One of the biggest challenges most wedding and event professionals face is getting good, qualified client referrals from the other professionals we meet. Unfortunately, to some extent, we're our own worst enemies when developing a dynamic referral system. The first flaw in the system is our networking plan. Or, more accurately, lack of networking plan. We register for local networking events, invest the money and time to attend them, and then we do nothing to make the event productive for our businesses. Here's how to create a functioning referral network that will ultimately benefit both you and your clients!
Here are 5 quick tips for being productive at networking events:
- Take business cards. We know that sounds basic. However, we're amazed at the number of event professionals we meet who don't carry business cards.
- Go early and stay late. Getting there early and staying late allows you to get a little quiet time with people you might never have met before.
- Breakaway from the clique. We're all guilty of this. We socialize with people we know. However, very few of those conversations are about creating new business together—it's all cocktails and chatter. Step away and meet some new people.
- Divide and conquer. If you go with your team, you need to separate. Sit apart from each other and attempt to meet different people.
- Set a goal. Set a plan as to how many new people you want to meet and collect their business cards.
Open your desk drawer and look at all the business cards you've collected from previous networking events (We know they're there!). See who's on-brand. Who presented themselves like someone you want to work with, and who might fit in with your vendor team? Take some time, or assign an intern, to check out their social media and website. Does their presentation align with your core values and esthetics?
Tackle the Database
It's time to pick up the stack of cards and set up some meetings with people who might be a good fit. Then, tackle the database!
Set up a meeting with them. Or better yet, when the time allows, host a small luncheon of six to eight new people to see how they interact with other professionals. But, be prepared with a plan. Have some ice breaker questions to get to know them better and go around the table, engaging each person. The goal is to really get to know about each person and their business. To learn more than the product they offer and the price point—basically to see if they're good partners.
Whoever Feeds the Dog
A well-seasoned event professional once said, "whoever feeds the dog, owns the dog." Whoever feeds the dog is whoever is currently working with the client. Owns the dog means they make the referrals and set the expectations.
Typically, wedding planners have a big picture. They're managing the total client budget and all the details. They often know the clients' likes and dislikes to be able to make qualified referrals. Hopefully, these are based on price, product, and personality, and people who play nice and meet the businesses' expectations. If, as the planner, we're making referrals to event professionals, we're feeding the dog. If we offer linen rental, then the caterer or decorator who we're referring to should respect that we have the first right of refusal to provide client linen and step back.
Each of us will have different expectations for referrals depending on what we do. A wedding planner, for example, might have different expectations for full service vs. partial service. Wedding planners often make referrals to partners by emailing a partner ahead of time with the potential clients' names, wedding date, time, location, style, and expectations. That sets the referral up to be successful and lets the vendor know "this client is working with me." Hopefully, you've established a set of expectations, so you can have a good working relationship. When you make the referrals, you should know what your needs are from the people you refer to and clearly express them.
Before a referral network can be formed, you have to set your expectations with the people you hope to work with. Expectations to communicate can include the timeliness of their responses to you and to clients. It might also include asking them to CC you on communications with the referred clients to keep you in the loop. Ideally, you also want to talk about them making referrals for this client. The event pros often think they're helping the client by referring them to people they like working with. Unfortunately, that doesn't always consider their client preferences or the big picture budget established with the planner.
Ultimately, the goal for all those involved is to refer high-quality wedding and event professionals to our clients. We should know the people we refer to and have established some boundaries and expectations. But a good working relationship also means not being afraid to call people out when they don't honor those expectations. In the end, a functioning referral network benefits all those involved. It raises the level of professionalism—a win-win for professionals and clients alike.