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I made a trip to Omaha, Neb. recently. We have a new franchisee in Kansas City, and he was planning to ride along with our service techs in Omaha. He is new to drain cleaning, and this was an excellent opportunity for him and his business partner to get introduced to the trade.
While I was there, our franchisee in Omaha - Chris Roseland, also the owner of Backlund Plumbing - asked me to attend the Omaha Executives Association networking meeting. He was hoping I could perform mistress of ceremonies duties as the keynote speaker was the governor of Nebraska, Pete Ricketts. Of course, I love Chris, and I was happy to be of service to him. Our now running joke is that Warren Buffett was unavailable, and I was asked to step in.
Prior to the event, I got a little bit of background on the group. The cause for celebration on this particular day was the 5,000th consecutive meeting of the association. For 5,000 Thursdays, this group has met - without fail - through both the World Wars, through natural disasters and economic depressions, and through multiple pandemics. In the last couple of years, some of those meetings were over Zoom. Isn't that an incredible run? What a commitment it takes to be there, to show up for your fellow business people every week.
Chris has been a member of the group for more than 20 years. His dad was a member, too. Doing the math, this group was founded 98 years ago. The basic requirements for membership are that the applicant must be a company, with a leader who has a proven record of good character, financial responsibility and business reputation. Continued membership requires that you attend meetings regularly, keep up with your dues and provide leads for other members.
I love this! The OEA members make no bones about the fact that they are there to network and share leads with each other. I’ve been to so many networking events where sales activities are actually discouraged, or at the very least, considered impolite. I appreciate the commitment the members have to each other. They offer encouragement, develop friendships - “Don’t miss the ‘winer’ on Tuesday evening!” - and build businesses. The results are evident. Chris estimates over 18,000 leads have come to him and his business as a result of his association with his fellow members.
I was inspired to write this column because referral marketing is your very best opportunity to grow a sizable, profitable business. Yes, the world has become a digital marketplace. However, behind those tweets and clicks are real human beings who long for connection. There is no substitute for looking someone in the eye, shaking their hand and sealing the deal. Face to face is still the best way to create and deepen relationships.
Let's look at 10 tips for successfully networking and developing your referral business:
• Sign up and show up. Ask your vendors, customers and team members for great, local networking group opportunities. Some groups limit the representation of businesses to one per industry. Champion for your niche business if they don’t have it listed. Join a few groups, sure, but no more than you can commit to. You gotta show up.
• Hone your elevator speech. Have a 15-second answer to the question, “What do you do?” A nice format, from Sales legend Barney Zick, is: “You know how…” State a problem. “What we do is…” Share what you do to solve it.
If you are an introverted person, you may have to stretch a bit. One-to-one conversations are the best for making new contacts and friends, and staying within spitting distance of your comfort zone.
• Focus on them, not you. Once you’ve made introductions, find out about other members. Ask open-ended, journalistic questions, starting with who, what, why, how and when. Learn about their families and interests. No sense in “pitching” if your new friend has no need or want for your services. And the best way to earn business is to give business. Consider ways to turn leads in their direction.
• Ask for business. When you’ve discovered that you may be able to solve a problem for them or someone they know, offer to help. Be the one to ask for their contact information and follow up.
• Say, thank you. Respond to every lead with gratitude. Leads are gold. Text, notes, kind words in front of other business owners are appreciated.
• Put members at the front of the line. Your referral partners should get VIP status and service. Offer an appropriate VIP discount, but do not go beyond that. No one wins if the transaction isn’t equitable.
• Give testimonials and five stars. Make a big deal of it when you have used a member’s services and they did a great job. If something goes wrong, talk to the owner immediately, politely and privately. Treat them as you would want to be treated.
• Assume a leadership position in the group. Offer to be on the board. NOTE: This can be detrimental if your business is not yet to the point that it can survive your absence. Every association board or leadership position is presented as “super part time” and they never are. Do step up when the timing is right for your business and family.
• Not everything is a transaction. Be aware of those who are going through tough times. My friend Al Levi calls these “the Ds”: Death. Disaster. Debt. Divorce. Disease. Offer a shoulder or a word of encouragement or more if needed.
• Be respectful. Understand that business can transcend political and socio-economic differences. Honorable, profitable business builds solid families, communities and nations. In Networking groups, be polite to those with differing opinions and focus on the ties that bind us together.
In his keynote speech, Gov. Ricketts focused on business, particularly his family business. He shared a memory of when he was a young boy, hearing a ghost in the middle of the night! He awakened his mother, who assured him that the sound was of his dad, walking, back and forth, in his office downstairs. Later on, he learned that his dad would pace the floor the nights before payroll was due, figuring out how he was going to make ends meet. His mom would join him, and update the timesheets and checking account. Everyone in the audience could relate to those early days - and nights - of launching a business.
By the way, the Ricketts' small family business became TD Ameritrade! The OEA event was a great meeting, full of friendly and productive networking, shared history and hope for a prosperous future.
While we were at the luncheon, our newest franchisees had a blast (literally an explosive drain job!) with our seasoned technicians, who were super proud to show the new kids the ropes. Zoom Drain Omaha and Zoom Drain Kansas City are off and running with new friendships, and a commitment to help each other. I was reminded yet again that relationships are everything. l
Ellen Rohr is an owner and franchise operations manager of drain and sewer experts ZOOM Drain, www.zoomdrain.com. She offers "in the trenches" insights to contractors and family business owners. Reach Ellen at 877-629-7647 or firstname.lastname@example.org. For business tips, problem-solving webinars, money-making tools, visit ellenrohr.com.