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Professional networking – how to do it the right way

Heather Steele's Layout avatar

Whether you’ve established a business and run it for years or you’re just starting out on the freelancer path, networking is something you’ve probably had shoved down your throat.

By everyone.

Constantly.

In the business world, we love, love, love to talk about the unassailable value of “networking.” How it will change your life, start business relationships, generate leads.

Blah blah blah.

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None of this is news to you. You know that networking can be an effective tool for generating leads.

But if all you’re doing at networking events is searching for leads, you’re leaving a lot of potential business on the table.

The truth is, networking is valuable, but most of us are doing it wrong

The point of networking is to build relationships; that’s clear to everyone.

The question is, are we building the right relationships?

Most of us look at networking like this:

“Ok, there’s an event coming up, I want to walk away with people I can call who might be a good fit for my business. I’m going to actively seek to form relationships with the folks who could one day buy my products or services.”

And while we’re there, maybe we run across another designer or two, or maybe a developer or copywriter. We chat a bit with them because we have a lot in common, wish them luck with their business, and walk away.

Or maybe we just spend 15 minutes complaining with them about difficult clients and sharing horror stories before someone announces that the crab cakes are ready.

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And then we go off on our merry way, without their business card. Or even a phone number.

Why?

Because we don’t need it, right? They’re not going to buy anything from us, now or in the future.

Right?

Wrong

Way wrong. First of all, just because someone designs for a living doesn’t mean they have time to design their own stuff.

Sounds crazy, but the cobbler’s children have no shoes, right? We can get so busy with client work that we simply don’t have time for our own stuff.

But this isn’t the main reason you want that business card from that other designer. Or that developer.

Or heck, even that copywriter.

You want their business card because they can send you business.

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Why would they give you their business? It’s not as crazy as it sounds

Here’s the truth — even though we all want to work with every possible client and get all the dollars, life rarely works out that way.

  • Many potential clients just aren’t a good fit, for one reason or another.
  • Maybe you’re overbooked when they come knocking.
  • Maybe the project is bigger than what you can handle.
  • Maybe part of the project falls outside the scope of what you do.
  • Maybe the logistics of the project won’t work with your business processes
  • Maybe the client is a jerk — and you’re at a point where you can say no.

We all run into situations like this sooner or later, and when they arise, we don’t just want to say “Good luck!” and send them into the hands of some random designer. What if they have another project in 6 months or a year that is a good fit for us?

If we send them to another designer who we don’t have a relationship with, will they ever come back?

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What we need is a referral partner, someone we can send the not-so-great-fit client to. But not just anyone — we need someone we’ve formed a relationship with, someone who isn’t going to hoard the business to themselves.

Someone who’s going to send us referrals in return. Someone who’s going to say to our original lead, “I know that last project wasn’t a good fit for my partner, but this one isn’t a good fit for me — you should contact them.”

And if we start scratching our new friend’s back, they’ll scratch back

So a little back and forth starts, and suddenly, we’ve got a new source of qualified leads.

And that’s just by networking with that other designer.

What about the writer or the developer?

These are awesome folks to have a relationship with too, but for a different reason entirely.

Consider your own experience: How often have you come across a client who needs more than just design work?

They started with a logo and then asked if you could design them a website…and if you could build it, too.

Oh, and write all the content for it, by the way.

Even if you’ve got a team with a writer and developer on board (or two or three), how often have you come across a project that requires a little bit more work than your team can handle? That your content and development folks simply don’t have the hours to take on themselves?

That’s where your new best friend comes in.

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If you’ve networked with someone who works in the same industry, you can handle larger projects in a pinch

You can also rely on them to collaborate with you on larger projects, too.

For years, we’ve collaborated with an SEO firm. Their clients rarely need just SEO help — they usually need a website.

Our clients rarely need just a website — they need SEO help, too.

And so we both end up winning a lot more business together than we would separately.

And we’re not forced to turn down projects because we can’t provide one service or the other.

Starting to see the value?

Networking is about forming relationships, but I urge you to broaden your focus beyond lead generation.

Don’t zero in on networking events where you’re only likely to meet potential leads.

Professional conferences are great places to learn more about your craft, but they’re also great places to pick up some referral partners.

Local events, chambers of commerce, even volunteer activities shouldn’t all be viewed as simply ways to meet people who one day might bring you business.

They’re also ways to meet the folks who do what you do and can help you grow your business.

And who knows — one day, if you grow big enough, you might even want to hire them.

Blue Steele Solutions is a full-service marketing firm located in Denton, Texas. Our founder, Heather Steele, built the business from the ground up, but even she has struggled in the past, both as a business owner and as a freelancer.

Read more about her struggles — and how she got past them — here.

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