Low-Cost Opportunities to Build Business

There are opportunities to promote your business every single day, whether you realize it or not. Are you overlooking a sale that could be right under your nose?

Picture this: You’ve just made a delivery to a client and you’re driving your truck to another appointment when, all of a sudden, your truck develops a very unusual shake. You pull off to the side of the freeway. Unfortunately, it’s a precarious location, with concrete construction walls taking up the shoulder and no truly safe place to pull over. A tow truck pulls in behind you and blocks traffic. You’re safe. What do you do? Sell the tow truck driver $1,000 worth of imprinted apparel.

Now that’s networking.

And that’s exactly what Debbra Sweet, owner of Sweet Marketing Solutions (asi/340640), did when she found herself in this exact situation.

The tow truck driver noted that her rear tire had blown its sidewall and was unsafe. He volunteered to follow her to the nearest facility where she could get her tires fixed. During the brief conversation , she noticed he was wearing imprinted apparel and 15 minutes later, safely at the tire shop, she thanked him for his help and talked with him some more. “When he casually mentioned that he might need some imprinted items for an upcoming event, we exchanged business cards,” she says. And a sale was made.

Sweet calls this type of interaction “mastering the selling mindset,” and it’s something that she does frequently. In fact, she admits to being virtually always “on” – always looking for potential sales opportunities. “Sales can happen any time, anywhere and under any circumstances,” she says. “Even on the side of the road. You just have to have the mindset to make it happen.”

Lori Caden, president of Caden Concepts LLC (asi/155443) in Los Angeles, has many examples of chance encounters that turned into sales. Most recently, a trip to visit grandma and grandpa with her two-year-old daughter, resulted in an embarrassing airplane encounter that turned into a sale.

Charlee was sitting on Caden’s lap watching her DVD when she accidentally knocked over the drink of the businessman in the next seat who was working on his computer. The drink ended up in his lap. “I was so embarrassed I could barely look at him,” says Caden. After many apologies he went back to work, Charlee went back to her DVD and all was well until the peanuts and pretzels were passed around.

At that point, the toddler decided she didn’t like the pretzels and started throwing them at the man. Once the pretzels were gone, there was an hour of peace until Charlee, again feeling restless, leaned over and started to type on the man’s keyboard.

“I guess her aggressiveness brought me closer to doing business with him,” says Caden. “We ended up talking. I found out he was the marketing director for a rather large company. We exchanged cards and I sent him an apology e-mail telling him to send me the dry cleaning bill. His response was, ‘Do you carry Nike brand polo shirts?’” The order shortly followed.

You might be thinking Sweet and Caden lucked out. But what is luck? Richard Wiseman, a researcher at the University of Hertfordshire in England and the author of The Luck Factor: Changing Your Luck, Changing Your Life: The Four Essential Principles (Miramax, 2003), has studied what makes some people “lucky.” Luck, he says, isn’t really about good fortune, but about thinking and behaving in certain ways. Simply put, lucky people “expect good fortune” and behave in ways consistent with that expectation.

As Sweet and others have discovered, the keys to taking advantage of unique networking opportunities in even the most unusual circumstances are threefold and might be thought of as the three B’s: Being alert to opportunities; breaking the ice; and building relationships.

On the Lookout

The key is awareness. “You need to be able to slow down long enough to look at your surroundings,” Sweet says. That’s what she did when she noticed the imprinted shirt the tow truck driver was wearing and immediately connected that image with a potential sales opportunity. “The coincidence was perfect,” she says, but adds that, “most people in that moment would have thought only about the emergency.”

Too often, as we go about our daily activities, our minds are somewhere else. We’re not focused on the here and now and, consequently, miss important cues that could lead to opportunity.

Joseph Scott, VP of Scott & Associates Inc. (asi/321502), in Chanhassen, MN, was asked to play in a band that was made up of executive MBA students. After the performance, he asked the keyboard/vocalist if he was interested in playing some other gigs, which they did. “When we got around to asking each other what we did for a living, I found out that he was VP of Marketing for an online university,” says Scott. “They’re one of our newest clients.”

Dave Wasserman, president of DIW Visual Merchandisers, LLC (asi/173886), was a sergeant in the local fire police unit. He was directing traffic during a blackout and had to stop a car. The driver was from out of the area and needed directions. He was also a fire police officer. After he got the directions, he asked where his organization could get shirts and hats like those Wasserman was wearing.

He, like Scott, saw his opening and jumped on it toward a close. “Without missing a beat, I handed him a card and, in return, got his name and phone number. The following week I called and made an appointment to meet with his fire company,” he says. And the rest is history.

Dick Stein is semi-retired from Dick Stein Advertising (asi/335750) and spends several months a year in Key West, where he’s known for his knack with a machete – which he uses to crack open coconuts during his “gig” as a nature bike tour guide. As he wraps up the tour, he takes his group to a secluded spot in Old Town called The Medicine Garden and there he spends a few moments providing tips on how to best use the balance of their time while on the island.

