The new approach to networking that actually gets clients

I have to be honest: I h-a-t-e networking meetings. I would gladly endure a few teeth pullings in place of them, any day of the week.

It’s not just because I’m terribly socially anxious, either.

It’s because I can’t stand the mindsets of the people who typically go. What do I mean? I’m sure you’ve seen it too…

The problem:

These meetings are full of sharks only looking out for themselves. They simply want to turn you into their client, and if they can’t do that, then they want to use you to get some.

It’s like they all just put down their copy of How to be the biggest shark of the bunch and are ready to put their new sales tactics to use.

They offer you nothing for you referring people their way, except for the hollow promise that they’ll refer you, too. But how many freelancers of your sort do they already know? How many have they already promised this to? Why would they suddenly move you to the top of the list?

And vise versa for them – why would you ever refer someone business when you have no idea of their skill level or caliber?

It’s a broken system. Yet people show up to meeting after meeting because they’re scared they’ll miss out on an opportunity that just might be there.

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I used to do it, too, when times were tough, because I, too, was scared.

“What if I don’t show up? Maybe a potential client will be there this time…”

But the real problem is, just like you’d have a hard time sending someone brand new who you have no experience with a referral…

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They feel the same way about you.

So what can you do? This.

First: if you’re in a position where you really need the business and none of your other marketing channels are working out, that’s the only time I’d suggest networking meetings.

PS – Read more here about how I grow my business through networking (from a guy who hates “networking”).


Because with the same amount of hours, I could launch a paid traffic campaign that would actually bring me clients. That same day.

With that said, if you’re in that position, you can’t afford to bounce around to meeting after meeting wasting time not getting clients.

Here’s what you do instead:

  1. Identify who you feel are actual influencers in the group. That is, people who are connected and know a lot of other people who could potentially become your clients. It’s pretty clear who these guys and gals are. They win the “popularity contest.”
  2. Spend some time going over their marketing on your own time. Could you do it better? I’m sure you could. Most people’s marketing really sucks. Are you a super fast thinker? Go over it right then in a corner of the room on your phone or tablet and see if you could do a better job.
  3. Finally, tell them you want to help them. At no cost.

Why would you want to do this?

Because if they see and experience your great work firsthand – don’t you think they’d be more likely to refer you to someone?

Especially if you blow them away with how great of a job you do?

In fact, don’t you think they’d want to go out of their way to do so?

[Tweet “Find the actual influencers in your networking group…and help them at no cost. #findnewclients”]

Here’s how:

If you’re uncomfortable doing the below in person, get their number / card and reach out later.

(I think it’d go much better in person though, at least at first.)

Be very up front: Tell them it’s clear they have a lot of influence in the community, and you want to build a relationship with them. You feel you could make great referral partners for the long run.

But, you understand that they’d have a hard time entrusting you with their friends and colleagues having just met you, so you want them to see first-hand the level of work you do.

That’s why you want to help them by making them a [insert whatever you do here] that won’t cost them anything, but will help them grow.

It’s important to stress as well that they have nothing to lose. After the first meeting where you’ll interview them / do your process for new projects, you’ll take the reins and go from there.

They don’t even have to use what you make if they’re not happy – but you have a feeling they’ll certainly want to.

Fair enough?

(The “Fair enough?” close is a tough one to beat. You present an irresistible offer, then end it with, “Fair enough?” It’s hard to say “no” to that, isn’t it? 😉 )

Arrange a meeting at a coffee shop or something to discuss further and get started.

Why the explanation is so important:

Free = “what’s the catch?”

With the explanation above, you’re explaining the “catch” from the get-go so they can relax and actually take in what you’re saying.

Otherwise, they won’t listen to anything you say after that. They’ll be weary of you and suspicious of your intentions and thinking about that rather than who you are and what you can do for them.

The explanation above describes a “form of payment” in a way – at least, it feels like a transaction. So it’ll make sense to them.

