recognize them), it is perfectly okay to say, “I am fairly sure we have met, but, remind me of your name again. I don’t want to mess it up.”
Forgetting a name is one of those things that happens to everyone except politicians. (And no one wants to be like them!) It’s far less awkward to admit it. Otherwise, you are asking to get caught!
Project Confidence (Even if you don’t feel it!)
When going to these events, dress professionally but not unlike how you would dress every day. If you are a plumber, wear clean work clothes. No one expects (or trusts) a plumber in a suit.
When possible, wear clothing that features your logo. If nothing else, this is an opportunity to build brand reputation and recognition.
When doing your introduction, have your business cards handy. Always provide one, even if they don’t ask.
Bring plenty of cards but don’t be ‘that guy’ who randomly hands out business cards. They are for following up on a good conversation. Don’t treat them like candy at Halloween.
When discussing your business, don’t downplay your role. As the owner, you should have confidence. After all, you are the expert they are trusting.
Usually, at networking events, you aren’t talking to a fellow expert in your industry. They may know, in broad terms, what a plumber does. However, that doesn’t mean they understand the opportunity for you to work together.
The ability to articulate your service offerings can be more difficult than people expect. Often people get caught up on what they do, rather than how they help people.
When asked about our work, we often focus on technical aspects: the equipment or tools we use. That stuff doesn’t usually mean much to the average person.
Instead, focus on the problems you solve. You can even go so far as giving specific examples. That will help them better relate to the work you do and provide better referrals.
“I’m a plumber who focuses on the dwv side.”
Whelp – that means nothing to 99% of the population.
“I’m a plumber who makes sure when you flush the toilet or run your sink, the water goes down the drain. People call us when they are experiencing slow or stopped up drains.”
Anyone can understand those problems and the solution you provide. I’ll send you a referral when someone mentions they have a clogged drain.
Know Your Customer
A ‘good referral’ is as easy as categorization of the customer you want.
For instance, with residential customers, you might mention a specific neighborhood or district where the client lives. Or, maybe you know you want to connect with parents of a particular school.
“Everyone uses the toilet, so everyone is my customer!”
Not untrue, but it doesn’t help the other person. Also, you don’t want any and every customer.
“My best customers live in older homes that tend to have drainage problems. The North Main area is a great example.”
Think through your best opportunities and know how to phrase it in a way that will connect the dots for your networker.
By knowing who your best referral is, you can turn any dud conversation into a star.
Say you walk up to someone whom you have zero reasons to do business. They have zero ideas for doing business with you. It’s rare, but it happens.
Salvage the conversation by saying, “Well, maybe we can be a referral source for each other. I’ll tell you; I’m looking to connect with … do you have anyone you could introduce me to?”
For a local service business, the advantages of networking marketing are incredible. While it is just one tool in the marketing toolbox, and shouldn’t be relied upon alone, there is no tool with a better return on investment.
Anja is the creator, writer, and speaker at Tradebiz Toolbox. She has a long and storied history with small business development but cut her teeth on the contractor industries in her family’s plumbing company.