Networking. Ugh, we know. But please don’t stop reading. I want to share a fresh way of thinking about networking, and a whole different approach to it, too. If you’re thinking about the kind of networking that requires being loud, bold, and brash, the kind that requires confidently selling yourself, introducing yourself to strangers, and generally making an obnoxious nuisance of yourself, go ahead and put that down. Because ick. Also, I don’t know a lot of dog walkers who have that kind of personality.
The thing is, networking can be truly useful to building and maintaining your dog walking business. One of the great things about this industry is that clients stick with you for a long time—usually many years—so dog walkers don’t generally need a huge influx of clients. A modest steady stream of the right clients can sustain and even grow a business. Good networking is a great way to maintain that stream.
And no matter how shy or even truly introverted you are, there’s a networking strategy that can work for you. Here are 5 low-key networking approaches to try on:
1. Be friendly
I’m not talking gregarious here. Just basic professional friendliness. If you walk in an area where you encounter other dog walkers, make it a practice to smile and raise a hand. Even if the other walkers don’t reciprocate. Keep at it long enough and you’ll see classical conditioning do its work. Everyone likes being liked, everyone likes being treated well. Make someone feel acknowledged and you’ll eventually build a positive conditioned emotional response (CER) to yourself. Think of it as a little scientific field experiment. It can actually be kind of fun.
If you have the opportunity, always go out of your way to be courteous to others. Share a trailhead parking lot with fellow walkers? Keep your dogs leashed up and under control so they aren’t impacting others’ walks. That’s not only friendly, it’s professional (and in most places, the law, too). Pass other walkers on the trail or sidewalk? Give fellow walkers whatever berth you can, keep your dogs focused on you, and make passes brisk. (Don’t forget to smile and say hello or raise a hand as you pass.)
Why expend all this effort? Besides being kind, decent, and professional, this sort of behavior eventually leads to referrals. When a fellow walker receives inquiries she can’t accommodate, you want to be the beneficiary.
2. Rock your walks
Speaking of referrals from other dog walkers, another way to increase their likelihood is to rock your walks. In other words, be really good at what you do. Controlling your dogs, maintaining their focus, walking with confidence, avoiding impact on other walkers and park/trail/sidewalk users—these things can make an impression, which can lead to referrals. Many of our Dog Walking Academy grads and business consulting clients have reported seemingly random referrals from dog walkers and even trainers they’ve never met, but who were aware of and impressed by their work.
An extra tip here: To make it easier for colleagues to send work your way, invest in clearly visible logo clothing, and wear it proudly.
3. Create referral karma
When you have occasion to pass someone on to a colleague, take it. Never turn down a client without giving them an alternate recommendation if you possibly can. Is a client moving out of your service area? Try to find them a walker to check out in their new location. Have to fire a dog because she isn’t the right fit for your services? Tell your client about a walker or daycare you think would be a better match.
And here’s the most important part of this networking strategy: Tell the person you recommended that you recommended them. You can’t be sure the client will pass on your name, and you can’t even be sure the client will call the business you suggested. The only way a colleague will know you referred someone to them is if you email to let them know yourself.
4. Show up
Be present where you can be, to give fellow dog pros in your area the chance to become aware of you and your business. How you do this will depend on the opportunities in your area, and your own comfort zone. It could be attending local pro meet ups. It could be joining and participating in online forums like dog walking-related social media groups or neighborhood networks like Next Door. It could be attending dog behavior-related events that come to your area, to further your professional development. The point is to be seen on some level—whatever level works for you. (If you attend anything in person, don’t forget to wear your cool logo clothing!)
5. Be useful
Here’s another way to raise awareness of yourself and build others’ positive CER: Make yourself useful. There are so many low-key ways to do this. Answer questions posted to online forums you belong to, or post an interesting dog-related article or local piece of news, share a local event listing (like a speaker coming to town for a dog behavior talk or seminar, or a dog-friendly festival), share a local resource (a holistic vet, a mobile groomer, a talented pet photographer or portrait painter), etc. You can share such things in person if you have the option of attending a local meeting, too.
If you’re a bit more bold, reach out to local colleagues—trainers, daycare operators, pet supply shop owners, pet sitters, fellow walkers—via email to suggest a carpool to a local event (or even sharing lunch there), or to make an introduction you think might benefit others, such as introducing a trainer to a pet supply shop owner for the talk series they offer, or to the volunteer manager at the shelter where you walk dogs on weekends.
Train yourself to keep an eye out for opportunities like these to do something helpful and, in so doing, to raise awareness of yourself and your business among potential referral sources.
Networking doesn’t have to be about cocktail parties (so common in our industry!), business cards, and self-aggrandizement. Instead, just be really good at what you do, and be friendly, present, and useful to others while you do it. Practice this kind of professionalism consistently, and eventually you’ll see your networking pay off.
Looking for easy ways to get new clients? Finish Marketing Made Easy, our online course, with a simple marketing plan and calendar customized to your needs, skill sets, and comfort zone. After all, the only marketing worth doing is the marketing you’ll actually do!