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Street SmartsSM
Networking Tips and Tricks That Work

By Michael Nardy

Networking is the practice of bringing together people of different business backgrounds to further their varied goals by exchanging information or services. As a merchant level salesperson (MLS), this practice is an essential part of your daily business activities. Whether you attend a local chamber of commerce meeting or contact your merchants for referrals, these all serve as forms of networking.

In this article, I will provide some tips and tricks for successful networking, which is an excellent use of your time when done properly and creatively. It can lead to a reliable stream of new accounts and momentum that will help grow your business.

Networking Associations

You have many business groups and networking associations from which to choose; some require a membership commitment and others are open to anyone. In my local area, for example, there are several business groups including the chamber of commerce, Business Alliance, and Retail Business Association.

All require some form of membership commitment, whether it is financial or through the donation of time and resources. When choosing a networking group, select one that is likely to provide the most access to other business owners. In most communities, the local chamber of commerce serves as the best networking group. Some are called "tri-area" chambers, which include businesses from several counties.

The chamber in my area is restricted to my town, but from time to time it holds business showcases that bring several area chambers together. You can make a wealth of business connections at any chamber gathering; every person you meet is a potential lead. Keeping a lock on the names and details of these new acquaintances will help improve your sales numbers.

If you have a problem remembering the people you meet, especially if you encounter many over the course of an event, try keeping a timeline in a notepad. Organize the timeline in 10- to 15-minute intervals for the event. As you meet prospective leads, you will probably receive their business cards. Keep them in a safe place, but also write their names down on your notepad under the time interval during which you met them. You should also have enough room to write a brief note about each person. Believe it or not, obtaining business cards, meeting prospective leads and keeping a timeline will help keep your leads straight.

NAOPP posted the following question on GS Online's MLS Forum: "Do you attend networking groups such as BNI or Letip? What has been your experience? Has it helped your sales?"

In response, an MLS Forum member "imsrick" wrote, "I have been a member of a local group, One Leads Group International. I joined when I first started on my own as an MLS. I acquired many clients initially. After I developed my networking skill within a small group, I decided that the group had run its course, and I became more active in larger groups such as the local chambers."

This comment brings me to the next type of networking group: the local business alliance or leads group. In this case, imsrick joined a smaller, local group first and then moved onto the chamber of commerce.

Business Leads Groups

Both organized and ad hoc business leads groups will also help in generating new leads. Finding the right group size and format are essential. A smaller group will create fewer leads, which often results in no productivity.

On the MLS Forum, "Bankcardrep1" wrote, "I am the President of our leads group. It is a group of about 25 local business owners. We meet once a week over breakfast. We go around the table and share leads, and in 60 minutes we are out the door. This is very productive and informal and cheap: [only] $50 a year and breakfast. We only allow one of each [business] type in. Our chamber seems more social, so this is a great use of time."

Bankcardrep1 makes a good point. Sometimes chamber events serve more as social gatherings than actual productive business meetings.

Smaller leads groups such as the one described by Bankcardrep1 are an excellent way to generate new business leads, especially considering that these groups often only admit one business from each industry. While this might be somewhat limiting, it has advantages such as restricting competition within the group.

E-mail Marketing Still Exists

We all receive SPAM and other forms of unwanted e-mail. However, I don't delete all unsolicited e-mail from my inbox. For instance, I receive a networking e-mail from one of the local business associations almost weekly.

One MLS working with Electronic Payments Inc. (EPI) used a catchy way of getting the attention of managers and Chief Financial Officers, which involved an e-mail overview of their "local" company and service with a free consultation. Normally, most would just delete the e-mail, but what I think made it work was the emphasis on the local community and the business group that they are part of.

The MLS focused on his base of local businesses and explained in the e-mail how he could meet with the CFO or Manager, discuss several options for their business, and work successfully with other local business owners in the area. The business owners received the message directly; clearly it wasn't SPAM, and in many cases, it reached unpublished e-mail addresses, something that added to its effectiveness.

Common Goals Lead to Benefits for Both

A post made by MLS Forum member, "PlasticWorld," reminded me of an interesting marketing technique: Use a local printer to grow your business. If gift cards are not a mainstay of your business (most MLSs use them only as a lead-in or a value-added service) work with your local printer to grow your sales channel. Talk to a printer and ask for information on any new businesses that order stationery and business cards. Each new customer can serve as a potential lead both for you and the printer.

Additionally, without stepping on the toes of printers that print gift certificates, offer them the profit on a per-card basis if they sell gift cards. Most printers around the country are not full-service shops; they often subcontract services that they cannot perform in-house. If you offered printers the ability to sell gift cards instead of gift certificates, they might find their profit-per-card to be enough to justify the switch from paper certificates to plastic cards.

Taking over the referred merchant's credit card processing and providing the printer that gave the referral (or helped up-sell your gift card product) with your profit from the gift cards and perhaps your ongoing residuals is a small price to pay for that potentially profitable lead.

The Chamber Card Program

An interesting networking trick that works very well is the use of a preloaded gift card and a common desire to win anything that's free. At a local chamber business showcase, we spent about an hour passing out preloaded gift cards printed with EPI's name and phone number. Each card was loaded with $1; however, many were loaded with $10 and one was even $100.

The trick of this marketing technique: Pass the cards out to chamber members in exchange for their business cards. We told them to redeem the cards at the end of the evening to see if they won. Nearly 90% of the cards were returned, which served two purposes.

First, the guests, many of whom wouldn't have stayed until the end of the evening, remained longer at the event. Second, the leads generated from this networking technique created tons of merchant and gift card referrals, and most resulted in meetings and account conversions.

When people cheered because they had won (even for the $1 cards), we achieved the desired result of this promotion. By far, we were the most well-known vendor at the business showcase by the end of the night.

The Final Word on Networking

The methods for networking and lead-generation are unlimited. MLSs who innovate and change their marketing approach by trying new techniques and spreading themselves among many business networking groups will benefit from their ingenuity and perseverance in the bankcard business.

Michael Nardy, founding sponsor of NAOPP, is CEO of Electronic Payments Inc. (EPI), a private transaction and payment processing company. For more information, visit, www.epiprogram.com, or e-mail him at mike@elecpayments.com

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