Merriam-Webster defines networking as, “the exchange of information or services among individuals, groups, or institutions; specifically : the cultivation of productive relationships for employment or business.”
This definition states well the fine balance of exchange of services and productive relationships. Networking and creating relationships are powerful skills that take time and effort. It is a market strategy that can be used to drive business.
Identifying your target markets, connecting with people on and offline, taking your relationships to the next level, and setting aside time to nourish these connections will eventually lead to business and increase your return on investment.
Identify your Target Markets and Peers
Target markets and target peers are two important groups that, if not already, need to be established. Ask yourself: who is my target market? It is important to be clear who your target market is. It is common for businesses to have multiple target markets, for example a law firm who specializes in small business law and construction law.
If you have multiple markets, be clear about who you are trying to reach. Social media messaging, blogs, articles, and other online materials should relate to one market at a time.
Target peers are people who might be giving you referrals. Peers play an important role in helping you grow your network and fill your business with quality clients.
To find your target peers, think about the audience that will engage with your content the most. Capture the audience who will share your content, comment, and link to your information.
According to Eric Mobley’s Embrace Industry Peers as the Target Audience For Your Blog, “Industry peers make a great target audience because they are the audience that will engage with your content the most. When one of your peers shares your content, it is likely to be seen by other like-minded individuals. When your content is linked to, it is likely to be from content that is relevant to yours.”
If you are a small business lawyer, your target peers might be financial advisors or a forensics firm. Target peers may also be attorneys from another firm or location with a similar law practice. Start identifying referral sources who can potentially guide clients your way.
Usually, someone you already know is connected to your target market or target peers.
If you are a financial advisor looking to work with small businesses, a good connection might be an attorney who practices small business law. Oftentimes you will have the same target market but serve it differently.
Other commonly missed connections are people in the same industry as you with slightly different roles. For example, a small business attorney may connect with an attorney specializing in tax law who can advise clients on the ins and outs of taxes. A financial advisor in long-term care may connect with a financial advisor in medical who can refer them clients. Establishing these connections allows the two to receive business from the same target market.
A quality network combines target markets and target peers.
Connecting with People Online
Connecting online can be done with the push of a button, but leveraging these connections is the tough part. It takes time and effort, but it will pay off.
When connecting with people online, think quality over quantity. Rather than getting caught up in how many “friends” or “followers” you have, start paying attention to what you have in common with people. Finding a common ground and maximizing your contacts will help you establish a quality network.
Group discussions are a great way to connect online. Outlets like Facebook and LinkedIn allow you to search for groups of interest and groups in your area of practice. Do a search and join relevant groups that will benefit you.
Once you’ve joined, start participating! Make a post, review what others have to say, start engaging and adding value to the conversation.
Once you have commented you’ve created a two-way conversation. If people respond, don’t leave them hanging; reply back just as you would face-to-face. Being active in these groups will help you start establishing relationships and creating valuable contacts.
Get Connected in Your Community
Perform an assessment of your community. Look at organizations and professional trades, decide which is most beneficial, and take the time to do your part.
Connecting with a smaller group by serving on the board of your favorite nonprofit organization will put you in direct contact with a handful of people in your community. Establishing quality relationships in smaller groups tends to be easier and extremely beneficial.
Professional and trade organizations will provide a larger group of people but maybe only a small amount will fall in your target market. Identifying your market and gaining connections may be harder to accomplish.
Both groups will have great connections. Decide what is most practical for your situation and get involved. Don’t discount reaching out to fewer people, often this is more productive.
ABA Journal has identified various ways to market your practice through getting involved in community activities. Do what you are interested in, organize industry dinners, and attend bar associations!
Plan a Meeting Over Coffee or Lunch
Once you have engaged in conversation, established a relationship, and connected with someone of interest, business related or not, make a date to meet. Pick up the phone, introduce yourself, and schedule a coffee or lunch date to learn more about that person. Many people struggle with this step, but ultimately, taking relationships to the next level is what gets you the return on investment you’ve been working towards.
The goal is to build the relationship before it gets stagnant. Take time to learn about the person and ask yourself: Are they a good fit for your target market or peer group? Are they a potential referral source?
If the common ground is not directly business related, likely they fall into your peer market. The number one source of new clients in the legal industry is through referrals. Networking with peers leads to relationships, relationships lead to referrals, and referrals lead to profit. Always keep an open source of referrals.
Whether they lead to direct business or have the potential to offer valuable clients, take the time to create a relationship that is beneficial for both parties.
Taking the Relationship to the Next Level
When preparing for a lunch or coffee date meeting, keeping these three things in mind will help guide you on finding out whether or not the relationship is worth continuing.
1. Is it a good fit?
Ask yourself, is this a good fit? Could this person be a potential client in the future or have valuable referrals? Ultimately, the goal is to gain clients. By establishing this relationship are you going to gain leads? If not, maybe you reconsider and use your energy elsewhere.
2. Focus on long term goals
Focus the conversation on what you want to accomplish in the next year rather than how many clients you need right now. Talking into the future will make the conversation more comfortable.
Most importantly, listen. It is easy to get caught up in your own agenda, so slow down and start listening. What are the other person’s goals and intentions, and how can you help each other? Pay attention to their goals and requests and evaluate if they are someone that you can directly do business with or if they are a referral source.
Don’t jump to conclusions by automatically pushing the idea of doing business. Rather, listen and take the time to make a personal connection.
Be clear about your purpose. Some connections may not be a good fit, and that is okay! It’s all about making sure you are both on the same page. The long term goal is to get clients, but the short term goal is to build relationships.
Take the Time
Acknowledging that relationships take time is important. Creating relationships may involve a series of dates–one meeting may not be enough. If you’ve established that the connection is worthwhile and could eventually lead to business, set the next date! Plan to meet again in another month and spend time in that relationship.
Be prepared and willing to spend time engaging with others and getting involved. Taking time will add purpose and value while building great referral sources or direct clients. Just remember: don’t jump to business, let it form!
The power of personal contact should never be underestimated. Taking acquaintances and turning them into quality relationships is not easy, but it will definitely pay off through generating business or leads. Don’t let potential relationships go to waste, pick up the phone and make your investment pay off!
Take this opportunity to increase your contacts, establish a quality network, and grow your business.