I wish I could remember who said this: "Someone you know knows someone you need to know."
That's especially true in business. You know a lot of people and do business with a lot of companies. But most of your interactions are transactional: you need a product or service, and you purchase it. Done.
And that's fine... but you're missing out on the opportunity to partner with the people you know and the people they know. And that means you're missing out on the opportunity to increase sales, reduce costs, and build better bridges between your connections and their connections.
To get ideas for how to do that I attended a NASCAR Fuel for Business Council even, a formal program that facilitates B2B development among the sport's official partners to help them increase their ROI. (In effect it's a not-so-side benefit of becoming an official partner of NASCAR, and for some companies could be a major reason to become an official partner in the first place. Wouldn't you love to be able to cut through all the layers and gain access to decision-makers who can transform your business?)
To my knowledge, NASCAR's Fuel for Business Council is the best program of its kind, and while you probably don't have the resources to devote to creating a B2B facilitation program as comprehensive as NASCAR's, you can and should create your own version.
1. Make a list of all the people you know.
I know it sounds crazy, but work with me. List the people you do business with, the people you once did business with, present and past colleagues, friends, people you're impressed by from a business point of view... for now, don't edit. Just make a huge list.
Two things will happen. One, you'll uncover some cool possibilities for your council that you otherwise might not have thought about. Two, you'll realize you've lost contact with at least a few people that you really need to reconnect with.
That's what happened when I went through this process. (Hi James!)
2. Start to narrow down your list.
The goal is to facilitate transactions, not just networking. Networking is often seen as an end in itself, but your goal is to create outcomes.
To make your program beneficial -- and to make people want to participate -- the goal must be to conduct business. That could be sales, or partnerships, or co-promotional opportunities, or sharing information... whatever the goal, the outcome must be tangible.
Otherwise you're just holding Chamber of Commerce meetings.
So cross off people who are all talk and little action: people who are passive, people who don't follow through, people who don't get excited about opportunities...
2. Then circle the names of people who receive and give.
For most people, the goal of networking is to connect with people who can help them make a sale, get a referral, establish a contact... when they network, they want something.
To make your program work, you need people willing to -- at least some of the time --forget about what they can get and focus on what they can provide. Giving is the only way to establish a real connection and relationship. People who focus solely on what they can get out of the connection and never make meaningful, mutually beneficial connections.
Your goal is to bring together people who know that helping others is often the best way to help themselves.
"The reason our Council works is that everyone has bought into the vision," says Lou Garate, Managing Director of Partnership Marketing for NASCAR. "Everyone wants to work together, help other partners achieve their goals, follow the plan... and be disciplined to focus on results."
Eliminate anyone remaining who doesn't operate that way and you'll be left with a pretty small list of names. And that's a good thing.
4. Set the stage.
Now email three or four people on your list and explain your vision for how you can all work together.
For example, Ford utilizes the B2B council to sell thousands of vehicles, from fleet to direct sales to consumer, and generate millions of dollars in added revenue. Nationwide utilizes the Council to provide employee benefits to other official partners. Microsoft, one one of the more recent Council members, works with 5.11, an example of a technology company developing a solution for an apparel company that helps them manage global inventory.
A more unusual example is the National Corn Growers Association and Exide. Disposing of old batteries is a big problem for farmers, so Exide developed a process to make that easier, and the result was a big win for both organizations.
Eventually people in your council will find unexpected opportunities to work together, but for now, pick a few who have obvious needs or challenges that another person on your list can help meet. If one is a great software developer and another is trying to integrate their social and CRM platforms... boom.
All you have to do is get them together.
5. Grow slowly and purposefully.
"The key is to create a select group," Lou says. "Little by little, as you start getting traction, you can begin to let other people in. But if you let it become a loose, open, unstructured process... you'll fail."
6. Hold "speed meetings."
You're familiar with speed dating; NASCAR facilitates a number of speed meetings between partners. The process is simple: you pick someone on the Council you think you can benefit (or you think can benefit you), you request a 20-minute meeting... and you use that time to find ways to work together.
"The level of professionalism, in the overall event and at the speed meetings, is very high," says Tim Duerr, Ford Motorsports Marketing Manager. "You select who you want to meet with, you come in with an agenda, and there's accountability -- you legitimately try to see how you can help each other."
That means people need to come prepared with more than just their normal pitch; it must be tailored to the needs of the other company. Speed meetings aren't just a sales pitch, a chance to say, "Here's what we typically offer -- are you interested?" Speed meetings are tailored to the individual company, a chance to say, "Here's what we can do for you."
7. Create accountability.
Between events the NASCAR team stays in contact with its official partners, asking if they are following up, asking if they need further assistance... basically holding people accountable.
"Our Partnership Marketing team manages the program, and our account managers get involved in the process," Lou says. "We're all busy, and it's easy to lose track... so they make sure that follow-up happens and encourage people along the way to get the deals done. What you were really excited about during a meeting still may not happen if you don't follow up."
"I'm very impressed with that part of the process," Tim says. "That's one of the things that definitely makes this more than a social gathering. It's down to the factual: what can you do together, what help do you need making this happen... NASCAR helps make sure that you follow the steps so there is genuine opportunity for both companies."
You probably don't have time to administer a formal follow-up process, but you can help. Once your meeting is over, ask participants to tell you there next steps... and then send an email a few weeks later to follow up.
That way you 1) help ensure things happen and the people involved find value in participating, and 2) find out if the people on your council are action and not just talk. If nothing is happening... they probably aren't right for your group.
8. Slowly expand your group.
Once you have a core group in place -- one that has bought into the process -- you can start to add members. Maintaining the vision and spirit of the group is a lot easier when you have a team of people that help new members stay on track.
And that's when your group can really take flight.
Take Nationwide, a company that has been involved in NASCAR for over twenty years. They utilize the council in a number of ways: employee benefits, fleet vehicles... and they created a strategic partnership with Camping World, who they appointed as an independent agency to write RV policies.
It's a natural fit: Camping World sells RVs, and RV owner need insurance. Business building relationships: affinity relationships.
"We also take advantage of co-marketing opportunities," says Jim McCoy, Nationwide's Director of Strategic Sponsorships. "We partner with other Council members to create promotions that help fill our lead and database funnels. When you know another company's business, you can come up with ideas you never would have imagined."
Ford also takes advantage of co-marketing opportunities. "We can also expose our partners to our 300,000 employees and retirees," Tim says. "We can help attract our family to their products and services and we can offer discounted sales programs to their company's employees and retirees. And we can help engage their employees and customers on social through promotions, sweepstakes, etc.
"There are plenty of ways to help each other. All you have to do is look."
9. But never forget the goal.
NASCAR makes the process easy for its partners.
So should you. Your council only works if it provides tangible outcomes for its members: increased sales, reduced costs, improved efficiency, etc. Who you know is important, but what you can do for who you know is why really matters.
"We're in NASCAR to polish the blue oval," (the Ford logo) Tim says, "to make our fans aware that anything that has that blue oval is high in quality, fuel economy, technology resources, safety, and bottom line really, really fun to drive. But behind the scenes, because of the Fuel for Business Council, we make deals.
"Sometimes you don't know until you sit down for a meeting," Tim says. "And if anything, their employees need to buy vehicles so I offer them this incentive plan just because they're par too the Council. If anything, everyone in that room should have that benefit.
"I haven't missed a meeting in ten years."
Build a group of people who focus on helping each other... and they won't miss a meeting, either.