For most successful small businesses, networking and referrals are both the least expensive and most effective forms of marketing. Reputation is the currency of networking and referrals. Whether it’s reviews and recommendations on websites such as Yelp and LinkedIn or the more vague “Yeah, I’ve heard they’re great” of face-to-face conversation, a positive reputation is one of your most valuable business assets.
Reputation is usually built from one thing: happy customers. Depending on your business, it may be the quality of your product, your low prices, or your friendly service. But the bottom line is that your reputation is constructed of exceptional customer experiences.
But what if you’re new in business, or new to a given market? How do you build a reputation without customers? And how do you get customers without having a reputation? It’s the classic chicken and egg problem.
One approach is massive advertising, generally with a special offer that will overcome people’s misgivings about doing business with someone new. This approach can work if you have the money for it, but you run the risk of locking yourself into that special- offer positioning. In the long run, building your reputation is more affordable and more sustainable.
Fortunately, there are other ways to build your reputation, even before you have any customers.
Writing is a great way to demonstrate the depth of your expertise to a large number of people. There are plenty of places to publish your work, so long as you’re not looking to get paid much for it. Local newspapers and magazines are always looking for fresh content from local sources. If you can get published online, you’ll usually get a link back to your website in your byline. Keep your articles informative, not promotional, and relevant to the readership of the publication you’re pitching to.
Networking groups, service clubs, and other organizations are constantly in need of interesting speakers. Find an educational angle on your business and find a way to make it entertaining. Identify groups that have a high concentration of your ideal customers (or people who influence them, such as parents of teenagers or children of retirees). If you’re not comfortable with public speaking, join Toastmasters International -- it’s a great, low-cost way to develop and practice your speaking skills. Be methodical and speak at every opportunity. Get good at it and you may even develop a new income stream for your business.
Find a local networking group that you can join and attend on a regular basis. Even if your business isn’t all local, the face-to-face interaction will build stronger relationships and present opportunities you won’t find online. That said, online networking has its own unique set of benefits, such as being able to search people’s profiles, building links to your website, and being able to do it at two in the morning in your underwear, if you want. Set up a profile on LinkedIn and connect with your friends and past business associates. Consider other sites depending on your industry and the time you have to devote to it. Remember that just publishing your own content via social media isn’t networking – you also have to participate in conversations with others. Relationships are built on communication, not just electronic links and automatic notifications.
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Be ready for every situation. When meeting someone in person, be sure you have their cell phone number in case you’re delayed, and that your own phone is fully charged. Take a pen and paper for taking notes during the meeting and carry plenty of business cards. Make sure your gas gauge isn’t on empty and you know exactly where you’re going. Leave a few minutes earlier than you think you need to. Prepare for calls with new contacts by doing your homework on them beforehand. Read their LinkedIn profile and their blog to get to know them as well as possible.
One of the easiest ways to stand out from the crowd is to network better than most people do by doing one simple thing: follow up consistently with the people you meet. Keep a pen with you and make notes on business cards you receive about any commitments you make, i.e., to make an introduction, send them an article, refer them to a website. Follow up with new people you meet within two to three business days. Simply being consistently dependable -- saying what you’re going to do and then doing it -- will elevate you in the minds of others.
Volunteer your services to a cause you care about. While there are numerous opportunities for unskilled volunteer work, if you volunteer your expertise, not only do you contribute higher value to your chosen cause, you also have the added benefit of demonstrating your capabilities to your fellow volunteers. If your company sells products, not services, find opportunities to provide something for free to a local non-profit. You might reach as many people as you could via advertising, and once you take the tax deduction and figure the benefit of community goodwill, it could actually be even more beneficial to your business.
At some point in the future, when business picks up and dozens of people are placing demands on your time, you can afford to be stingier with your schedule. For now, though, give your time freely at any opportunity you have to be of real help with your expertise, but short of a billable project. Of course, if your business is providing services on an hourly basis, you have to clearly define the boundary between what you’re willing to do for free and what needs to be charged for. Take the time to answer questions, in depth, from your friends and business contacts, whether it’s over a phone call, coffee, or online in social media. Helping people actually accomplish something in their business or personal life is a far stronger relationship builder than idle conversation.
Does your industry offer any kind of certification? Getting certified provides third-party validation of your capabilities, and it demonstrates your commitment to professional development. Display your certifications in your office, on your website, on your business cards, and even in your advertising.
Joining an industry organization or professional association demonstrates your commitment to professionalism. Membership in the Better Business Bureau and the local Chamber of Commerce can also be reassuring to potential customers. All of these offer customers another channel by which to address any problems that may arise in the course of doing business with you, which is important when working with a new business without a proven customer service history.
Even if you’re on a limited budget, you can still maintain a professional appearance, both virtually and in person. If you’re not much of a designer, consider hiring one to create a consistent visual style for your business. Apply it consistently across your printed and digital materials. Proofread all your written materials thoroughly. Check your website regularly for broken links, display glitches, and so on. Dress well -- not necessarily formally, but stick to classic styling, make sure your clothes fit well, and be sure they’re pressed or steamed to remove wrinkles. Pay attention to your grooming and personal hygiene.
While your customers’ experience is still going to be the primary determinant of your reputation, these other factors all have an effect as well. And until such time as you have some raving fans willing to go out and tell everyone they know how great your business is, focusing on these other areas will help you build a reputation that will attract prospective customers and help them feel comfortable doing business with you.
Scott Allen is Vice President of Marketing for OneCoach, a business growth coaching and consulting firm that helps successful entrepreneurs achieve even more. He is coauthor of The Virtual Handshake: Opening Doors and Closing Deals Online, The Emergence of The Relationship Economy, and a contributor to over a dozen books on entrepreneurship, marketing and social media.