“Invariably,” he says, “someone will ask what I did in the ‘real world’ before I became a bike tour guide in paradise.” He tells them that, after 30 years, he still has an interest in, but is mostly retired from, an advertising firm that specializes in custom-decorated promotional products.

After one of these encounters, a guest came up to him and said he needed creative ideas for an upcoming tradeshow. “I suggested he go to our Web site and then phone our customer service manager for more details. For contact data, I gave him a self-promo pen I had in my backpack.” After he returned home, he checked out the Web site, made a call, and there you have it. Another sale … from a machete-wielding, coconut-cracking, bike tour guide in Key West.

Step Out and Step Up

“Opportunities are always there, but it’s up to us to either see them or hear them and then not be afraid to step forward and say something about it,” says Sweet. “That’s so basic, but most people don’t do it. My brain works in really creative ways all the time, so even when I’m out shopping or doing something on a personal level, I’m always looking for little cues that can help me enhance my business in the area of promotional items.”

It all comes down to being comfortable with being proactive, she says. One of Sweet’s favorite sayings is, “Luck is nothing more than being prepared for the opportunity when it arrives.”

It pays to step out of your comfort zone, interacting in situations or with people who are not typically part of your circle. Dr. Ivan Misner is an expert in networking and word-of-mouth marketing and the founder and CEO of Business Network International (BNI), the world’s largest networking organization. He’s the co-author of Masters of Success (Entrepreneur Press, 2004).

Misner says that many people make a very simple – and very fatal – mistake in their networking efforts. They are exclusive, rather than inclusive, and in the process, miss out on chances to exponentially expand the number and value of their contacts.

“There’s a somewhat built-in bias that people have about networking with individuals outside their normal frame of reference,” says Misner. “It’s very common for people to see somebody and think, ‘this person clearly doesn’t have good contacts,’ or ‘they’re not going to be able to put me in touch with the people that I need,’ and they bypass or dismiss them.”

This bias ends up being our downfall. Diversity, “enables you to link up connectors – people who cross over from one network to another. The most powerful networks are truly diverse ones,” he says. The broader the network, the more opportunities for what some might call “lucky breaks.”

Breaking the Ice

While the business-card handoff is the visual image most typically associated with networking, effective networking requires much more than this. In fact, successful networking requires being prepared – in any situation – to sell. And we do mean any situation.

Vicki Fleming, a manager at Ad Ideas (asi/105008), was at the doctor’s office. She was perched on the end of an exam table, with a paper robe, waiting for the doctor to appear. When he did, he began to make small talk and asked about Fleming’s job. “When he learned what I did, he realized he had a need for my products and there I am selling away, wearing nothing but an over-sized paper towel,” she says.

Fleming’s experience points to an important tactic that successful salespeople can use to their advantage – the “elevator speech,” simply a short description of what you do that you are prepared to deliver in any situation – in an elevator, at a cocktail party, or even in the doctor’s office.

Getting to that point, of course, requires ice-breaking skills. John Assaraf is CEO and founder of OneCoach, a consulting firm that works with small businesses to help them improve their success. A New York Times best-selling author and an entrepreneur many times over, Assaraf’s network includes thousands of people and resources he draws upon for referrals, clientele and help in building and running his businesses.

“Business-card exchanges and other networking events are high-pressure situations where people go to meet others, but usually with all of their defenses intact.” Relax. “Casually start conversations. Talk with anyone and everyone you can – in person, on the phone or via e-mail. Cross the street, cross the room, cross the train to talk to someone. Find out what they’re working on and tell them what you’re working on. Anything can come out of a simple conversation – ideas, alliances, connections, referrals, new business and new opportunities.”

Building Relationships

As they say, quantity does not equal quality. Establishing one or two great alliances is far more valuable than collecting and keeping cards from people you don’t even know.

Once a contact is made, staying in touch and keeping your name in front of a prospect is critical. There are many ways this can be done. Once you’ve met someone you can congratulate them, thank them and refer them through e-mail, personal notes and more. You can also do favors for them. If you are always thinking about how you can connect with people you’ve already met, you’ll be a brilliant networker.
Jeanne Hurlbert, Ph.D., has spent more than two decades studying how individuals’ networks affect job-finding, access to social support, recovery from disasters, health and job satisfaction. Through her company, Optinet Resources LLC, in Baton Rouge, she and her husband help entrepreneurs develop networks that will help them succeed.

To network successfully, says Hurlbert, salespeople need to recognize that they gain opportunities to rebuild their networks every day, everywhere they go. Networks are living things. To be effective, they must be built, maintained and used. “I once heard a successful businessperson sum up a good networking philosophy very well: ‘Treat everyone you meet as a potential friend, help everyone you can and never keep score.’ You never know when a relationship might prove useful, down the line,” she says.