How to Get Referrals from People you Don't Know
It is ‘who you know' that makes a difference when it comes to the right introductions. It always has been easier to reach a person who you don't know if someone he or she respects is prepared to make an introduction.
You may have learnt that a smart networking approach is to list out all of your contacts and try to find out who they are all connected with, where their contacts work, and what they do. If you could do this, you might expand the number of people whom you can reach, through intermediaries, from a few hundred to tens or even hundreds of thousands. This is a great idea on the face of it.
It is a small world. Each of us can reach anyone in the world (all six billion souls) through a maximum of six other people. The six degrees of separation has been widely publicised and talked about. A scientific study demonstrated the truth of it. By way of letters, researchers asked people to forward a polite request to whoever amongst their contacts was most likely to know a particular person. They found they were able to get a message through to randomly selected people via only a few links. The calculated maximum distance between any two people in the world is 5.5, in terms of the number of people it will take to pass on a message.
As astonishing as this may be, it is not of much practical use unless you can identify the right links. If you were to ask any but your closest contacts to give you a copy of their address book, you would probably get the bold reply of silence. If you sought out these same contacts and while eyeball to eyeball, asked again for the favour, you are likely to have your request refused or side stepped.
You might be able to persuade a contact to pass on a message to whomever they know who might know a person who you would like to contact, and then ask their contact to pass on the message to the person you are trying to reach. At this point you may be protesting at the convolutions this approach could force you to deal with. ‘I know a man who can' is far from an empty phrase.
We teach sales people how to increase success rates for contacting senior people in prospect organisations using a letter and call. For companies who can express their value in definite, verifiable commercial terms, the approach is very effective. Perhaps surprisingly, the hard part is for companies and sales people to articulate their value and present it in a way that will win attention from busy senior executives. Knowing someone who knows the person you want to reach and arranging an introduction, is a much easier route to making contact. In fact senior executives rank an internal introduction to a sales person as the approach they are most likely to respond to.
If you knew someone who knew the person you wanted to reach, you might try this approach before beginning a cold call or letter plus call campaign. In most instances however, you won't know if you have a contact who can help.
What has changed is the advent of online networking tools such as LinkedIn, Spoke, and Ryze. One in particular solves the problem of discovering how you are connected to the person you want to reach. Finally, after six months as a member of LinkedIn, I came to understand the power this tool offers. When I had reached only one hundred contacts, my immediate network gave me access to over 450,000 other LinkedIn members. About a fifth of these people were in the UK. As people in my immediate network added contacts, my extended network grew.
Initially I was concerned that once hooked on using the tool, I would be required to pay for the service. LinkedIn's FAQ states that the basic services will remain free and that after the beta period is complete there will be charges for premium services. This should be no surprise. If there is genuine value in the service, paying for it will not be an issue. Many benefits accrue to those who get ahead of the game by investing time in this new solution to an old problem.
Early on I was sceptical about numbers of people that the LinkedIn web site claimed were in my extended network. With the LinkedIn web site projected live on the wall in front of a classroom of sales people, I invited a participant to suggest a prospect company name to search on. After a couple of seconds a list of names appeared. These were all people linked through my network (only 37 people at the time).
I was delighted and more than a little surprised to succeed at the first attempt. There on the screen, near the bottom of the list, appeared the name of a senior IT manager in the company we searched on. He was only two links away. In other words, one of my 37 contacts knew him. This sparked a rush of requests for specific searches from the other course participants.
The demonstration couldn't have had more impact. A few days later, while explaining to a friend how LinkedIn worked, I invited him to test the system in the same way. He asked me to search for contacts in a particular division of a major company. My confidence in achieving a repeat of the earlier success slumped, because he had chosen a company outside the industry that most of my contacts are associated with. I need not have been concerned. The search produced a list of twelve people. Eleven of them had worked for the company concerned and one was a Director of the division my friend was interested in.
At this point, the remnants of my doubt about the usefulness of LinkedIn evaporated. I immediately began developing my LinkedIn network. While this is a time consuming activity, I found it very rewarding. By uploading a list of my contacts to LinkedIn, I found that many of them were already members who I could immediately invite to join my network.
The LinkedIn system makes it easy to send invitations to members and non members. You can use your own words or standard messages. It also tracks who you have invited and provides an easy way to manage your invitations. Because those I invite are amongst the people who I feel I know well and trust, most accept the invitation. The most rewarding part is rediscovering friends and colleagues in other people's networks whom I have lost contact with. While I can't see their contact details I can send a request via the links I have. Again, LinkedIn makes the process simple and easy to manage. If my rediscovered contact agrees to be reconnected, I receive a message containing his or her email address.
Everyone who becomes a LinkedIn member is invited to complete their profile showing their professional history. When a person agrees to become a link in your network, they can see the names and brief information about role and position, for each of your contacts. You can hide your list of contacts although I think this defeats the purpose. Likewise, if their list of contacts is open, you can see who they are connected with.
The search tool looks for contacts who are in your extended network (up to three links away) and in the entire LinkedIn network. You can search by name, company, industry etcetera. When you find a person you are interested in contacting, the system shows you who among your contacts is linked to this person and how many links they are away from you. Then to contact someone who you don't know, you compose a request to your contact and your message to the person you want to reach. Each person in the chain of links can decide whether or not to pass on your request.
LinkedIn's effectiveness as a tool for contacting sales prospects will depend on your ability to write a compelling message that expresses clear benefit for the person you want to reach. If the end recipient is two or three links away, your message also has to convince each intermediary. This is no easy task.
In my view, LinkedIn provides an exciting method for contacting sales prospects who are difficult to reach. It makes networking a viable is an alternative to making a cold telephone call however; it is no magic short cut. Constructing the right message is just as important for success with either approach. It is a topic that warrants study and justifies the one day training course we run on the subject.
The success of LinkedIn depends on members trusting the system and encouraging their contacts to join. The authors of LinkedIn have taken great care to construct a trustworthy system, or at least a system that I have come to trust. The more people who use it for professional networking, the more effective it will become. Thousands of new people join every day, giving it the momentum to become the most used online networking tool.
Now I spend a couple of hours each month developing my immediate network which as risen to about 600 people (February 2010). This gives me access to over 6,000,000 LinkedIn members from a total membership of about 50 million. Each time I log in, thousands of new contacts have been added to my extended network.
‘The old adage, "It's not what you know, but who you know," could, paradoxically, be the motto for the Information Age'. This is a quote from a paper by Bonnie Nardi, Steve Whittaker and Heinrich Schwarz. Bonnie and Steve are from AT & T Labs. Heinrich is at M.I.T. If you want more evidence that personal professional networks are increasingly important to success, read their conclusion at firstmonday.org.
Don't get left on the back of this wave. Put your network in order and regularly spend time developing it. You will reap the rewards over the full span of your career.