I used to get upset when I heard, Its not what you know; its who you know.
I thought it meant if you werent born into influence and privilege (I wasnt), you couldnt compete. People often invoke it to say how unfair the world is.
Turns out you can cultivate its who you know. The great equalizer is a referral, a powerful tool for small-business owners.
A referral lets you build your network, no silver spoon required. Its a recommendation on steroids.
You get a referral when a fan of your work identifies someone who needs your product or service, tells that person youd be a great choice, and persuades that person you can do the job.
You get a leg up because youve been pre-qualified: The person has been primed to hired you or buy from you. In return, you talk up the referrers business to others in your circle.
But theres disagreement about what constitutes a referral.
Novices think if they simply get someone to introduce them to a prospect, they can talk him or her into a sale, said Stephen Hand, an executive director of Business Network International.
We over-expect and under-train our referral partners, Hand said. People dont understand that.
BNI is a 5,000-member professional group that says it gives its members the structure, accountability and education to produce referrals. It tells members building a referral network is like having dozens of salespeople representing your business, and in return you are representing their businesses. If I help you, youll help me and we will both benefit.
The Triangle is one of BNIs fastest growing regions, with more than 30 chapters.
Business owners typically ask a few key people and make the request vague, Hand said. For instance, I am looking for anyone that needs my services. That might be a new transmission, their deck rebuilt, to sell their house, or a new bank account, he said. After a few polite promises to keep that in mind, with no tangible results, they stop asking.
Getting referrals takes persistence and requires building relationships and keeping track of what your contacts need.
Ashley Gronewald, a Raleigh real estate broker, works entirely on referrals.
She credits referrals with allowing her to help clients buy or sell 30 homes in 2012, and 54 in 2013. She is aiming for 62 this year.
My quality of life is better because (referrals) give you more control over who you work with, Gronewald said. Clients tend to treat you well because they trust and respect the referrer.
But it isnt easy. Gronewald maintains a megalist of contacts, and takes and updates precise notes about services or products they need. Then she works hard to match them with others who can help them. Shes a master of the email introduction.
Working by referrals is: You do a good job and you teach people who are in your database to refer you, Gronewald said. But to be a referral, you have to be a referrer.
Sheon Wilson is a personal stylist and writer in Durham. Follow her on Twitter @SheonWilson.