A strong referral network can be the cornerstone of a successful dog training or walking business. From a marketing perspective, word of mouth referrals from clients and other professionals helps to drive traffic your way and elevate your reputation. These networks can also help you feel less isolated in your work, and embed you within the local community. Initiating contact with potential networks is a great strategy within any marketing plan, as is maintaining and enriching these relationships. So why can it feel so hard to do?
For some, striking up conversations with potential referral contacts feels as natural as smiling at every dog on your morning walk. For many, however, the idea of doing a promotional blast in their area fills them with dread and anxiety. Promoting your own business and services can feel uncomfortable – nervousness and concern about being too sales-y may be enough for you to avoid it altogether. Yet there are ways to approach this key marketing area which may remove some of the ‘ick’ and allow you to break the networking ice in comfort.
Try a reframe
When we are running a business, and especially one we really care about, everything about it can feel personal. As the driving force behind all decisions, it’s easy to worry about the perceptions of others and for imposter syndrome to take hold. If you don’t relish the limelight, being the name and face of your dog work is likely to take some getting used to. Rather than thinking ‘now I basically have to become a Juilliard graduate and completely change my personality’, it can be helpful to remind yourself of why you’re doing this work in the first place.
For many R+ dog pros, it’s because they love what they do and really want to make a difference to the lives of people and dogs. Marketing your business, therefore, isn’t about being the star of the show and telling everyone how great you are. Instead, it’s just an everyday part of the work that allows you to have the impact you want – no different to doing your taxes! This reframe may help to take the intensity out of promotional interactions. The local groomer wasn’t so interested in what you had to say this time? Ah well – that’s just part of the game when you’re making the world better for dogs.
Cast a wide net
When thinking about potential referral sources, get creative! They don’t have to be limited to dog businesses, such as vets and pet stores. Dogs live with and impact all sorts of people which means you can cast a wide networking net. Community centers, dentists, cafes, hairdressers and accountants are likely to be filled with dog loving staff and clients. The more conversations you have, the more practiced you will become at talking about your amazing business. It also serves as a reminder that if one door isn’t quite open yet, there are plenty of others to walk up to. If there are businesses you already have contact with, this can also provide a softer conversation starter. If you have a favorite cafe or local gym you frequent, promoting your business in these spaces can provide a comfier starting point.
Do your research
Have you ever had a client mention that they love your website, or were excited to see that you offer a particular service? Feels good, right? Small businesses in particular often put a lot of heart and soul into the products and services they offer. Prior to approaching a potential network contact, take some time to understand what they do and what makes them unique. Not only will they appreciate you taking an interest, it can also provide good conversation material and will help you find shared values. If you’re passionate about canine nutrition and a store near you prides itself on sourcing local and high quality pet food options, this could be a perfect ice breaker. Or perhaps your local garden center specializes in sustainable planting methods and you’re a bit of green thumb. Could you chat to them about which plants are safe and resilient for dogs? Finding common ground is one way to combat possible conversation lulls and deepen relationships.
Let your work do the talking
Handing out business cards and flyers, especially to a cold contact, can be a particularly intimidating thing to do for many people. It also doesn’t provide a lot of information about who you are and what makes you different. Creating resources that do the talking for you, and create value for others, is a great way around this. Think about the likely business pain points for potential referrals. Anything that saves them time, generates more business for them or furthers their cause is likely to be well received.
If you are approaching a local vet, for example, a handout on specific behavior issues, such as housetraining or separation anxiety, is likely to make a bigger impact. Similarly, with your client’s permission you could provide vets with clear and helpful assessment notes they can refer to when seeing mutual clients. You could even organize a meeting to chat about what information is most useful to them, and vice versa.
If you have an online or print newsletter, ask a local business if you can interview them for a feature story. Not only do most people love talking about what they do, it also means they will be keen to feature your newsletter at their premises and/or via their social media. If you’re in need of material for the rest of your newsletter, dogbiz offers an easy way to make this happen.
If thawing rather than breaking the networking ice feels more natural, don’t let this be a barrier to your business success. Experiment with a range of strategies and find what works for you. What may feel gut wrenching at first will soon become second nature and you’ll be networking up a (quiet and thoughtful) storm.