Hint: Depending on the person, you might not have to stress the “you have nothing to lose” bit as much, but it’s handy to have that in your back pocket just in case.

Honestly, this is how networking meetings should actually run.

People should trade services with each other with the idea that if they’re impressed with you, and you with them, you’ll gladly refer business either way.

Doesn’t that make so much more sense than being shoved a business card from a stranger who asks you to refer people from a one-time meeting? And what can you do in that situation but the same, knowing how futile it is?

I think this makes much more sense.

I also think that if you’re low on business, free work done in the right way, for the right people, is the best investment in your business you can possibly make.

[Tweet “Free work done the right way for the right people is the best business investment you can make.”]

What do you think?

Would love to hear your thoughts, concerns, questions, etc., etc., etc.!

Want to read more about trading work for referrals?

Check out these posts:

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Millo Articles by David Tendrich

David Tendrich is the co-head of creative agency Unexpected Ways, as well as the co-founder of Reliable PSD: the first-ever PSD to HTML & PSD to Wordpress service run by designers, for designers. He co-runs his companies from Portland, Oregon with his lovely wife and biz partner, Lou Levit.
Read more from David.

  1. Sharon Pettis McElwee says:

    I think people really lose the ability to create great relationships with good clients because they fear giving work away for free. You should set the same limits with your paying clients as you do with the ones you are working with for free. This way you won’t have to worry about being taken advantage of.

  2. Mark Coster (Pixooma) says:

    Hi David, I enjoyed reading your article, but I have a very different experience of networking and I have produced a blog of my own in response to yours, which is an expansion on the ideas in my comments below – if you were interested you can read it here…

  3. Paul Trivilino says:

    It is an interesting idea, but isn’t this just a variation of doing “spec” work? Unless you are donating your time to a charitable organization or other worthy cause, offering your services for free is a bad idea. It devalues your skills and leaves the recipient feeling that you are not serious about what you do. “Anything that is free isn’t worth the cost.” Instead, I suggest offering your services at a discounted rate — 50%, 75%, 80% below your normal rate. — anything but free. In the end, your prospective partner will have more respect for you and your services than if you just gave them your work.

    1. Mark Coster (Pixooma) says:

      I agree Paul. It has to be an evaluation of what a ‘free’ piece of work might be worth to the prospective referrer. I wouldn’t suggest that anyone do a large project ‘on spec’, but it’s possible that in the right circumstances a small-ish project that demonstrates your skills could be worth doing. That said I strongly believe that the same can be achieved instead by, over time, becoming a genuine member of a networking community – it has certainly paid dividends for me and I’ve been able to help lots of my fellow networkers along the way, which is the whole point.

  4. Mark Coster (Pixooma) says:

    Some interesting ideas here, but I have to say that not all networking groups are the same, and neither are all networkers. The ‘sharks’ do exist, but they don’t last long – My groups have given me support, great advice, free training and on top of that have given me referral business. They are a genuine community of like-minded friendly people who want to help each other, and they generate genuine referral relationships in the way you describe, i.e over time. You can’t refer someone from just your first meeting. Obviously networking isn’t for everyone, but in order to evaluate it I would say try several groups and try them more than once – you can’t gauge them from the first visit. The free demonstration of what you can do in order to build trust is a great idea though 🙂

  5. ‘wary’ of you

    1. Alice Gardiner says:

      also ‘vice versa’. 😉

  6. FiveFigureWriter says:

    Great article! I try to offer value to potential clients so they want to hire me. I try to think of it as team work instead of just thinking of myself and my own bottom line.

  7. Theo Groves says:

    Like the “test drive” idea. Limits of course would be set upfront on the type and amount of work. I’m also curious about the paid traffic campaign. Can you elaborate on that? (Here’s your next blog topic!)

  8. Jackie Rudolph says:

    Hi David!

    Thanks so much for your advice. I have a question – what sort of paid traffic campaign would you suggest? Are you referring to Google Adwords? Thanks so much!

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