Business growth fueled by personal referrals is the holy grail of any service business. How do you make yours a referral-based business? Networking, says master networker Ivan Misner.
Misner is founder of BNI, a 135,000-member international business referral network. He is also a bestselling author, whose latest book is Networking Like a Pro: Turning Contacts into Connections (Entrepreneur Press, 2010; co-authored by David Alexander and Brian Hilliard).
Since 1996, Misner has also been senior partner in Lunar Travel, an in-house travel agency in BNI’s Upland, Calif., offices; his involvement in the agency is strictly financial.
Misner told Travel Market Report that you don’t have to be an extrovert to network well. Introverts are often better because they’re good listeners. “A really good networker is like an interviewer. You ask questions.”
Let’s start with the basics. What is networking?
Misner: Networking in a nutshell is all about building relationships. Networking is more about farming than hunting; it’s about cultivating relationships.
This is not a sales process this is a referral process. You ask the average businessperson what’s the most important way to build your business, they’re going to tell you referrals and word of mouth. The core foundation of that is what I call the VCP Process™ – visibility, credibility, profitability.
How does that work?
Misner: It’s a chronological process. Visibility leads to credibility, leads to profitability. Visibility is where people know who you are and what you do; you have name recognition in the community. Credibility is where people know who you are and what you do, and they know you’re good at it, because they’ve heard it from others or they’ve used your services. Profitability is where people know who you are, what you do, they know you’re good at it – and they’re willing to pass you referrals.
From the travel agency perspective, are most of your clients referring other clients to you? The answer is usually no. Then you’re not even at profitability with most of your clients; you’re at credibility.
What are the pitfalls of networking?
Misner: What tends to happen is what I call premature solicitation. Somebody meets you at a networking event. They say, ‘Hi my name’s Ivan. We should be doing business together.’ It’s a networking disconnect. You’re actually at a fourth phase with this person called invisibility. If you’re annoying about it, you’re at irritability.
That’s networking gone bad. Networking is not about cold calling to a group. It’s about making connections. One of the most important things I’ve learned in three decades of running BNI is it’s not what you know or who you know, it’s how well you know each other that really counts.
What’s your advice for someone attending, say, a Chamber of Commerce gathering?
Misner: Chambers are one of the four streams of networks. The four streams include casual contact networks like a chamber of commerce; strong contact networks that allow one person per profession, like BNI; online networks, like Facebook and Twitter; and knowledge networks, like the American Society of Travel Agents, organizations by profession. You should have your toe in all four streams, or at least three, if you want to build a powerful personal network.
Most businesses are cave dwellers; if they’re home-based even more so, because they’re not getting out of their houses.
In the age of social media is traditional networking as important? Do the two overlap?
Misner: I’m a real believer in online networks. But it’s kind of safe – you don’t have to actually see anybody. Networking is a contact sport. You have to integrate the two; you have to do face to face, because there’s nothing that beats a personal conversation, eyeballs to eyeballs, shaking somebody’s hand.
What I find social media to be really outstanding for is a) to stay in touch with people I’ve met, and b) to build visibility with people I haven’t met yet. VCP still applies and premature solicitation still happens, but at light speed on the Internet. The rules still apply.
Any specific advice for travel agents?
Misner: The first thing they need to do is diversify the kinds of groups they’re in. People tend to network with people like themselves. The more diverse your personal network, the more likely you are to have connectors to whole different clusters of people. If you’re doing tours and cruises, and you want to do group travel, you want to meet people who would connect you to groups you wouldn’t otherwise be connected with, so you don’t always go to the usual suspects.