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Spring 2003 Chamber of Commerce – Untapped Gold

Are you getting the profits you want from your retail business? You may not know it, but you’re probably not far from an untapped gold mine: your local chamber of commerce.

Maybe you think this organization is a stuffy referral service. Or maybe you attended their networking events and got nothing out of it but a few business cards. You’re not alone: surprisingly few retail owners are aware of the benefits a chamber of commerce offers. If you’re not a member, it’s time to join. If you’re already a member but rarely use the services you’re paying for, it’s time to jump back in—because you’re going to see just how valuable your chamber can be, thanks to several chamber executives from around the country.

Networking works

“Networking is the key tactic for increasing your revenues,” says Mary Bontrager, senior VP of organizational development at the Greater Des Moines Chamber of Commerce Federation. “Chambers offer many opportunities to meet other people. You have to take advantage of as many as you can.”

But networking opportunities aren’t served on a platter when you go to the chamber’s breakfasts, luncheons or after-hours events. “You have to do some work,” says Loren Mitchell, president of the chamber of commerce in Spokane, WA. “That means actively reaching out and forging relationships with other chamber members.” That’s intimidating to a lot of people. The trick, say many experts and experienced networkers, is to go with a mission. Fact-finding is one approach, but one that’s even better for some people is to make the other person comfortable by asking questions and being helpful. Act as if you’re the one who’s totally at ease, and chances are you will be. In any event, here are some of the best networking opportunities your chamber is likely to offer you. And bring plenty of business cards.

Join a committee. “Members of a committee develop strong business-referral services among themselves,” says Nancy Ploeger, executive director of the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce in New York City. “The committee becomes a little exclusive club.” But isn’t the time commitment huge? Not necessarily. “Most committees meet once a month. Sometimes if it’s a small enough committee, they do their work via a conference call,” says Ploeger. “So all in all, [it's] perhaps two hours every few weeks”—a small price for a perfect opportunity to forge new alliances and generate business.

Breakfast means business. Bagels, babble and bucks: The chamber breakfast is a great place to network. “The whole idea of our breakfasts is to have people meet each other,” says Bontrager. “We typically draw around 200 people, and we always go around the room to have individuals introduce their businesses to everyone. It’s kind of like a one-minute commercial.”

When you attend a breakfast, go out of your way to meet new people. Human nature makes people clump together in familiar groups. But you have to break that habit, because every new person you meet is one more person who knows about your business—and that adds up. “Many people come to the breakfasts and pass out their business cards, but then make a key mistake: they sit down at a table with the same people every time,” says Mitchell. “Do they enlarge their circle of business acquaintances? Not one bit.” Instead, he says, sit at a different table every time: scope out the room, find a table where you don’t know anyone, and then make a beeline for it.

Attend “new member” receptions. Go, even if you’re a chamber veteran. “We want the older members there to pass along their insights,” says Mitchell, whose chamber typically gets 30 or 40 new members at each one. Many chambers hold a reception every three or four months, some more often than that. These members are excellent contacts because they’re usually young businesses or new to the area, and they need things as well as ideas. As a specialty retailer, you might have just what they need.

Bonus tip: Hand out a flyer offering a discount to every new member at the event.

Call new members to welcome them. Not all new members attend those receptions. Even if they did, you wouldn’t have time to speak to every one. What’s more, new members join every month, so you can lose opportunities if you wait until the reception. Don’t forget: new members are usually hungry for contacts of any kind. Be there when they need you most—at the beginning. “Call and welcome them to the organization,” says Bill Burns, senior vice president of marketing for the Greater Columbus (Ohio) Chamber of Commerce. To avoid sounding like a blatant telephone sales call, Burns suggests starting with your name, mention that you’re a chamber member, and say you’re calling to introduce yourself and to learn about the new member’s business “so that maybe we can help each other.”

Bonus tip: Establish “brochure exchanges” with non-competing businesses. Offer to hand out a new member’s brochures if that member will do the same for you.

Toot your own horn. Talk about shameless self-promotion! Usually it’s a turn-off, and businesses that try it are put in their place—except at a chamber-sponsored “toot your own horn” promotional event. At these events, every member gets a chance to describe their business to everyone in the room. No need for stuffy presentations: you’re actually encouraged to wax poetic and be as enthusiastic as you like for a minute or two (usually timed). “They’re very popular,” says Ploeger. “We get a wide variety of exhibits,” she says. “One individual [picked up] a guitar and sang a song about his business because he wanted to stand out. Be creative and clever.”

Bonus tip: With the member’s permission, mention the name of everyone in the audience who is already your customer. That’s a powerful endorsement.

Give the chamber your brochure or flyer. Some chambers just keep them on file, and some have display racks to hold a supply of every member’s literature. Either way, make sure your chamber has yours, and check periodically to see if they need a new supply. Also be sure they have the latest version.

Keep in mind, chambers aren’t agents for members, and they don’t recommend individual member businesses. That said, chambers get loads of requests about which member-business can provide what. Usually a chamber responds with a list of businesses that fit the request. You want to be on that list, so send the chamber your literature every time you update it. “We may have up to 40,000 requests in a year for information and referrals,” says Bontrager. “Outsiders want to know who in the community provides this or that service. We keep files on members with business brochures, so let your chamber know what you do and what is unique.”

Bonus tip: Be sure you’re listed on the chamber’s Web site—the Member Directory plus any other area that applies to your business. If you have a Web site of your own, exchange links with the chamber—and with other members whose businesses complement yours. And put the chamber’s “member emblem” in your site, too.

Sit at the roundtable. Many chambers set up roundtables, also known as leads groups, composed of members in non-competing fields—for example, one lawyer, one insurance agent, one accountant, one giftware retailer, one ad rep and so on. “Our typical roundtable has about 25 members,” says Timothy Sheehy, president of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce. “They develop business for each other through referrals.”

Bonus tip: Many chambers also offer market-research services. This can help you identify your target customers and create effective advertising and promotions.

Be a joiner

If one is good, is two better? Three? You can join more than one chamber of commerce if you want to. Larger cities often have local, regional, ethnic, women’s, and industry-specific chambers. If your town doesn’t, look for chambers in nearby towns. “You can join as many as you want,” says Joyce Minard, executive director of the New Paltz (NY) Chamber of Commerce. If you do business in one community, it’s likely you’re drawing customers from nearby areas, so get involved in those chambers, too, she says. But again, you have to participate. “So many people join chambers with the best of intentions, [but] then they don’t participate,” Minard says. “You’ll get the best bang for your buck if you get involved… and acquainted with the people there.”

So get with the program! Activate your chamber membership and make it work for you. You’ll meet new people, make new contacts, cultivate new customers, tap into new ideas, and be more involved in your community. And you’ll have some fun mining gold for your bottom line.

Phillip M. Perry

Perry is a freelance writer based in New York, NY.

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