Harvard Business Review

The Fear That's Holding Back Your Business


Posted on Harvard Business Review: August 30, 2011 11:34 AM

I recently got a phone call asking about Mike, a grad student I’d hired for a video project last year. “You’re listed as a reference,” the woman on the line said. “Have you done business with him?” Indeed, Mike had done a great job for me—but had never followed up to tell me he’d launched his own business.

Too often, entrepreneurs or executives hesitate to reach out to others—even people who like them a lot. Sometimes it’s because they don’t want to be intrusive: “She’s so busy, I don’t want to bother her.” Other times, they’ll self-deprecate (“she won’t remember me”) or shrink from perceived conflict (“he’ll be angry I want something from him”). Or they may take the “high road” and profess a distaste for self-promotion, vowing that their reputation will speak for itself and quality will eventually triumph. Unfortunately, those are all excuses: they’re scared.

One successful executive coach recalls that when she started her business, “I was very uncomfortable letting people know. The first few times people asked me what you do, I said, ‘I’m a coach?’ in that uptalk way…sort of asking permission, ‘Is it OK to be a coach?’” She can laugh about it now—but it took her two years to feel secure enough to send out a mailing or mass email to her contacts.

It’s natural to feel nervous reaching out to colleagues you respect. You don’t want to appear desperate, needy, or Machiavellian. You certainly don’t want to open the door for someone to criticize you (“I’m afraid I can’t recommend your services because they weren’t that good”). But the truth is, most people will want to help you. Sure, people are busy—but there’s something profoundly satisfying about assisting other people, and we may even be hard-wired to do it. Indeed, psychologist Robert Cialdini suggests that asking for favors can actually be a powerful way to get people to like you better, because they become invested in your success.

Giving in to your fears means you’re leaving money and opportunity on the table, and possibly alienating your biggest allies. (All Mike needed to do was reach out, and I would have been glad to become a booster.) If you’re ready to be bold, here are four things you can consider asking your friends, colleagues, and past clients:

1. Be a reference. You never know when you might need references for a new job or a consulting assignment. Ask in advance and keep a running list of people who are willing to vouch for you.

2. Provide a testimonial. Seeing a page of glowing praise from your past clients can be a very persuasive tool in luring new customers (or impressing potential employers). LinkedIn makes it easy for you to solicit recommendations from others, and if you have video capability (and anyone with an iPhone does), you can ask for a video testimonial. (Click here to see some examples from my own site).

3. Ask for referrals, or job leads. People know folks like themselves—make it work to your advantage. Create a list of everyone you’ve worked with in the past, and friends who believe in you personally. Ask them all: do you know anyone who can benefit from services like mine? Is there anyone I should connect with? (In the past five years, I’ve consulted for close to 100 clients—I know some people who could use videography help, if only Mike had asked me.)

4. Ask for new business. It’s always easier to sell to past clients than to build new relationships. This doesn’t mean badgering someone for business—an initial, personal touch by phone or email, along with periodic reminders (such as sending an e-newsletter) is perfect for staying on someone’s radar screen. (Mike’s starting place should have been inquiring whether I had any new video needs—after all, if I did in the past, there’s a good chance I would again.)

What strategies have you used to stay in touch with past contacts? How have you tapped them to help grow your business? Have you had to overcome any fear or self-consciousness along the way—and if so, how did you do it?

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Dorie Clark is a marketing strategy consultant for clients including Google, Yale University, and the National Park Service. Read her blog here or follow her on twitter.

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