by Patrice Lewis

Courtesy of The Crafts Report
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Back in the mid 1980s, when I entered the workforce, the buzzword du jour was "networking." This was, of course, in the days before Twitter, blogs, websites, cell phones, or other modern miracles.

The idea was that you, the hip happenin' young business person, would overcome any wallflower predilections you might have in social gatherings and begin aggressively making contacts with anyone and everyone, in hopes that those contacts would eventually yield something you wanted (a new job, a new customer, a new selling venue, whatever). Business cards were absolute necessities, and we were urged to make follow-up contacts with even the most casual acquaintances to remind them of our existence.

Nowadays, "networking" consists almost solely of being "connected." We're encouraged to take advantage of every social network opportunity in our wired world: Twitter, Facebook, blogs, websites, e-mail... The implication is that only troglodytes try to network the stone-age way, namely face-to-face.

But it's that personal touch--those old-fashioned face-to-face opportunities--that can yield tremendous results.

Meet the Artist
Amy Kalinchuk, of Olde Crone's Bewitching Bath Soap (www.soapcrone.com), discovered the benefits of face-to-face contacts during that classic craftsperson's opportunity, the craft show. "On the first day of the show, a woman walked by, admired my wares, and proclaimed, 'I love your soap. I want to sell it in my shop,'" relates Amy. "She was a vendor at this show, as well, and also had a small gift shop in the quaint downtown area.

"Talking to people in person is very important," continues Amy. "A craftsperson should think ahead about wholesale or private-label opportunities so that she is prepared to talk about those options when the opportunity arises. I already had two private-label clients before the third one approached me, so I was ready to discuss it right then and there. Write out the pricing for wholesale or private-label, and have an idea about minimums that make the discount worth your time as a craftsperson. Then go for it! Volume is key to making money in a crafting business."

Location Location Location
Benjamin John Coleman's willingness to volunteer his time resulted in increased visibility for his group, Ocean State Artisans (www.oceanstateartisans.com). "The public relations person for our annual holiday crafts festival became ill, and I volunteered to take her place. While I'll admit it's been an awful lot of work, there has been one, important benefit. Last year, I was stuffed off in the wings of the show and only saw about 70 percent of attendees. This year, the group gave me the public relations person's spot in a much more visible location."

Don't Forget Customer Service
For Cindy Tollen, of Sudz N Bubbles (www.sudznbubbles.com/store), "networking" is synonymous with old-fashioned customer service. "It includes such things as sending thank-you cards to my wholesale customers and asking for referrals from my current retail customers. It is much easier to retain a current customer with exceptional service, and word of mouth is king! If I don't have what a customer wants, I don't hesitate to refer customers to other soap makers. When I do this, it always comes back to me on a positive note. In my opinion, there is nothing better than networking with vendors, colleagues, and current customers."

Cindy's attitude is an important one and brings to mind the old adage, "You catch more flies with honey than vinegar." Badmouthing your competition or refusing to refer customers will brand you as sour and unprofessional. But, cheerful referrals and genuine interest in helping the customer find what he wants can yield unexpected dividends.

Share Your Expertise
Embracing opportunities to teach, demonstrate, do speaking engagements, or otherwise share your expertise can result in multiple networking opportunities, as mixed-media artist and author Violette Clark (www.violette.ca) can testify. "I have attended a woman's networking group and have sold products to attendees. I have told as many people as I can about what I am doing--teaching workshops, creating instructional DVDs, etc. Because of telling a friend about what I'm doing--she was at a networking event where they were supposed to tell others about what they do--I was put in contact with a 'teen coach' who was in attendance, and will be pairing with her to launch workshops and sell my items." Violette is also embracing speaking opportunities. "I think best thing of all is simply to tell everyone you meet what you are doing. Hand them a business card. You just never know what chatting with folks will lead to."

The Importance of Following Up
In this day of instant communication, old-fashioned courtesies, such as following up a contact, can make for happy customers. "Social networking is a good way to stay in touch," notes Leanne Silverman, of C and H Glassworks (www.chglassworks.com). "But, meeting people in person helps instill confidence on both sides of the equation, and developing a relationship over time helps to build trust. We've found that the more that people interact with us as artists, the more likely they are to become collectors, and to become evangelical about us to their friends, families, and coworkers."

