Small Business

Networking for the Right Reasons


I ran into my insurance agent at Starbucks the other day. Although we haven't seen each other in a long time, he's not a stranger. Far from it. John Dierolf has a Salinas (Calif.) practice that he has built by mastering the fundamentals of customer communications. Ninety-five percent of his business comes from his 1,500 existing customers or their referrals. John makes every client feel as though he is more than an insurance agent and a retirement-planning specialist -- he's a close friend.

I don't expect a holiday card from John. In fact, he purposely avoids them because "everyone does it." Instead he communicates with me and his other clients all year long. Dierolf is in constant contact with us, but not to sell anything -- at least on the face of it.

Two days after our encounter, I received a letter in the mail from him simply saying, "Thanks for saying hello at Starbucks!" It also included an article about the current social-security crisis and how couples should prepare for their retirement years.

PERSONAL TOUCH. From time to time, I receive handwritten notes from Dierolf along with articles or information he knows would interest me. He has taken the time to learn about me, my family, and our needs. He stands apart from his competitors because he takes an extra step. I called him the other day to learn more about his approach.

Dierolf says he makes it a point to contact each of his customers every quarter (monthly for his largest clients). When he writes to a client, he has his assistant create two more addressed envelopes that he puts into file folders for three and six months later. So if he sends a letter to me on Dec. 1, I should expect another letter on Mar. 1 and another on June 1. Get it?

He calls this his "tickler file," and it triggers him to think about a particular client. As a retirement-planning specialist, Dierolf competes against the big guns like Washington Mutual, Wells Fargo, and Morgan Stanley, and yet he enjoys considerable success based on the fact that he connects with his clients on an emotional level. As consumers, it's easier for us to buy things from people we like -- and we like people who take a genuine interest in us. By taking an interest in my financial well-being and success, Dierolf has established a relationship with me and continues to receive new business from my family as we enter different stages of our lives.

RELATIONSHIP BUILDING. As I was developing this topic, I had the opportunity to interview Keith Ferrazzi, author of Never Eat Alone: And Other Secrets to Success, One Relationship at a Time. Ferrazzi is CEO of Ferrazzi Greenlight, a marketing and sales-consulting firm in Los Angeles.

It would be an understatement to label him as a master networker. And yet "networking" is a term he avoids. He's not about handing out as many cards as possible. Instead, Ferrazzi uses every spare minute to build and maintain thousands of relationships, many of which turn into close friendships.

Like Dierolf, Ferrazzi maintains a constant line of communication with his clients all year long. He, too, avoids the traditional card in December, instead using Thanksgiving as the holiday to wish his clients well and to thank them for their business.

MAGIC 250. Although his friends and acquaintances number in the thousands, Ferrazzi believes that most people have only enough time to stay really close to 250 people. Ferrazzi recommends that business professionals break down the group in the following way:

The Core 50: Keep these 50 people on speed dial. They make up your core constituency -- board members, key customers, lead analysts, etc. Ideally, you would communicate with people in this group once a month. Ferrazzi says too many managers hear from their best customers only when there's a problem. By staying in contact with the core 50, a company can avoid problems early.

The Next 100: This group -- numbering 100 -- should hear from you several times a year, especially for birthdays or events. Remember, most of us are thrilled to hear from someone who cares enough to remember our birthday.

The Outer 100: The final group of 100 includes people who Ferrazzi recommends you contact once a year. He has decided that Thanksgiving works best for him, but of course it depends on what makes sense for you, your business, and your industry. An accountant, for example, might want to make his or her yearly contact earlier in the fall to remind clients about yearend tax-planning initiatives.1

HIGHER LEVELS. It's interesting to note that neither of these two successful businessmen contacts his lists to sell anything, at least not outright. Dierolf says his goal is to "stimulate their thinking and move them to higher levels of success in their personal and professional lives." He's out to teach people something new.

Ferrazzi's goal is to move people along the "intimacy continuum" -- to move relationships from two people who have been simply introduced to becoming acquaintances and, ultimately, close friends. Ferrazzi's goal is never to network for the sake of networking. It's to build real and lasting relationships -- an attitude many business professionals could employ to extend to their relationships with customers, clients, and colleagues. The sales will follow.


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