As a marketing tool, networking is a great outlet for making ‘ideal’ connections for small businesses. What’s an ideal connection? Perhaps an analogy will help elucidate the term. You’ve probably heard the following saying:
Teach a man how to fish and you’ve fed him for a lifetime.
For that man, his ideal connection would be a fishing instructor. Similarly, you could consider a fruit tree. Would you prefer to have a mango, or a mango tree? For your business, as the analogy goes, there will be clients (fish, or fruit…), and there will be those who love you and your business and will feed you with clients for years (these are the fishing instructors or fruit trees…).
Connecting with these people is obviously going to benefit your bottom line tremendously. But where do you even start? How do you identify these ideal connections for your business? How do you then connect with them? And perhaps most importantly, how do you foster and nurture these relationships over time?
In his #1 National Bestseller, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, author Malcolm Gladwell describes an interesting case study about breast cancer education and awareness. Public health agencies had tried to convey messages about breast cancer to target audiences of women, but found that they weren’t moving the needle in terms of public education. They found, somehow, that the most effective way to educate women about the subject was to start with hairdressers. Hairdressers talk to clients for extended periods of time. Typically, they are trusted by their clients (ask any woman — most would swear by their hairdresser), and therefore women paid attention to this information and took it to heart.
Who is the hairdresser for your business? Who has clients who trust them, who listen to their advice, and who are also your target customers? For a company that does eco-friendly landscape maintenance, their ‘hairdresser’ might be landscape designers who focus on design and installation of eco-friendly landscapes, but who don’t do maintenance. For a plumber who specializes in installation of tankless hot water heaters, their ‘hairdresser’ might be building contractors that are LEED-certified and looking for qualified subcontractors who can help them implement sustainability features in construction projects. For an organic wholesale food manufacturer, it may be someone who does nutrition education and cooking classes. For the publisher of a green business directory, it might be the proprietor of a local green building retail store or the head of the local chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council, who happen to know everyone in the green building community.
It is much easier to connect with these people once you’ve identified who they are. Once you realize who could potentially be your fruit tree, fishing instructor or hairdresser (we promise no more analogies!), go introduce yourself to them. In networking events, this is simple. But networking is not constrained to networking events. Go through your local directory and find those businesses who may be looking for someone they can trust to subcontract some work out to. Call them and ask if you can take them out for coffee or come meet them in their office and show them your portfolio, resume, sample products, or testimonial page.
This is one of the greatest benefits of being an environmentally friendly, socially responsible business. There will be an element of ‘wanting to help’ that you will encounter among those people who may well be your lifeline to new clients. That landscape designer who designs native landscapes got into that business at least partially to make a difference in the world. It costs them absolutely nothing to promote your landscape maintenance business to their clients, and if they feel that it helps magnify their positive environmental impact and creates local green jobs, you are at a natural advantage that conventional businesses simply don’t have. There’s no unifying theme in conventional business that proves as much a trust-building rallying point as sustainability does for those of us in the green business community.
Your job does not end there. Foster and nurture this relationship. Talk to this person. What is their biggest stress? Is there a way you can help them in an on-going way? It may simply be the case that they’re in a position to help and want nothing in return except that you continue to be a leader in the green business community. But make sure the communication channel is wide open with this person, and that you do your best to show your appreciation. Publicly promote their business. Bake them an organic maple walnut pie every Earth Day. Remember their husband’s name, their dog’s name, and their favorite hobby. And make sure to ask them about each every chance you get.
Scott Cooney (twitter: scottcooney) is an adjunct professor of Sustainability in the MBA program at the University of Hawai'i, green business startup coach, author of Build a Green Small Business: Profitable Ways to Become an Ecopreneur (McGraw-Hill), and developer of the sustainability board game GBO Hawai'i. Scott has started, grown and sold two mission-driven businesses, failed miserably at a third, and is currently in his fourth. Scott's current company has three divisions: a sustainability blog network that includes the world's biggest clean energy website and reached over 5 million readers in December 2013 alone; Pono Home, a turnkey and franchiseable green home consulting service that won entrance into the clean tech incubator known as Energy Excelerator; and Cost of Solar, a solar lead generation service to connect interested homeowners and solar contractors. In his spare time, Scott surfs, plays ultimate frisbee and enjoys a good, long bike ride. Find Scott on Google Plus
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