By Karen E. Klein Q: I own an executive-recruiting service and work exclusively via phone, fax, and computer from my home. I worry that I'm losing business by skipping face-to-face meetings. If so, what kinds of meetings should I be having -- purely social contacts or more structured business lunches? What points should I try to address, and with whom?
-- C.J., Whittier, Calif.
A: Advances made in technology, particularly over the past decade, have no doubt revolutionized much of the way we do business. As someone who has founded and built a successful home-based business, you have certainly reaped many benefits from that revolution. It's now so easy to handle most tasks from behind a computer that it almost seems as if there's no point wasting energy on "face time."
However, business at its heart is all about relationships, and there's still no substitute for face-to-face contact when it comes to building those ties. Not only are you missing out on potential revenue by staying at home, you're also robbing yourself of continuing education, moral support, industry intelligence, personal fulfillment, and the serendipitous business opportunities that only arise when you take a few moments to meet someone new.
SOCIAL AGENDA. "In-person networking remains a very powerful marketing tool," says Dee Helfgott, (www.coachdee.com) a business coach, author, and speaker based in Palm Desert, Calif. "The return on your investment in networking will include expanding your client and referral base, locating qualified suppliers, exchanging valuable ideas, advice, and moral support, learning more about your competition, and generating greater income."
Betsy Berkhemer, chairwoman and co-founder of Berkhemer Clayton (www.berkhemerclayton.com), a senior-level retained executive-search firm based in Los Angeles, says she could never have survived the startup phase 11 years ago without copious networking. "My mantra is: Always get out there," Berkhemer says. "Working at home on the computer is efficient, but it's not stimulating to stay in your home everyday. You become very out-of-touch doing that. You should be out every other day or at least three times a week, even if you're stone-cold shy. Your competition is out there, and you can't let them get more visibility than you."
Concentrate your "face time" on attending functions sponsored by business organizations that will lead to new clients and business education, advises Berkhemer, a former president of California NAWBO, the National Association of Women Business Owners, (www.nawbola.org). "Groups like NAWBO offer peer support, education, and a chance to bounce ideas off of other business owners," she says. "Your local chamber of commerce is another way to stay connected with the business community and stay ahead of your competition. All these groups offer chances for marketing and business development, as well as candidate development."
PACK OF CARDS. As with many people-centric businesses, getting out to meet with your clients is also important for your recruitment service. "This can be a combination of formal meetings and social events," says Patty DeDominic, CEO of the PDQ Careers Group of Companies (www.pdqcareers.com), a Los Angeles staffing group. "All will increase your relationship with and knowledge of prospective employers. I have found that knowing about my client's facilities, as well as their culture, reputation, and mission, are important for making the best matches."
Save lunch invitations for prospective clients whom you're confident will develop into new business, Berkhemer suggests. "Lunch in this day and age is never going to be cheaper than $50," she says.
"Go to the breakfast meetings and cocktail receptions where your potential clients are," DeDominic suggests. "You don't have to be a member to show up at the functions sponsored by industry associations and professional organizations, and you can just pay $25 or $35 for yourself. The beauty of a home-based business is that you can work during off-hours and use the noon and reception hours to get out and develop your visibility."
FOLLOW-UP PLAN. Wherever you go, take a pocketful of business cards with you and follow up strategically with the prospects you meet. "When you invite someone to a structured meeting or lunch, spend time beforehand outlining what it is you want to accomplish, how you will present your business succinctly, and what the benefits are of doing business with you," Helfgott says.
She adds: "Don't forget to include questions you can ask the other person about their business and themselves. And after a one-on-one meeting, you should also have a follow-up plan. That plan will be the key to turning new contacts into business opportunities" -- a lot more than you'll find from the comfort of your desk.
Have a question about your business? Ask our small-business experts. Send us an e-mail at Smart Answers, or write to Smart Answers, BW Online, 45th Floor, 1221 Avenue of the Americas, New York, N.Y. 10020. Please include your real name and phone number in case we need more information; only your initials and city will be printed. Because of the volume of mail, we won't be able to respond to all questions personally. Klein is a Los Angeles-based writer who covers entrepreneurship and small-business issues