A lot of people assume that referral groups and other networking organizations are only for those who are young, new to business, and hungry to grow their businesses. The studies, however, don’t support that line of thinking. In fact, it has actually been shown that the ages of referral-group members range from the 20s to well through the 60s.
A university survey of networking group members, conducted by Steve Brewer of St. Thomas University as part of a master’s thesis, showed that 74 percent of the members owned their own business. Approximately 40 percent were women, 60 percent men. About one-third of the members were over 50 years old, only 10 percent younger than thirty. The age distribution formed a typical bell curve.
But when we analyzed the ages of those who responded, we found that 63 percent of all respondents were 40 years old or older. Clearly, this would indicate that the age of the average participant in networking groups is higher than some would expect. In fact, from both empirical data and my own observations after more than 20 years in the business of “networking,” I firmly believe that it is mostly the seasoned business professional who seeks out the long-term benefits of a referral-marketing strategy.
In any good networking organization, selecting qualified members is very important. Good groups tend to select more experienced people over inexperienced ones because they know that seasoned professionals are more likely to bring in an established network. They are also more likely to be good referrals, because experienced people are typically better at what they do for a living. An experienced referral is more likely to work out well and reflect favorably on the person providing the referral.
In fact, it could be argued that the last point above is the most important: An experienced referral – referring someone who is experienced at the work they are being referred to do – is a trait that is even more important to the networking group than having a person in the group that just has a large “network.”
One of my colleagues, an author who is currently serving as an officer in a networking group, recently had to caution the committee in charge of admitting new members. The chapter was in a “growth” phase, and the committee was eager to admit just about anyone submitting an application. In one case, a visitor introduced herself as an Executive Coach. As she described what she did, she stated that she had just left a career in advertising to “realize her dream” in becoming a coach. She was in the process of being certified, and wanted to join a networking group to be able to get her first “paid” clients.
The membership committee was very excited about this applicant, citing her “huge” network of colleagues from her former career. The president, however, asked the committee about the three required references that the prospective member had put on her application: Yes, they all spoke very highly of her, and said she was great in advertising, the president was told. But what about her coaching ability – was she a good coach? asked the president. Well, she doesn’t have any coaching references, as she is just starting out, said the committee.
At that point, the president asked the committee members how they could be sure she was any good at the job category for which she was applying, and how could members of the chapter refer this coach to the contacts who would trust them to refer to a member someone whose abilities as a coach were not yet actually known? In this case, the risk of a taking on member who was very inexperienced in the profession she was representing far outweighed the benefits of bringing her in on the basis of her large network.
Note, however, that a good networking group should still strive to seek a balance between “old pros” and “newbies.” Groups with only seasoned people can be too laid back and easygoing, because most of their members are not in the start-up phase anymore, and are less likely to perceive new prospects as being important to the business as they once had been. On the other hand, a group made up mostly of new people tends to be too frenetic, too hungry.
We’ve seen very successful partnering in well-balanced groups between established professionals and younger, newer, “junior” professionals. (Note, however, that “junior” networkers should still be very good at the job they do or the service they are trying to provide, so that members can be comfortable referring business to them.) When the networking veteran takes the newer partner under his or her wing in a mentoring relationship, coaching that person in the finer points of word-of-mouth marketing, the junior professional gains business acumen while accumulating real-world experience, and both members begin to see more referrals coming in. It’s a real win-win, Givers Gain® kind of experience: If you give business to others, they will give business to you.
Called “The Father of Modern Networking” by CNN, Dr. Ivan Misner is a New York Times bestselling author. He is the Founder & Chairman of BNI (www.bni.com), the world’s largest business networking organization. His latest #1 bestseller, The 29% Solution, can be viewed at www.IvanMisner.com. Dr. Misner is also the Senior Partner for the Referral Institute, an international referral training company (www.referralinstitute.com). He can be reached at email@example.com.