8 Strategies for Staying in Touch When There’s No Business
By Andrew Sobel
It’s a simple but powerful exercise: Write down the names of the 20 or 25 most important individuals you need to develop and grow a relationship with. Draw the names from a variety of categories. Include clients, prospects, influencers, colleagues, and others that you need to help you succeed.
When I ask executive groups to do this, whether I’m in New York, London, or Sao Paolo I typically get the same type of reactions:
- “It’s easy to list clients, but it’s hard to come up with names in some of the other categories.”
- “Ugh…there are some really important people on my list, and I’ve let the relationship with them die. I haven’t stayed in touch in ages!
- “I have a hard time keeping up with just these few…let alone the hundreds of other contacts I have.”
Then, when I ask “Why is it so hard to stay in touch?” I again get consistent answers:
- “I don’t have the time”
- “I’m not sure what to say to some people…I haven’t spoken to them in a long while”
- “Executives are so busy these days! Sometimes I cannot even get a meeting. They say, ‘Nothing is going on…I’ll call you when there is something.’”
It’s actually not that hard to keep your contacts alive in a meaningful way. Here are nine tested strategies for staying in touch. Some of these strategies are more appropriate for your “critical few” relationships—the 20 or 30 people you’re trying to stay in close contact with—and others are more suited to managing your broader network.
1. Create a platform and broadcast a value-added message frequently
You need a communications strategy—a platform—that will simultaneously establish you as a thought leader in your field, add value to important client problems, and put your and your firm’s name in front of clients on a regular basis. What could that be? Well, there is no single best approach—you have to develop your own platform that suits your skills, expertise, and client base. Whether you’re staying in touch with 50 or 50,000, this should be one of the foundations of your staying-in-touch efforts. The wonderful thing is that when you put your ideas and points of view in writing on a regular basis, you can use that content across many different delivery channels. A white paper can become a series of blogs, which can then be recombined into a slide deck, and so on.
Here are some examples from both institutions and individuals:
Weekly Email: A tax attorney I know sends out a weekly email to a list of about 100 current and prospective clients. That email is jam-packed with valuable information—perspectives on new tax laws, best practice examples, and so on. He tailors the emails slightly to different groups of recipients and individuals based on their interests.
Blog: Michael Hyatt (see sidebar review of his book) has a daily leadership blog that has over 300,000 subscribers! That’s a wider “circulation” than 99% of all published magazines. It provides multiple sources of income, ranging from the paid speaking opportunities that it draws in to advertising revenue. It took Michael over a decade to develop this large following.
Value-Added, Hybrid Publication: Patagonia, the outdoor clothing supplier, has created a catalog that is more like a magazine than anything else. It is full of amazing nature photographs and essays about extraordinary trips taken around the world by its own employees. Instead of throwing it in the dustbin, you are drawn to peruse each issue. It’s an excellent example of adding value for readers.
Management Briefs: Bain & Company has a monthly email called “Results Brief.” It’s customized—it’s addressed to you personally and the email header shows that it comes from your primary contact at the firm. It features short articles on important management issues. Other firms opt for printed in-house magazines (e.g., The McKinsey Quarterly), while Booz & Company has a semi-independent publication called strategy+business, distributed like a commercial magazine.
Annual Survey: Some firms do a definitive annual survey for their field (e.g., law firm Fulbright & Jaworksi does an annual litigation trends survey; Merrill Lynch does a private wealth survey; IBM does a CEO survey), which gives them several points of interaction during the year as well as the opportunity to go back and discuss the survey results with each client.
Twitter: Many politicians, celebrities, and authors send out daily, 140 character messages through Twitter. Who knows, as time passes, whether this will become a value-added content platform for service professionals and corporate executives.
Monthly Newsletter: Many professionals have weekly or monthly newsletters. The challenge is to maintain high-quality, value-added content because there are so many newsletters out there (and most of them are boring or pure sales pitches). When I started this newsletter, I had 100 subscribers; now, I have well over 5,000, and it is reprinted frequently to another 50,000 by other publications.