Corey Silverman gives an example. "A husband and wife who own three furniture stores happened to see our glass at a retail craft show this past summer. They thought our work would be a great addition to their stores, and wanted to develop a wholesale relationship with us as a result. We'll follow up with them by phone in the next month or two, see what sold, and see what they were hearing from customers in their shop...really just try to nurture the relationship."

Corey says about wholesale shows, "It is extremely important to see people face-to-face by going to wholesale craft shows. Aside from connecting with them in the booth while we're showing off our latest designs, we often get to socialize with buyers at the 'off-hours' events hosted by the show organizers. Or we run into a buyer around town (outside the convention hall) during the show or grab a cup of coffee together. All that helps build a rapport that just can't happen otherwise."

Word of Mouth
Start-up craftspeople Ruthann and Jeff Carr, owners of Presents of Nature (www.presentsofnature.biz), began treating their hobby as a potential source of income after experiencing multiple job losses. "I grow, press, and make framed art and jewelry out of flowers," relates Ruthann. "My husband makes unique art from driftwood. We've also started dabbling in making pendants and earrings out of rough-cut stones we find. While both of us have worked in these crafts for more than 10 years, it was mostly for our own pleasure or to give as gifts. We always dreamed of starting a business together, so when it seemed a full-time job wasn't coming my way--and my unemployment benefits ran out--we thought, 'Why not now?'"

The Carrs are beginning to know which shows yield better sales, as well as the value of face-to-face contacts. "Little by little, we're learning the ropes," says Ruthann. "We are certainly going to have more of an online and social media presence--I just opened a Twitter account--but the one thing you can't get online is face-to-face encounters with buyers. People love to meet the person who creates the art. They have tons of questions that both my husband and I love to answer. Often, the people asking the most questions don't buy anything, but they'll remember how open and friendly we were. That kind of advertisement is worth its weight in gold. When you make a positive impression on just one person, it spreads more good will than any amount of copy online or in print."

The Power of Invitation
Customers like to know they're appreciated, as jeweler Nurit Asher Vagner, of Nurit and Mick Arts, Inc. (www.nuritandmickarts.com), discovered. "We attend shows nationwide," notes Nurit. "A few years ago, we started to bring a 'customers book' to our shows. After making a purchase, customers are asked to sign a beautiful leather book to join our mailing list. When we return to an area where we've done business in the past, we mail out detailed letters two weeks in advance. Because our patrons are very devoted, for some shows, the mailing list can change our show revenue from medium to excellent. The letter includes a personal invitation to visit our booth and view our new collections at the upcoming art show in their area. We invite them to bring the letter to the show to get $20 off their next purchase, and tell them we appreciate their business and look forward to seeing them at the show. If only one person comes and buys from a mailing list of 60, we covered mailing expenses and even earned money, because our jewelry starts at $189."

Learn from the Experts
Finally, it never hurts to have these experiences confirmed by experts. Consultant Patti DeNucci, author of The Intentional Networker: Attracting Powerful Relationships, Referrals and Results in Business (www.intentionalnetworker.com), offers the following person-to person networking tips:
  • Offering a really good product (that people want), doing your best work, and offering great customer service consistently is the very basis for networking. It's what builds and upholds your reputation and helps create enthusiasm and word-of-mouth referrals. You can network all you want, but if your product isn't something people want, the quality isn't there, or your reputation is marred, no amount of networking will make people buy.
  • Know the profile of your ideal customer. Who wants your product, why do they want it, and what are they willing to pay for it? Where, how, or through whom did you find them (or where, how, and through whom did they find you)? Where, how, and through whom can you find more of these customers? This will give you clues as to what your networking strategy should be.
  • Understand that networking isn't about immediate sales, but about building exposure, creating desire, and growing important relationships. If you're trying to sell too hard while you are out networking, you could repel more people than you attract. Certainly share with the people you meet what you do or offer, but let your great product or service sell itself. If it's good enough and solves a problem or is just so irresistible because of its uniqueness or beauty, people will consider buying it. Some will buy immediately; others need time to think about it. Allow for that. Also, if people like you, they are more likely to buy from you.
Old and New
Obviously, it's no longer possible to network exclusively with face-to-face circumstances. Smart craftspeople know a strong online presence is necessary to build their business. But, don't let the novelty of social networking overshadow or take the place of person-to-person networking. Both are needed to grow a business.


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