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Saturday, March 23, 2013

Unlikely Allies - Your Strongest Referral Source?

We tend to see cobras as fearsome, tricky killers to be avoided at any cost - not as guardians of cute puppies. If I'd heard this story (click on the pic for more info) without seeing the photo I'd have assumed it an Aesop's Fable. This photo reminded me that unlikely allies can sometimes be the most helpful.

While we don't know why this cobra isn't attacking the puppies, we do know why Polished Pros are inclusive, and welcome the company of their direct competitors. They do it because they understand that inclusiveness is in everyone's long-term best interest.

On Being Inclusive
But first let me deflate any idea you may have that 'inclusiveness is for suckers'. Some formal referral networks allow only one type of vendor or service provider per group. This might seem logical at first, but look deeper and you'll see that it actually limits the productivity of the group.

Here's a few reasons why it's a bad idea to limit membership of a group so that only one of each type is allowed:

  • We learn from our competitors. They learn from us. Organizations that are designed for peer-to-peer learning are more likely to thrive.
  • This type of exclusivity is rooted in scarcity-thinking. Scarcity can't breed abundance. Scarcity can only breed scarcity.
  • The most-qualified referrals come from people who can clearly communicate what we do. Who better to understand and explain what we do than someone who is already doing it?

This is why the most abundant referral networks invite direct competitors to join the same group. What's that you say..? Two small-business CPAs in the same group...? 

 To the Entrepre-nerd this looks like
a recipe for disaster - or a waste of time.  

But having been an active member in both types of referral networks I can say from experience that the inclusive model - when the members operate with integrity - will almost always generate more referrals for everyone in the group. Here's why:

  • Members who have direct competitors in the room must differentiate, perhaps by narrowly defining their ideal client. That definition will most likely broaden in outside conversations, but the narrower definition will also come in handy each time this professional meets a new potential referral source (see Trigger).
  • The group will have options. No two prospects or vendors are the same, and direct competitors are no exception. Polished Pros like to qualify (or target) the referrals they make by asking the prospect things like, "Would you rather work with a man or a woman? Someone older or someone your own age? A tactician or an ideator?" Qualifying a prospect's needs puts everyone at ease, and help the Pro to refer the best-matched professional.
  • Some of the most productive cross-referral relationships are formed between direct competitors. One group I joined had two former prosecutors-turned-transactional-attorneys. At first I was shocked! But Gary and Carl shared so much business between them (i.e., referred opportunities to each other) that they spent many years fully-booked on projects that had come via the other's referral.

Concept into Action
Whether you see your competitors as cobras or puppies (or even as useful Allies) remaining open to the opportunity they represent, and gently cultivating the relationship, can only serve to grow your own business. Plus, the other guy might even teach you a thing or two along the way.

When was the last time you reached out to your competion?

Are you familiar with the business concept of "co-opetition"? 

As always, your comments are welcome.

See you there!

Friday, March 15, 2013

Designing Your Business Card - The Basics

Last week, AMAXRA brought me in to run some training for their staff and consultant team. The topic was 'networking best practices', specifically around the best way to hand-off a business card. They're a sharp crew so we had a great time, and seeing their lights turn-on around the do's and dont's of this overlooked business development activity inspired all of us.

One of the team asked me, "Let's say I'm designing my card from scratch - what should I think about?" In that moment my answer was brief, but it's a great question (thanks Andrew!) worthy of it's own blog post.

Back in the twentieth century, a Polished Pro didn't need more than eleven words printed on a slip of medium-weight card stock to remain front-of-mind with their Pals, Allies, and Intimates

Things were simpler back then...

But today, unless you're the most eminent talent in your field, eleven words probably won't cut it. This card pre-dates the formation of Led Zeppelin (check out It Might Get Loud for the story of Mr. Page's years as a session musician), but even so it has a few design elements that work, even today:
  • Black typeface on white stock: its easy to read, reproduces clearly, and says "I'm not interested in shenanigans"
  • I know exactly what Mr. James Patrick Page is selling - no questions required
  • The pitch "session guitarist" is a qualifying statement as well as a job description. If I don't know what that is, I'm probably not in the market for his services, which saves both parties time and energy.
  • A large, sans-serif typeface that you could read from across the room.

And what about those of us
who aren't Living Legends - yet?

For those of us still working on our Living Legend status, here are some practical business card design guidelines and tips.

First: Less is More
  • No glossy finishes. They're more expensive and are impossible to write notes on. And you want people noting things about about you on your card as often (and easily) as possible. 
  • High-contrast is best. Your card must be easy to read - not just for humans but for photo-copying machines, scanners, and digitizers too. Stick with dark typeface on light paper stock.
  • Leave the back of your card blank. This gives the recipient a place to take notes. They only standard exception is if you do business in countries that speak a different language and you need both sides to 'localize' the card.
  • Don't have a logo? No problem! Think card first, logo later. You need a card and you don't need a logo, so don't let your logo-less state stop you from getting cards.

Then: Increasing Your Perceived Value
When questions of using fancy design elements come up, remember: stick with the basics until you've mastered them. Once you've mastered them, by all means consider all the possibilities for increasing your perceived value by including fancy design elements on your cards. These might include:
  • Round the corners and other die-cut design elements. This could bump up the costs considerably, but it will be worth every penny if its on-message and helps keep you front of mind with your network.
  • Print on unusual stock. Again, it must work with your brand and increase the likelihood that you'll remain front-of-mind or its just not worth it.
  • Color or black and white? Both work, but the trick with color is to keep the design high-contrast. If you're not sure what that means then talk to some of your designer friends early in the process, and consider hiring someone whose work you admire.
  • Add a compelling, on-brand message. When I was consulting in the field of Corporate Sustainability, I included my carbon footprint on my card. It was a great way to get a conversation started in the right direction, and it subtly reminded them who to turn to when questions came up around business and the environment.
  • Go 3-D. One Dutch agency doesn't use business cards - their team hands out superhero action figures instead.

Concept into Action
Since this post is already about "what to do", I'll just leave you with a few more suggestions.
  • Vistaprint.com might seem like a great deal, but you should also start building a relationship with a local, professional printer or print broker. As your business grows you'll have more print jobs than just your business cards - product labels, collateral material, sell sheets, one-sheets, or client deliverables all play into your showing up like a Polished Pro. Having a strong relationship with a great printer will save you time, energy, and money in the long run.
  • Look at other professional's cards with a critical eye. When you see a design element that you really like, set that card aside in a 'brand development' file.
  • If you've already got business cards and they break some of these guidelines, don't fret. Get started designing your next one as you use-up the current batch of cards that you're currently handing out.
Have you ever been given a card with a typo on it?

Or with contact information crossed-out?

Did that change your perception of the person who gave it to you?

As always, your comments are welcome.

See you there!