Structured networking pays off

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The word-of-mouth referral is a powerful technique that many agents have yet to harness successfully.

But Nancy Harlan-Marks, owner of Travel Options Inc. in Franklin, Wis., has been happily using this tool since she joined her local chapter of Business Network International (BNI) two-and-a-half years ago.

Nancy Harlan-Marks' business card is a necessary networking tool. BNI provided a structured way for Harlan-Marks to get to know other businesspeople in her area who can provide referrals for her. Each chapter allows only one member from a profession, "thus eliminating competition within a chapter -- unlike a chamber of commerce," said Harlan-Marks.

When Harlan-Marks decided four years ago to open her own home-based, full-service and ARC-approved agency, she knew that building her business on a referral basis was the way to go. And with BNI, she was able to increase her leisure sales by $30,000 the first year she joined, with all the "solid, pre-qualified referrals I received," she said.

The BNI chapter she belongs to has about 10 members but is still growing, she said. Members include an insurance broker, a mortgage broker, a cosmetics consultant, a realtor and the owner of a printing shop. At weekly lunch or breakfast meetings, members give a quick report on what is happening in their business, and swap referral leads.

"By meeting on a weekly basis, you get to know everyone else's business inside out," so the leads you provide are really qualified, she said.

Belonging to BNI has provided other benefits for Harlan-Marks, as well.

Because she has to stand up each week and speak in public, "it's taught me to have more confidence about myself and about what I do," she said. It's also helped her sell herself and her services more effectively. "I'm more aware that I have to communicate exactly what makes me different from the next agency down the street," she said.

With yearly dues of $260, BNI is very cost-effective, she said, "eliminating the need for doing a lot of advertising. Before, I was spending $300 on little ads in a church bulletin, and I got nothing. This works much better for small agencies trying to get their name out to the public."

For more information, check out BNI's Web site, located at www.bni.com.com.

How to network

Here are some quick tips on networking by Ivan Misner, founder of Business Network International (see story, at left) and the author of the book "The World's Best-Known Marketing Secret":

  • Set a goal for the number of people you'll meet, based on attendance and the type of group.
  • Ivan Misner's book.l Act like a host, not a guest. Volunteer to greet newcomers. Introduce yourself and ask if they would like to meet others.

  • Listen and ask questions. Remember that a good networker has two ears and one mouth, and he uses them proportionately.
  • Don't try to close a deal. These events are not meant to be a vehicle to "hit on" businesspeople to buy your products. Networking is about developing relationships with other professionals.
  • Give leads or referrals whenever possible. If you can't give someone a bona fide lead, try to offer an interesting piece of information.
  • Ask each person you meet for two cards -- one to pass on to someone else and one to keep.
  • Manage your time efficiently. Spend 10 minutes or less with each person you meet and don't linger with friends or associates.
  • On the backs of business cards you've collected, record anything you think may be useful in remembering each person more clearly. This will come in handy for follow-up.
  • Follow up! Drop a note or give a call to each person you've met. Fulfill any promises you've made.
  • The shopowner's manual

    The "Little Black Book" that travel agents kept in their desk drawer before the computer age is resurfacing as we struggle to know more than our computer-savvy clients.

    One way to stay ahead is to maintain a manual of leading shops around the world visited by your staff.

    Richard Turen.You might consider developing a joint marketing agreement that store managers might sign offering your referrals certain pricing or value-added advantages.

    The chances are good that your Florence, Italy-bound clients will be looking for the best outlet selling leather bags, gloves, or handmade shoes. Where in Moscow does one go to find those lovely lacquer music boxes? Isn't it a safe bet that some of your St. Thomas clients will be looking for gold jewelry or watches?

    What an advantage to offer each client a destination-centered letter of introduction with the name of the store manager.

    I'd recommend giving clients headed for New York a letter of introduction to the owner of the Carnegie Deli, an excellent purveyor of pastrami sandwiches and the like.

    And remember, all these services allow you to tack on fees for your "expertise."

    Richard Turen is an industry consultant and travel agency president.

    Contact him at [email protected].

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