THURSDAY THOUGHTS: People Do Business with People They Like, Know, and Trust

That’s a saying a wise man (who happens to be my husband) says often. Think about it – what restaurants do you frequent, which vendors do you use for your business, where do you choose to shop, who do you go to when you need help with an issue in your community or with the state or federal government?

Clearly, as humans we tend to gravitate to people and businesses that we like. And it’s the same for us as business leaders. I encourage you to determine ways to become liked, known, and trusted.

I often witness business professionals spending a lot of time giving out business cards at “networking events” but I’m here to suggest that you need to do more. As I learned early in my career, while building a large “Rolodex” is important, it’s what you do with your contacts that is most important (for those of you who don’t know what a Rolodex is, be sure to Google it).

Think about it, you exchanged business cards, now what? Will you schedule an appointment to see if can convert the contact to a client? Will you follow up to set up coffee to get to know them better? Will you send them an article you saw that would probably interest them? Or will you go stuff food backpacks for students together, or attend a local leadership program together and get to grow the relationship over several months?

I want to suggest that getting involved with community organizations, being active in your professional associations, and getting to know thought-leaders and policymakers in your community will significantly enhance your business prospects. That sounds great, but how is the easiest way to do that?

We are fortunate in the Wilmington, North Carolina area as our community is very driven by involvement in local nonprofits. If you are not in our area, you can likely find similar opportunities to engage in your community.

For example, check out your local United Way chapter. United Way of the Cape Fear Area provides a great way for businesses to engage with local nonprofits hands-on without having to commit a ton of time, nor to have to participate on a regular weekly/monthly schedule. UWCFA publishes regular needs that local nonprofits have for volunteers. These opportunities are great for individuals, solo-preneurs, to grow their connections, as well as for larger businesses to use as a team building activity.

We are fortunate in this area to have two leadership programs that greatly enhance our ability to learn about the challenges and opportunities that exist in the community and provide a remarkable way to get to know colleagues, potential clients, and to make new friends.

Leadership Wilmington is a 10-month program run by the Wilmington Chamber of Commerce. As described by the Chamber it is through, “hands-on community immersion and direct interaction with our community’s current leaders, Leadership Wilmington serves to cultivate leaders and advance the Wilmington region’s economy.”

Participants in the program “get an up-close look at some of our region’s most challenging issues and opportunities and build lifelong relationships with other aspiring leaders. Class members will also work together to organize Work on Wilmington, the community’s largest one-day volunteer service day.”

I am a proud member of the Leadership Wilmington Alumni, and I can tell you first-hand that my classmates and other alums of the program are go-to points of contact as I need to solve problems, find help, or get referrals.

The women in our community have an additional leadership program to consider. The WILMA Leadership Institute is a unique program run by our women’s business magazine WILMA, and the Greater Wilmington Business Journal. For nine months, participants meet monthly for extensive leadership development programing and are exposed to leaders in the community. I am not aware of another program that builds such strong bonds and has directly enhanced the careers of so many women.

One other point that I want to touch on comes from my decades of experience as a government relations professional. It may seem to you that access to elected officials is only for “the big guys” but that is so far from the truth. As a former Congressional staffer, I can tell you that a local business leader contacting the Congressman’s office was exponentially more valuable than a big corporation, even one that might even be a donor to the Congressman’s campaign committee.

If you are having a challenge with interacting at any level of government as a business or an individual, reach out to your policymaker’s local office and ask for help. If it is business-related and you are part of a professional or trade association, check to see if others in your industry are facing a similar challenge and if you can work together to try to resolve the problem. I can also tell you it is best to be known by these leaders before you need their help. Be sure that they know and trust you, and then they will be ready to assist you in the event you need a hand. Don’t be reluctant to stop a local official and introduce yourself if you see them at an event or a meeting. Be sure that they know about your local business, your activity in the community, and perhaps how many people you employ. Invite them to your facility and do a tour. I can assure you that they want to know what’s happening on the ground in their district.

If you are visible in your community, your policymakers will get to know you. I was fortunate to be appointed a few years ago to serve as a volunteer on a City of Wilmington Clean Energy Task Force, a policy area I worked on extensively while working in Washington, DC. Just last month, I was at a Leadership Wilmington Alumni event and ran into a current member of City Council and a member of the senior staff. I mentioned to both of them that while looking for a parking spot that night, I was almost side swiped in an intersection where I have witnessed several cars running the stop sign. Within a few days, I received an email from the staff letting me know that the City would be improving the signage in the intersection. How did that happen? Government doesn’t respond that quickly. Well, the staffer knows me from serving on the task force, and the City Councilman knows me from work I did with his professional organization, prior to being elected. They apparently both trusted me that the problem was worth raising it with the traffic engineering staff, and I think they both like me too. That’s not to say the staff wouldn’t take quick action if any citizen reached out, but I doubt it would have been handled quite that efficiently.

As we start this new year, I challenge you to make a pledge to find a new way to get to be a liked, known, and trusted member of your community. You won’t regret it, personally or professionally.

Ruth Ravitz Smith is a public affairs consultant who has dedicated her professional life to helping individuals and businesses build and sustain strategic relationships that help establish a strong reputation, and allow them achieve policy and business objectives. She is the founder of RRSmith Strategic Solutions, based in Wilmington, NC, and a strategic partner with New Lantern Partners based in the Washington, DC area. In addition to her consulting work, Ruth is the Founder and President of the Honor Flight of the Cape Fear Area, a member of the Board of Associates of Hood College, a member of the WILMA Leadership Institute Advisory Board, and a mentor in the UNCW Cameron Executive Network.