Networking Isn’t Nearly as Hard as it Sounds and Sometimes it’s Even FUN
One of the most daunting – and easy to ignore – tasks facing a brand new cleaning company owner is the thought of networking. Well-meaning folks are full of advice:
“Word of mouth marketing is the best, way better than paid advertising”
How precisely do I put words about emptying people’s trash in someone’s mouth?
“You gotta get out there and talk to people”
Excuse me Sir, have you heard about the wonders of urinal screens? I don’t think so.
Or the ever popular and rather obtuse, “Go generate some BUZZ”
Hey random person on the street, I just bought a $600 vacuum, and I think I might order more! The only buzz will be them saying you’re nuts.
These friends are full of cliche sayings, but not so full of actionable ways to achieve these results.
So today I thought it might be fun to trace a string of seemingly insignificant interactions that led to significant money for our commercial cleaning company early on. Well before we had any time to cultivate a reputation or build a brand in the traditional sense.
I started my business after returning to college to finish up a bachelors degree at 38. (I promise that story will get it’s own post, it’s a fun one also!) One of my Business professors hosted an outdoor luncheon in the quad each year to talk about the Business program in general. This year, they invited me to speak briefly about our new business.
TIP #1: This is exactly what those well-meaning folks are talking about! Say yes to just about any college, university or entrepreneurship group speaking event!
Even though only about 20 people attended, even though they were mostly college students looking for a free lunch, even though almost none of them were business owners (our target market), even though I had a million and one other things to do that day, I said, “Sure!” And I showed up in my business casuals with a 5 minute prepared pitch about our start and where we were going. SAY YES TO THESE THINGS.
As an adult student, I didn’t connect with a whole lot of traditional college-aged fellow students, but I did make friends with a few other adults in other programs. There were about 5 of us sitting together at one table. When I sat down after my little blurb (I was one of several presenters that day talking about the benefits of the Business program) a fellow adult student handed me his business card and said, “We totally need you at my work. Email me after this and I’ll forward your contact information on to the right person.” He was a Field Service Engineer, going to school using his company’s tuition reimbursement program for professional development and I had never given him a passing thought as a contact – he traveled to customer sites for his work and was, I thought anyway, about as far away from making vendor hiring decisions as could be. This was in October. I went back to my office afterward, and immediately sent him a quick email. A sort of generic “it was so nice to talk to you today at the so-and-so event, this is what we do” message.
TIP #2: ALWAYS, and I mean always, always, always, send a follow up email to anyone who hands you a business card.
If someone hands you a card, it symbolizes an open door. At any kind of event, even if it’s not a business networking event, even in the aisle at the grocery store, even at your kids t-ball game, anyone, anywhere. People who open a door to their organization are priceless. The communication doesn’t have to be long or detailed. Just a simple, it was great meeting you, followed by a detail from your conversation and a brief description of what you do and your contact information. It’s easy to let the handful of cards after an Expo or Chamber event stay in a pile never to be looked at again. Folks who take the time to make a connection via email after the event are the ones who stay in mind.
The Adult Student Field Service Tech fella forwarded my email to the appropriate manager within his large organization making an introduction I never could have achieved by myself by cold-calling. They were in fact searching for a new cleaning company, but the Production Manager did not immediately contact me. He tagged the email and filed it away for months later when he knew he would need it. In June, as they were nearing the end of their contract with their current cleaner, and after trying to rectify their service complaints with that company for months, rather than start looking from scratch at unrecommended companies, he contacted us. Because we came recommended by a coworker. We bid the job and landed the gig. It wound up being a 5 day per week contract and led to contracts with two separate affiliated sites within our service area. All told, this one seemingly trivial contact made at a small scale college campus outdoor luncheon with an audience of about 20 ppl generated just over 1.2 million dollars in revenue over the course of a decade long relationship that only ended when the parent company was sold.
I could have told my professor I was too busy to come speak at the luncheon. I could have been seated at a different table and never spoken to the field service tech. I could have neglected to send the email. But I said yes to one tiny networking opportunity and it really blossomed. But that’s not even the crazy contact string I’m here to tell you about!
About a year after we started cleaning for them, Mr. Field Service Tech approached me and asked, in consideration of his referral, would I be willing to sponsor his Nascar Asphalt Racing Team. Excuse me, wut? What does my business-to-business commercial cleaning company have to do with general consumers at a race track? In my mind, they were about as far away as night and day. But, he brought the goods. He detailed how many of the other race team’s sponsors had private boxes at the track. He brought hard data about which of their customers they were entertaining in the boxes. And because the door was open – we had a relationship as fellow adult students at the same college and now a customer/vendor relationship, I listened. For two seasons, we sponsored a racing team and the track clean up crew. Meaning that every time there was a wreck that required track clean up the announcer read our ad over the speakers highlighting our services to the several hundred business owners in attendance multiple times each Friday night. I’ll be honest, I thought the return here was modest. We booked a couple one-time construction cleans, but no contracts that could be attributed directly to this opportunity.
TIP #3: Once the door of communication is opened, either with a person or business, keep it open!
Because I cultivated a great relationship with the Production Manager and went over and above in all we did for them, we were referred to other sites with his organization. Because I kept in contact with Mr. Field Service Tech, who frankly did not in his line of work directly influence hiring decisions for vendors, AND most importantly, because his initial referral made him look good with his management, he wound up generating even more revenue for us from other sources.
Then, it happened. The most bananas marketing/networking story I have ever heard.
I got a random phone call to bid a construction clean on a travel center/truck stop. This was not someone I had worked with previously, so I went out to look it over. Luckily, even though he called last minute, we had availability so everything worked out. As was my custom, at the end of the visit, I asked the Construction Manager how he heard about us. He said, “Ya know, it was the phone book. None of us are from here, we are all from down south, so none of the vendors we generally use come up this far north. I opened the phone book and there were a ton of cleaners listed, but Anthony, one of the electricians, is from Charlotte and he heard good things about you guys, so we didn’t even call anybody else.”
I was perplexed. We are located in southwestern PA and do not have any locations in North Carolina. How did Anthony hear good things about us? While we were cleaning, I got a chance to ask Anthony directly.
Anthony said he was called in for an emergency repair in a luxury box at The Coca Cola 600, a NASCAR race just outside of Charlotte, NC. While he was there, he heard two guys talking. One of them was a Field Service guy who was entertaining customers at the race. They were talking shop about problems at work and the customer was complaining about the cleanliness of their building and the tech said, “We had the hardest time finding a cleaner, but someone in my department met a cleaner at some networking event and we’ve had the best service for the last couple years. I hope they never leave. Our bathrooms are spotless, and they take on one-time jobs also. I’ve heard their ads at the track near me, they’re pretty big. Maybe you could contact them” and used our name which Anthony, making his emergency repair in the background, overheard and then remembered months later while traveling 400 miles from home.
I shit you not. IT WASN’T EVEN THE ORIGINAL FIELD SERVICE TECH!! It was co-worker of the original adult student.
That’s called BUZZ baby.
I am not saying that everyone should go sponsor a race car. That’s not it. The message here is doing great, buzz worthy work for everyone, regardless of what you perceive they can do for you, is intrinsic to creating a brand reputation.
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