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Penetrating The Social Fabric Of A Small Town

Big-city people think of small towns as anonymous. Isn't that where the Federal Witness Protection Program relocates people? They also consider them culturally backward. If you live in a small town, you know they've got it wrong. Everyone knows everyone else; they probably all went to the same high school together. So, how do you build your business in a small-town environment?

You Are New to the Area

If you've just arrived, it's like walking into a three-act play immediately after the first act. Things are going on. You don't know the players.

Start by finding other newcomers in town. Ask several of them to explain the story, actors in different roles, etc. How did they integrate themselves? If you are the only newcomer, find a few people who have an interest in cultivating you- the head of the chamber of commerce or the development director for a local charity. They know the leading actors. You've Lived There Forever It's more likely you are established in the community. Now you want to move up the social ladder. Why? Because you want to build a clientele of movers, shakers and high-net-worth individuals. The first step is getting to know them personally.

However, you see a problem: They will say, "Why now? What's changed?" They will be suspicious. But it is not that big of an issue. Often community organizations are understaffed on the volunteer side. They brainstorm about "who we should get." Because no one knows these people well enough to ask them, the idea dies on the table. You may be on their radar screen. Everyone knows everyone, remember? Why would they want you? Because you are in sales, you have a rare skill: the ability to look someone in the eye and ask them to buy something. This scares most people. They see you making a difference in fundraising.

Whom Do You Want to Meet?

That's an easy question. People with money who could become clients. People with high cash flow. Business owners. People about to retire. Influential people who could refer prospects. Consider a small town to be like a dartboard with concentric rings. Working from the inside out, you have politicians, professionals, established business owners, owners of regulated or licensed businesses, science and education professionals, people in trades, corporate executives and retirees. You can determine the position of these rings based on the number of people and their relative wealth in your community. Your strategy is to "be the dart" and insert yourself in a specific ring. Consider things from "their" point of view. Where do you currently fit on the dartboard?

Inclusive and Exclusive

Some organizations are exclusive, limiting membership to a few invited in- think country clubs. Others, like medical societies, are organized by professionals in a field while others are inclusive, bringing together people from all backgrounds-such as churches and religious organizations. When you think about community organizations, obvious ones come to mind. The chamber of commerce, country club, museum, Rotary club, etc. Many more are "off the radar" yet attract large numbers of the people you want to meet and cultivate into clients.

Country Club

Let's dream big. Will the most exclusive country club admit you as a member? I interviewed a bank president and he told me a story about an insurance producer moving to a new town. He was advised to "buy a new Cadillac and join the most exclusive country club." When he balked at the cost, he was told: "This business is based on perception. If you drive up to the most exclusive club in a new Cadillac, people assume you are a successful insurance producer."

He built his business by playing golf frequently with owners of small- to medium-sized businesses. Sometimes they were fellow chamber members; other times they were his CPA and two clients. Here's the rationale: small-business owners belong to a golf club, but not the best club. They get to play this course only when someone invites them. After playing golf in the morning the agent would buy lunch in the clubhouse. Over lunch he would say: "I would like to call next week and set up an appointment. I have some ideas I would like to share. I think I may be able to save you money." Playing the course and lunching afterward places the business owner under such an obligation that it's difficult for him to say no.

Unlikely Organizations

Besides the big and obvious ones like the chamber of commerce and cultural organizations, what are the opportunities off the radar screen?

Many communities have a volunteer fire company that, in addition to providing a public service, functions as a social club. Some even have their own bar or recreation room. Serving is often a family tradition followed through generations. You'll find business owners, professionals, medical personnel and trades people. It's an ideal opportunity to meet established families. Ambulance squads and animal rescue fit this category too, although with less of a social club aspect. Many towns in agricultural communities have festivals based on their famous product or commodity. California has garlic, artichoke and mushroom festivals. Most towns probably have a 4th of July celebration. This is taken as seriously as the symphony, opera and other cultural events in big cities. The need for volunteers is enormous. They attract almost every ring on the dartboard.

Local historical societies attract established families with names on street signs. They also attract retirees and other volunteers who help further the preservation and educational aims of the group or just enjoy a good party. Often in the shadow of larger cultural organizations, these societies provide a cost-effective way to mingle with several rings on your dartboard.

Another overlooked cultural organization is the local library. Wealthy families have been endowing and supporting libraries for generations. This sounds sleepy in this age of Internet research, yet libraries have a mission. This mission is implemented by a paid and volunteer staff that runs events and galas to raise money. Often the established families are involved.

Most communities have special interest groups such as a garden club, cooking club and art classes. Grassroots networking clubs spring up for women business owners, too. These are typically groups of like-minded people who meet informally. They may not be incorporated or established as nonprofits. If you share their interests, you can meet well-connected people.

What Do You Do?

You've checked out local organizations and found which ones offer opportunity, and you've joined. But don't try to run the place. It's likely they will resist and you'll build bad will. Focus on meeting six new people at every meeting you attend. Remember to greet the people you've met previously. Raise your visibility and let them get comfortable with you. They will approach you and bring you into the hierarchy (member-committee- chair-board-executive committee). Try to choose committees that will be good for business. Membership, social and fundraising committees all give you the opportunity to meet new people coming into the organization.

Always deliver on your promises. Attend meetings regularly. Arrive early, and be one of the last to leave. Don't be a "joiner." They've seen that before.

is president of Perceptive Business Solutions in New Hope, PA. His book "Captivating the Wealthy Investor" is available on He can be reached at [email protected].

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