For the “critical few,” learn each person’s goals, priorities, and interests. You build a professional relationship by helping the other person—by adding value to them. If you don’t know what they are interested in and concerned about, you’re flying blind. Is there a particular business issue that’s preoccupying them? Is there a non-profit cause they are devoted to? It’s your job to learn this, and when you do you can begin to be truly helpful. For the 20-30 key individuals on your short list, you must make an effort learn what they are focused on right now.
2. Connect people in your network
A CFO I interviewed, in speaking about one of his most trusted advisors, told me “They’ve introduced me to several other CFOs in similar-sized companies. That’s been a real value-add in our relationship.” You should always be asking yourself, “Whom can I introduce this person to? Who else in my network would click with them and be able to help them achieve their goals? I call this “connection value.”
3. Follow up around a specific interest
A CEO I interviewed told me, “The professionals who do the best job of staying in touch with me identify an issue of interest and then follow up with helpful ideas, articles, book recommendations, and so on.” Busy executives will always make time to read or speak to you about ideas and information they deem directly relevant to their most important goals.
4. Provide personal help
“Value” is not just defined as helping someone with a business issue—it can also mean helping them on a personal level. Has someone in your network recently moved to town? Perhaps you could help them identify schools for their children or a personal physician. Do you know someone whose child is applying to college or graduate school and would like to work in your field? Perhaps you could give some helpful advice to them. There are unlimited ways you can add “personal value,” but you need to make an effort to reach out and get to know them and their situation.
5. Build communities
IBM has done an excellent job of building communities of employees, clients, and collaborators in their markets. They hold online innovation jams as well as in-person regional innovation forums which bring together clients, IBM executives, and third-party thought leaders. Author and consulting guru Alan Weiss has build a large network of independent professionals who participate in his online forum (“Alan’s Forums”) and his workshops and summits around the country. Remember, at the center a community there must be strong value—a center of gravity that pulls members in.
6. Create events
Ernst & Young’s “Entrepreneur of the Year” award has become a major annual event that draws thousands of executives. Expertise in entrepreneurship has also now become an important part of the firms intellectual capital, and the event puts E&Y in touch with executives throughout the year as they select and evaluate entrants—it’s not just a one-off affair. An event doesn’t have to be a huge conference! One very successful partner I know at a non-profit consulting firm has a networking dinner twice a year in New York and Boston with a group of about 10 senior clients who all work in the same non-profit sector. They spend the evening discussing trends, innovation in their sector, and also just getting to know each other as friends.
7. Create short, low-labor intensity interactions
A cup of coffee is a low risk and appealing way to catch up with an old client, as opposed to a lunch or dinner which may take several hours of time. Last year, I was moderating a panel of senior executives in London, and one of them said, “Invite me to coffee. Cricket is a very long day.” A short, 15 or 20 minute phone call to catch up is also effective. What if you did two of those a week—that would be 100 executives you would connect with each year with a brief call!
8. Develop a weekly staying-in-touch plan
Like compound interest, staying-in-touch activities build up and create relationship momentum for you over time. Schedule weekly outreach activities to your “critical few” (20-30 key relationships) that are personal and tailored in nature. Make sure you are also contacting your broader network with on a regular basis with value-added but low-labor-intensive communications, be that in the form of a blog, newsletter, bulletin, online forum, or other channel.
What do you do to stay in touch, on a regular basis, with your most important relationships?
ABOUT ANDREW SOBEL
Andrew Sobel helps companies and individuals build clients for life. He is the most widely published author in the world on the topic of business relationships, and his bestselling books include span Power Questions, All for One, Making Rain, and Clients for Life. His clients include many of the world’s leading companies such as Citigroup, Hess, Ernst & Young, Booz Allen Hamilton, Cognizant, Deloitte, Experian, Lloyds Banking Group, Bain & Company, and many others. Andrew’s articles and work have appeared in publications such as the New York Times, USA Today, strategy+business, and the Harvard Business Review. He spent 15 years at Gemini Consulting where he was a Senior Vice President and Country Chief Executive Officer, and for the last 15 years he has led his own consulting firm, Andrew Sobel Advisors.
He can be reached at andrewsobel.com