Your network is your net worth. It is your greatest asset and can drive everything in your sales career, from referrals to incremental sales. While you may lose product, position or even price advantage, your network is something within your control. You develop it, nurture it and eventually cultivate its fruits over time. How do you grow it? By giving it away!
Too often though, sales pros mistake prospecting and brokering for networking. When you walk through a reception or meet-and-greet with a handful of business cards looking for new prospects, you are not networking—you are prospecting for gold. While this is an important part of the sales process, it is not networking.
When you connect two people, then expect to be repaid for the effort, this is brokering, not networking. If you’ve ever had associates introduce you to a key contact, then immediately expect you to repay them, you feel let down. When done correctly, networking is when you connect two or more people who should meet. In other words, true networking is a gift you give to others. To produce surprise and delight (and long-lasting loyalty), you need to approach networking with no expectations of being repaid by any of the recipients. They will wonder why you are so generous, trust you more from the experience and do their best to repay you over time. By trusting them, you will likely be surprised at what they’ll do to make it up to you over time.
This is “The Secret“ of the business world: The Law of Reciprocity, which states that people will give back when they’ve been given to. For the most part, every time you do the right thing for your customers, employees, partners or greater community, these people will find a way to repay you, through loyalty, by giving thoughtful feedback to improve your business, by telling their friends to buy from you or to work at your company.
As Adam Smith, the grandfather of Western economic philosophy, wrote in The Theory of Moral Sentiments: “No benevolent man ever lost altogether the fruits of his benevolence. If he doesn’t always gather them from the persons from whom he ought to have gathered them, he seldom fails to gather them from other people, and with a tenfold increase. Kindness is the parent of kindness.“
You also can bring partners together in a smaller setting, such as a lunch, as did a highly successful New York City insurance salesman in the 1930s. For more than a decade, Elmer Letterman hosted networking lunches every Friday at the Four Seasons restaurant. His strategy was simple: Invite three business people who should meet due to mutual interests. He did his homework, too, arriving with ideas on how the three could work together.
For example, Letterman might invite a chef who wanted to start a restaurant, a banker who could finance it and a construction executive who could build it. He’d explain why each party was credible and relevant to the others, begin a conversation, pay the bill and leave. He didn’t bring sales brochures or pitch insurance. He introduced all the people at the table, stoked a conversation and disappeared.
How did these networking investments pay off? Do the math: three people times 50 weeks a year for a decade. Hundreds of business owners throughout New York had Letterman to thank for part of their success. According to Ivan Misner’s book, Masters of Networking: Letterman not only developed a reputation as a major contributor to New York’s business community, he was one of the most successful insurance salespeople of his time. He focused on promoting the success of others then trusted them to think of him when they needed insurance. The system worked. He didn’t just add value. He multiplied value. He dramatically improved the lives of everyone he touched. That’s the secret sauce to successful sales.
A final story illustrates the secret to sales success: significance. When a salesperson uses networking to solve a real problem in the life of one of his customers, he forges a bond with him or her and fi nds inspiration along the way. Devin Poulter, a salesperson at software reseller Software Spectrum, did just that, as I found out when I spoke at his company’s sales conference in 2004. Afterward, a handful of reps approached me to talk about Devin, their in-house hero. When I tracked him down, he agreed to tell me the story of how he’d earned that reputation. One day, he was on a routine phone call with a customer named Mary. Sensing she was sad, Devin asked, “You sound like you’re having a terrible day. Would you like to talk about it?“ She declined, but a few minutes later blurted out, “Well, you’ve really opened up a can of worms here.“ Mary proceeded to explain how she and her husband had been trying to adopt a baby from Russia and had faced a series of seemingly insurmountable obstacles along the way. They were ready to give up. Devin commiserated, then launched into action.
Earlier, he’d worked with a woman named Maureen who had successfully adopted a Russian baby, so he decided to introduce her to Mary via e-mail. Maureen in turn invited Mary to join a support group for other families in a similar situation. Buoyed by the support group and their newfound knowledge, Mary and her husband pursued their quest; eight months later, they adopted a girl. Mary sent Devin a picture of the baby with this note: “This is the fruit of our labors. Thank you for everything you’ve done for us.“ Devin said it was his greatest accomplishment of the year—far beyond the record he set at his company selling software.
You can do this too. It is a matter of having a system for networking success. Here’s what I do: When I get a business card, and enter it into my contacts database, I use the miscellaneous field (other) as the “should meet“ field. In other words, when I input a new person’s information, I also speculate about who they should meet. Every week, I have a networking goal of introducing three people in a powerful way, then disappearing like Letterman. Sometimes I make the introduction via a networking lunch. However, being as busy as I am, I’ve resorted to three-way e-mail introductions.
This simple system can change your sales life and expand your network of people who care about you and cheer for your success. It is a matter of trust, commitment and compassion for other people. Dale Carnegie has a saying that I’ve adapted to the world of sales: You will accomplish more in the next two months, developing a sincere interest in two people, than you’ll accomplish in the next two years, trying to get two people interested in you!