Relationships. Not Marketing.

It’s really that simple.

While I was in Kenya last week I met with a new friend for a few hours to discuss his need to bring in new clients. He was thinking he might need to do some marketing. I suggested he forget marketing and talk to his friends instead.

The tactics of “old marketing” still live on out there. When we need to bring in new customers our first reaction is that we should start calling, mailing or emailing people in our target market. I was re-reading some of Seth Godin’s book, Meatball Sundae, while on the plane and was reminded again that when we interrupt people without them asking us to, we start out on the wrong foot. Getting their permission to talk with them is just so much better.

It’s no different in Kenya. My electrical engineering friend was thinking he should go after the companies that would be good clients and see if he could get some conversations going with them. It seems reasonable and most of us would start there.

We sat in a coffee shop and came up with a different approach. Rather than call, email, or show up and ask to talk to someone, we decided that in just about every instance, he could get permission before he ever talked to any of these possible customers.

How? Talk to his friends and existing customers. Really. Just talk to them and ask them to make introductions.

Four Steps to New Clients
At first he thought that they might not have the right contacts or that they wouldn’t want to help. But as we talked it through he realized it was the best, quickest way to expand his customer base significantly. Without spending any money on expensive “interruption marketing.” Just cups of coffee.

1) We first defined his target market – what did his ideal client look like and from what segments of the market? We narrowed it down to just a few.

2) Then we made a horizontal list across a napkin of the types of people who could find him those customers. We listed mechanical engineers, building contractors, business lawyers, commercial real estate agents and others who would already have contacts with his ideal customers. We added to the horizontal topics categories like “existing clients”, “past clients”, “friends” and “raving fans” because they might all know someone who a) could refer him to a client or b) actually know a possible client themselves.

3) Once we had the horizontal list on the napkin, his job was to go back to the office and list every person and company he knew in each category (mechanical contractors, friends, customers, etc.). This was going to be dozens if not a few hundred people and companies.

4) We then decided on a measurable activity and objective because you get what you intend, not what you hope for. He decided he would be able to have 6-8 cups of coffee a week and I asked him to set objectives for how many new customers and how much new revenue he intended to get from the coffees (don’t have lunch – it costs too much and takes too long).

Getting the Conversation Going
We talked about the best way to motivate these people to work with him – do for them what he wanted them to do for him. For his close friends he could simply ask them to help. Most of us won’t do this – we think we’re bothering them.

Even though we would love to help our friends, we’re not so sure about asking them to help us. He didn’t seem to have this common hang up. If you do, get over it. People want to help us and you need to ask for that help. Too often we assume they would already be sending people our way if they wanted to, but you have to realize they have a life and you are not in the center of it. They need you to get a cup of coffee and help them focus on it for 45 minutes. They are glad to help, they’re just not focused on doing so. Help them help you.

Be What Yout Want Them to Be
To communicate the “do for them what we want them to do for us” message right up front, my friend was going to say something like, “I’d like to get together to see if we can push each other forward. Since we work in the same space, I might have clients you want, you might have clients I want. Would you like to see if we can help each other?” I’ve only had a couple people ever turn me down. Anyone who turns this down the opportunity to be mutually helpful to each other isn’t someone you would not want to do business with anyway.

Three Questions to Ask
After small talk and asking other questions about their business, we had three questions he would ask:

1) Strategic Alliance – Do you know one person who might have the same customers as I do who might want to build an ongoing strategic relationship with me so we can pass clients back and forth for years to come? (and if appropriate, “would you want to do that together with me?” Would you introduce me via a mutual email or even a phone call?

2) End Client Referral – Do you know one person at any of these target market companies who you could introduce me to who might have a project I could be on?

3) Do you know one other person who might be interested in having a cup of coffee with me over this kind of possible strategic alliance? Would you introduce me?

Friends want to help us, and the smart ones that don’t know us real well are highly attracted to the idea of having strategic alliances. And when all of the connections are made by someone else introducing us, it’s all by permission.

I’ve never made a cold call in my life and was the #1 sales person in a bunch of companies, some of whom had people making cold calls all day long.

Build relationships by asking people you already have a relationship with to help you. But most of all, help them first. A picture is worth a thousand words. If you want them to refer to you or build a strategic alliance with you and send you clients, do it for them.

People buy from people, and they buy more from people they know and trust. If you build relationships you will make more money than if you interrupt people with fancy and expensive marketing.

Get out there and have a cup of coffee with someone you already know – it just might change your business.

A Focus on Finding Customers Online Doesn’t Work.

But social networking does – there’s a big difference.

If you’re focusing on getting new customers online, research shows you’re not going to get many. By they way, it’s no different offline. This study could rock the online marketing world, or at least the SEO’rs, who focus on activity vs. results.

In the dark ages (Nov. 2008), when the biggest Twitter account had “only” 73,395 followers, I did a post on Why Social Networking Can Be a Bad Idea . A year later (Sept. 2009) I challenged the common usage of the term Social Networking .

This month Gallup released results of an intensive survey – Social Media: The Three Big Myths – saying much the same thing – you won’t get new clients from social media. So why do it?

Stop Focusing on Selling
The big myth is that using social media to focus on getting new clients works. Gallup confirmed that it doesn’t. They surveyed 17,000 people to find out this big duh. Gallup went on to say that we should instead focus on engaging our CURRENT and ENGAGED customers instead. Another big duh.

We just don’t believe being human works.

Social Networking is Best Done in Person, THEN Online
We keep trying to digitize our relationships, and big surprise, people actually want to talk with people instead. A study by the Wharton School backed this up in Dec. of 2010 – over 90% of word-of-mouth product discussions happen offline and a significant chunk of the 10% of online discussions, start offline. Social networking has always been, and will always be more of an offline way for people to engage with each other.

Here’s a clue:

People buy from people, and they buy more from people they like.

This manic need to avoid relationships and just sell our shiny object isn’t new. You’ve all met “that guy” at a networking event who is the offline version of the pop-up ad, always in your face with a product you weren’t looking for. He has no interest in you as a person, just as a target. Online marketing suffers from the same self-focus.

We just assume that because our product is so great, all we have to do is get it in front of new potential clients and they will buy. Gallup confirms that not only will this focus on new customers not work online, you can’t even expect to retain your existing ones via online communications.

The key word here – focus.

Gallup confirms what I’ve believed about online media all along – you are unlikely to engage new prospects by focusing on them directly through online media. Instead, Gallup shows that the best use of online media is to engage with your most ACTIVE and COMMITTED customers online, and as you engage them, gently encourage them to advocate for you.

We think social engagement online will make someone want to buy, but now we have hard core evidence that’s not true. Just the opposite – being engaged as a customer will drive social engagement and make them want to talk to you online. And those existing customers will advocate and bring new clients – you won’t.

The Game Changing Conclusion
Want to win new clients online? Stop focusing on them, and go back to building raving fans with your existing clients – they will bring others to you.

Again is there anything new here? My wife went to this place called Panera Bread many years ago. They focused on her as a customer, not me as a potential customer. She came home and told me about the place, and I’ve spent thousands there since.

The big successes will come when you can engage your existing clients and raving fans both online and offline simultaneously. That’s a powerful use of the online world – as another place to meet your friends.

The SEO’rs won’t like this, but it’s not about click-throughs, which by this study, are largely added noise. It’s about existing committed/loyal clients bringing others to your site.

Why are you online? To get new customers? Think again. The best way to make that happen is to focus instead on the people who already love you, and let them do the Panera Bread thing for you.