Business Development Strategy
The Three Networks That Bring You ALL Your Clients
When it comes down to it there are three different types of network that bring you all your clients.
The first network is your network of Close Contacts.
These are the people you know well. The ones you could pick up the phone to and pick their brains. People you’d feel happy asking a favour of – and who would feel happy asking a favour of you.
The second network is your network of Casual Contacts.
These are the people you know well enough to drop an email to. Who you probably chat to online if you see them post something. Who you’d be happy to see and chat to at an event. But you wouldn’t necessarily arrange to meet up with them on a regular basis.
The third network is your network of Acquaintances or your Audience.
Acquaintances are people you recognise and would smile at at a party. But you don’t know them all that well. An audience is even more remote – it’s people who know you (for example they listen to your podcast) but you don’t know them.
For the vast majority of us, an audience is an entirely new phenomenon. In the past only TV and movie stars had audiences. Or in the business world, the authors of well-known books or those who went out on the speaking trail. Today though we can all build our own audience – whether that’s an email list or Youtube followers.
More than One Dunbar Number
You might be familiar with the concept of the Dunbar Number. This was the idea postulated by anthropologist Robin Dunbar in the 1990s that there’s a maximum number of social relationships the brain can handle. Extrapolating from his work with primates, Dunbar suggested that for humans this number was around 150.
In other words, we can have stable relationships with about 150 people. But after that, we start forgetting or confusing them. Dunbar explained it informally as “the number of people you would not feel embarrassed about joining uninvited for a drink if you happened to bump into them in a bar”.
Dunbar’s number has held out to be pretty true in practice and it’s now widely used when people are trying to design communities or social spaces.
Gore-Tex, for example, famously discovered that if more than 150 people were working together in one building, various social problems would occur. They started making buildings with a limit of 150 people and only 150 parking spaces. When the parking spaces were filled, they’d build another 150-person building.
What’s less widely known is that Dunbar continued his research to look at human relationships in different situations and, of course, at the impact of modern social networks.
Instead of a single Dunbar Number, he now talks about a series of numbers and corresponding social groups.
The original 150 (it actually varies between 100 and 200 depending on how socially active you are) is the “casual friend” group. Inside that is a group of about 50: your “close friends”. Inside that, about 15 are your “confidantes” and within that are about 5 in your “support group”.
Extending out beyond 150 you can get to between 500 or a maximum of about 1,500 “acquaintances” where you can put a name to a face.
Dunbar’s numbers have proven to be remarkably robust. Whether it comes to group sizes in primitive hunter-gatherer societies, battalion, company and unit sizes in armies across the world, or in the number of people on Christmas card lists in British households.
And they hold true in business too.
That Close Contact list of 50 people is going to be primarily family and “pure” friends (ie no business relationship). But for most of us there’ll probably be 5 or 10 or 15 people in that 50 who are people we know mainly through business.
For a consultant that might be half a dozen clients they worked with really closely over the years, plus another half dozen colleagues they worked alongside. For a coach it might be people they coached or who hired them to coach others who’ve now become friends. Or it might be members of a mastermind group who regularly refer clients to them.
These are the people we really know like and trust. Not the “know like and trust” trotted out by marketing experts that you supposedly get from watching someone on video a few times. But know like and trust based on working closely with someone over an extended period of time. Seeing and supporting them through their highs and lows. And having them do the same for you.
Not surprisingly, these are the people most likely to hire you or refer you for large projects.
They already know what you can do and they already trust you to deliver on big, important pieces of work. Most likely they’ve actually seen you do it before.
That doesn’t mean you can’t or won’t win big projects from others. But it’ll be much harder work. You’ll have a lot more to do in the sales process to build up the credibility and trust needed for them to be ready to hire you.
Your Casual Contact list probably contains a couple of dozen or more business contacts in there too. People you regularly interact with on social media or in real life. They could be potential clients who are interested in your work and ask questions. Or they could be others working in similar fields to you with compatible ideas.
