Some well-established consultants told me recently that they still get most of their work through networking. As the government bidding environment seems to be less and less welcoming for independent consultants, this is good news indeed. So let me tell you why networking reminds me of brown paper packages tied up with string and why Julie Andrews seems to run breathlessly across my screen caroling the name of my next favorite contact.
In the 1960’s Stanley Milgram chose random people from the Kansas and Nebraska phone books and asked them to forward brochures through a chain of acquaintances to an individual in Boston. The brochures that made it took about six referrals to get there; hence the urban myth of six degrees of separation.
New consultants often tell me that they don’t know where to begin marketing their services but it may be that the best place to start is with individuals you barely know. Your brown paper package or portfolio of skills, training, experience, and competencies is tied together with your availability and desire to work. Marketing is all about forwarding that parcel through your network to the door of a potential client. Once there, you can build a relationship and make the case for why your services are just what they need.
Here are eight fabulous networks to explore.
Key contact networks. Many business organizations facilitate networking. For example I belong to groups for business owners, women executives, management consultants, applied researchers, adult educators, and high-tech innovators. Whatever your interests, there is a circle for you. When you attend an event sponsored by one of these groups, articulate your competitive advantage and explain what type of work you are looking for. Be a good listener and a resource for others. Remember the 48-hour rule. If you haven’t responded by then, you have probably lost a good opportunity.
Professional networks. Every discipline has a professional network so become an active member and attend their workshops, lectures, and social events. Go to a national conference and present a paper or poster that highlights your recent work. It’s a good place to meet like-minded colleagues and update your skills but for the consultant, the key attraction is marketing. Look closely the next time you attend a conference and see how many connections are being made all around you. Plan to do it too.
Mentor networks. You may need a mentor for advice and support. Ask professors, business leaders, clients, and family members for potential names of someone who has excellent communication skills, inspires trust, and is willing to act as a role model. Mentors may need to be encouraged to share their knowledge and experience so think about what you can offer in return. They may enjoy regular contact and receiving fresh new ideas from an energizing colleague. Set up an exploratory coffee date but don’t overwhelm them with time-consuming demands. If no one perfect individual can be found, look for several with different skill sets to help foster your development. And don’t forget, a mentor may have important marketing contacts as well.
Dynamic networks. These constantly changing networks emerge from what you have been doing recently. For example, if you attended a workshop, your co-participants are a short-term group with common interests. Follow up to explore possible collaboration or share useful resources. Present a workshop yourself or be a speaker at an upcoming event. Build your reputation by being out there, being knowledgeable, and being available. Sooner or later, someone in one of these dynamic networks will need, or will know someone who needs your services.
Partner networks. Many professionals have complementary skills to yours. Collaboratively you can offer a wider array of services. For example, I joined a market research group and met people I later hired as interviewers. Since then I have collaborated on several projects with a colleague I met there. Whatever your own expertise, there are many adjunct professionals who can partner with you so think about repackaging your skills.
Resource networks. Market intelligence can be gained from reviewing databases sponsored by governments, foundations, and non-profits. While your main goal is to get on a list of approved consultants, you can also find out who else is bidding on a project. Competitors can be a source of work. Contact them directly to explore opportunities, if not on this contract, then on one down the road. Being a sub-contractor can provide you with work you could not access otherwise and working with others is a great way to learn.
Client networks. Your clients have networks too and with a little ingenuity you can access their world. At the end of a successful project an effective approach is to co-present a paper at a conference selected by your client. Be willing to do most of the work if they will cover your travel costs. You will access a different professional network and should meet some interesting potential clients.
Social networks. You probably know more about social media than I do but it is easy to see how your acquaintances can be a bridge to your next important contract. While your strong ties may be few in number, your weak ties can easily be in the thousands. Social media like Facebook or LinkedIn connect individuals who have at least one thing in common. Twitter, YouTube, Google+ and blogs can advance your consulting success. Link all of your communications to your own website and provide interesting and ever-changing content there. It is all about having a web presence these days.
There has never been a better time to share your skills and expertise using all of these great marketing networks. Move over, Julie, I see a herd of consultants at the top of the hill!
Next up: So What Makes a Good Proposal?
Cramer, G. (n.d.). The magnificent seven: Manage your business network contacts. Actif Communications.
Also see: Barrington, G. V. (2012). Consulting Start-up and Management: A Guide for Evaluators and Applied Researchers. Los Angeles: SAGE.