How can I get business from my networking group?

Q & A by C.J. HaydenQ. I am the volunteer coordinator of an informal network of trainers, training managers, and training administrators who work in corporate training departments. How do I get these members to hire me as a consultant without directly asking for their business?

They all know what I do, but ethically I feel I can’t ask for their business because it creates a conflict of interest between my role as the coordinator, my desire to create a safe and fun learning environment for them, and my agreement with the members that I won’t solicit their business. I had hoped that the visibility/credibility aspect would work, but I haven’t received a single nibble in two years.

A. In my view, “asking for” or “soliciting” business can take a lot of different forms. I agree that you don’t want to cross any ethical lines with this group, and, I think what those lines are could be open to interpretation.

If I were a member of this group, I would not feel “solicited” if you were to approach me and say that you would like to have coffee with me to get better acquainted and find out how we could help each other achieve our business and career goals. To me, that’s networking, not soliciting, and I wouldn’t feel you were either violating our explicit agreement or creating a conflict of interest. Such a meeting could certainly result in my referring someone else to you. But if during that meeting, you discovered and pointed out a place in my company where you personally could be of assistance, I would feel helped, not solicited.

When I would feel solicited would be if you called me on the phone for the express purpose of saying you’d like to offer your services to my company, or if you sent me a letter with your marketing materials and proposed that my company do business with you. Then I would feel sold to, not networked with.

That’s my own personal opinion about where the ethical line is; others may differ with my view.

But I think there’s a more important underlying issue here, which is that none of the group members have inquired about hiring you or referred any business to you over a two-year period. I wonder whether these members actually understand what it is that you do, and have a need for it. If they are your target market and they do have needs that you can fill, there must be another missing piece in this puzzle.

Just because you haven’t been asking for their business isn’t enough to explain a complete lack of interest on their part. I would suggest using the meet-for-coffee approach as a way of accomplishing two related aims: 1. Make sure that group members know what you offer and what your capabilities are, and 2. Find out what needs they actually have to see if there’s a match with your offerings.

Choose ten people out of the group to target, and set up one-to-one networking meetings with them. If you find that some of your pilot group of ten do have a need for what you offer, and didn’t quite grasp how you could be of service before, you’ll know you are on the right track. But if you discover that your pilot group really don’t see how they could make use of you, this may be the wrong group for you to invest your energy in.

Two years is a long time to spend networking with a group without seeing any return. Try stepping up your efforts as described above. But if you don’t see any possibilities arising after six months of “let’s get better acquainted” meetings, I’d say it’s time to move on to other marketing approaches.

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If done right then business networking is still a very valuable asset to you and your business.