These are the people who already know, like and trust us enough to hire us or recommend us as a coach, join a group program we’re running, or buy an online product from us.
They haven’t experienced us enough to stump up for a huge 6-figure project without further work. But for something smaller and less risk, we’ve proven ourselves alredy. And we don’t need to put them through a fancy “funnel” to get them ready to buy because the work we’ve already done to build our relationship with them is enough.
Finally, with our wider Audience, we’ve built credibility and trust through our content that they see on a regular basis (depending on how long they’ve been in our audience). It’s unlikely to be enough for them to suddenly perk up and hire us for a huge project because they simply don’t know us well enough. But it’s enough to buy an online training program or after a bit of work, to enrol in a group coaching program.
Your Networks Aren’t Static
Of course, membership of your different levels of network changes all the time as you make new contacts and interact with some people more than others.
And sadly, the most common change in your networks is that they decay.
Close Contacts you don’t speak to for months become Casual Contacts. And Casual Contacts, in the absence of any proactive contact, decay into Acquaintances and eventually out of your contact network completely.
Remember those clients you worked closely with on a day by day basis 5 years ago? The ones you could have picked up the phone to at any time. The ones you’d often grab coffee or lunch with.
Could you pick up the phone and ask them a favour now?
If you’ve kept in touch and nurtured your relationship then yes. For most of us, the answer would be no. We manage our networks haphazardly at best.
The good news is that with planning and consistent action you can improve the quality of your networks significantly.
If you’re broadcasting to an Audience you can include calls to action that get the people you most want to move into your Casual Contact network to respond and start interacting with you.
You can make sure you regularly interact with Casual Contact network members and build your relationship with them so that some become Close Contacts.
And most important of all, you can treasure your Close Contacts to make sure they don’t drop out.
All Networks Are Not Created Equal (Nor Should They Be)
It’s important to remember that different businesses (and different business models) need different types of networks to support them.
In theory, Close Contacts are the most valuable. But they also take the most personal involvement to nurture.
So if your business is built around selling online training programs and memberships like mine, then you don’t particularly need a lot of potential clients in your Close Contact network – you need a large and responsive Audience.
An online training business is essentially a high volume business. Though what you might want to do is ensure your Close Contact network has a number of partners with their own large Audiences who can potentially recommend you.
On the other hand, if your business focus is on winning a small number of very high-value consulting projects each year then you’re much better off focusing on building a powerful Close Contact network than you are building a big mailing list.
Of course, with a big Audience, some will ascend from your mailing list into your Casual Contact list and from there into your Close Contacts. But it’ll take time.
Your main goals should be to strengthen your Close Contact network, keep an active Casual Contact network that feeds it, and to “work” your network to find opportunities for those big projects.
For most businesses, a balanced strategy, maintaining networks at all levels will work best.
Build a channel (email marketing, a podcast, live video etc) to gather an Audience for your lower-end products and as a source of “new blood” into your Casual Contact Network.
Create opportunities for interaction with your Casual Contact network (prompt your engaged subscribers to email you with questions for example, or set up an online group or forum for them, or just get on the phone). For those that feel like they could become great clients or referrers, spend more time on them so they become Close Contacts.
And invest personal time to create and implement unique plans to strengthen your Close Contact Network.
Three Questions To Ask Yourself
1. What do your networks look like right now?
Where are they strong? Where are they weak? Have they grown and strengthened in the last year, or decayed?
2. What are the ideal networks to support your desired business?
If you’re a consultant, do you need a really strong Close Contact network as a source of large projects? As a coach do you need a broad and strong Casual Contact network as a source of a decent number of coaching clients? Or perhaps you need a number of senior executives in your Close Contact network that can hire you to work with many of their staff in a structured coaching program?
3. What steps do you need to take to match your network to your business?
Do you need to strengthen your network in key areas? Or reconsider your business model to be a better fit for the networks you have?
Answering these 3 questions – and then taking action – will set you on course to get the most from your real source of clients: your networks.