By Michelle Nichols All good advice, taken to the extreme, becomes bad advice. This is even true of the loftiest of selling strategies -- making connections through charity work and volunteering. Countless salespeople and entrepreneurs have helped themselves to build successful businesses by giving generously to their communities and laboring for heart-felt causes. However, doing good can become a bad idea if sincerity isn't matched by strategy. Not only might you end up disillusioned, in the worst case, a rash commitment might see you burdened by obligations that seriously undermine your ability to build your own business.
"Give first, receive second" is a foundational value of most enduring business, charitable, and service organizations. Then, the receiving usually unfolds in three steps. First, you donate your time, money, or expertise. Maybe you serve on a gala committee, write a check, or help the organization to focus its vision statement.
GIVING -- AND RECEIVING. Next, you rub shoulders with other altruists, who, hopefully, will buy from you and/or provide introductions to other potential customers. For example, "Mr. V.P. of Sales, I'd like you to meet a wonderful professional sales speaker. She donates a lot of her speaking time to the local woman's shelter and has really helped many of the women there. I think she could help your group increase sales too."
Third, and finally, when the time comes to close whatever deal emerges from the encounter, chances are those personal connections will make the process fast and relatively painless.
So how come volunteering isn't always a sure-fire path to selling riches? In a nutshell, the givers didn't think things through before they signed up. What follows are 10 simple guidelines to maximize the returns from giving:
Think strategically. Identify your target customers and note where they work, live, and take their vacations. Discover their common interests or values. Now, connect that information with you and your business. Too many businesses just buy 1,000 widgets, donate them to a charity, and then wonder why their business didn't double overnight.
Let's say you own a stationery store and the charity you favor is staging a job-reentry seminar. Perhaps participants could use some nice scratch tablets. Alternately, if you owned a dry cleaning establishment, maybe participants might appreciate some free coupons to get their job-interview outfits neat and pressed.
Look for groups whose members help each other. It's easier to get business from a group whose members already cooperate for mutual betterment. Consider a friend of mine, who had been volunteering to help homeless women for two years before being invited to join a high-powered private networking club she never even knew existed.
Size matters. When it comes to volunteering, a big fish in a small pond gets business faster. For example, it can take years and a large chunk of change to become visible in a very large Chamber of Commerce or a national charity. The payoff for such an investment can be huge, however. If you aim to generate more business sooner, steer your efforts towards a smaller business-owners organization or the local office of that national charity.
Never be too busy. If your schedule is just too full to find a spare minute for charity work, donate some excess inventory that can be sold to raise funds or put to good use. You might also considering donating a few hours of an employee's time. Remember, doing good doesn't always take your personal time and touch. On the other hand, that's where the biggest dividends are found.
Look twice before jumping onto a board or committee. Usually, boards are comprised of other businesspeople, which means they are good for developing business leads. However, boards at some charities are more concerned with their own internal politics or rubber-stamping budgets, so check out which way the wind is blowing before setting sail.
Be realistic. Serving on boards and major committees requires dedication and staying power, so make sure in advance that the commitment you are making is a realistic, not one that will peter out for lack of time or interest after just a few months. Remember, nobody respects a quitter.
Start small. If you're new to volunteering, start with a short-term project that has a reasonable goal and timeline. If you like that initial experience, you can next sign up for something with a higher profile and a bigger impact. If you find it's not your cup of tea, the need for damage control as you quietly bid adieu will be minimal.
Volunteering should be easy. Just as most of us pick gyms close to our homes or offices which offer programs that appeal to our individual and specific needs, it's only logical to apply the same rules to volunteering. When you agree to serve in some or other capacity, take on a charitable assignment that meshes with your skills, interests, and established routine.
Don't forget your own business. If you do too much volunteering, you won't have any time left to develop and run a great business. For example: We have a restaurant here in my hometown that gives to every school affair and networking group that asks. The eatery is growing by leaps and bounds. Its secret? While the restaurant is generous, which helps to build goodwill in the community, its owners have never lost sight of the fact that it is the great food, atmosphere, and service that are the foundations of their success.
Be sincere. You can't divide your time and effort among 50 different causes and hope to make an effective, worthwhile contribution. Moreover, the insincerity will stand out like a sore thumb, alerting potentially useful contacts and referrals that you are looking to help yourself before others. This will only backfire -- and it could do serious damage to your business, it's reputation, and yours.
The value of volunteering isn't related to how much effort you invest, the financial cost, or your inconvenience. As with selling, the inherent worth of volunteering is based on serving another's need. In selling, we profit by solving customers' problems. When volunteering, it is the smile on a child's face or the satisfaction of seeing our work help a senior to lead a better and more fulfilled life. So always remember, while it's better to give than receive, as the old adage goes, it's even better to give and then receive. Happy selling! Michelle Nichols is a sales speaker, trainer, and consultant based in Houston, Tex. She welcomes your questions and comments. You can visit her Web site at www.verysavvyselling.biz, where her new CD, 72 Ways to Overcome the Price Objection is available. She can be contacted at Michelle.firstname.lastname@example.org