Few things in the world are more valuable for the fitness entrepreneur than a network of high-quality business partners. The saying “It’s not what you know, it’s whom you know” is especially true in today’s business world. Furthermore, the depth of your partners’ networks may be the most valuable asset of all. Until you really start developing relationships and drilling down to see the possibilities, these hidden resources won’t be available to you.

For many fitness professionals, identifying, prospecting, approaching and, ultimately, developing new business partners can be intimidating. However, developing a strong network is just as critical as mapping out a marketing strategy.

Setting Up Your Network

What is an effective starting point in this process? Organization is key. Start by developing a list of potential partners; organize the prospects in a grid or call sheet so you can keep track of each contact, every conversation and any other pertinent notes (see the “Sample Tracking Form” as an example of how you can track your prospects). Update this each time you make an initial call or follow-up call.

Once you have identified and prioritized prospective partners and documented their contact information, how do you start the networking process? It’s really quite simple, and it requires just a little bit of boldness. The first step is to initiate contact. Essentially, there are four ways to do this: telephone, regular mail, e-mail and the unannounced drop-by.

In my experience, the least effective method of networking is e-mail. Since no one really appreciates unsolicited e-mail, the chances of a blind e-mail getting the attention you intend for it are not good. An e-mail sent to a doctor, business owner or store manager from an unrecognized individual with a business proposal is likely to be flagged as “spam” (digital junk mail) and never read; it may even be sent directly into a trash receptacle.

A regular mail letter is likely to meet the same fate for the same reasons.

An unannounced drop-by can be perceived as rude, or it may occur at a time when the person you seek is not available.

The most effective method I’ve found for contacting a prospective new partner is to place a polite phone call and request a meeting. Most businesses are as interested in networking with you as you are with them. It is very likely that your request for a meeting will be warmly received. If you’re not entirely comfortable placing such calls, begin with a very simple script. Something along these lines will work just fine: “Hello, my name is Jackie Spencer. I’m a certified personal trainer and owner of Bodies in Motion. I have clients in need of (whatever the prospect’s business or service is), and I’m certain you have customers needing to get into better physical condition. I’d like to set up a time when we could meet and talk about a possible partnership.”

Remember, K.I.S.S. (keep it short and simple): an introduction, a value statement demonstrating that there is something in it for the prospect, and an action item–setting up a meeting. Avoid asking yes/no questions–that is, don’t ask questions that can be answered with one word. For example, if you ask, “Would you like to meet on Tuesday morning?” the prospect can reply, “No.” That’s a one-word answer and it leaves you nowhere to go. Open-ended questions leave the door open for follow-up probing or for other directions in which to take the conversation. For example, “I’m in your general area on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Of those 2 weekdays, which would be the better for us to meet?”

Plan the Work, Work the Plan

After you build a prospect list, make calls and set up appointments, the next hurdle is to actually conduct the face-to-face meeting. It’s an exciting stage, but for some people it can produce anxiety. This need not be the case. Remember, great meetings don’t just happen; they are a result of good planning and careful consideration of both content (what to discuss) and process (how people conduct themselves). Going into a meeting well prepared with a professional attitude and presentation, and proposing something of mutual value, almost guarantees that you’ll begin a new partner relationship.

The very first item on the preparedness list is almost unnecessary to mention: BE ON TIME! There is no faster way to submarine a relationship than to show up late for the initial meeting. Even with a “good excuse” for your lateness, the impression has been made and it’s impossible to take it back. The bottom line is that there are no good excuses for being late. So build extra time into your commute. If it takes 20 minutes to get to the meeting site, leave 40 minutes early. It is better to sit in your car and catch up on reading for 10 minutes than to come screaming into an office at 2:06 for a 2:00 meeting. Your prospects’ time is valuable. Show them that you appreciate and are respectful of their willingness to give some of it to you.

Before going into the meeting, develop an outline of content that’s beneficial to both parties. You set a very professional tone when you shake hands, pull out two outlines–one for the opposite party and one for yourself–and begin working from it. Showing up to a meeting prepared not only provides a better chance to seal a deal, but also you’ll appear more confident and professional. Both are qualities that prospective partners are looking for.

Coming to these introductory meetings polished goes a long way toward establishing relationships. Remember, you’re asking these people to send business your way–possibly some of their own clients, patients or customers. As a referral partner, your service will indirectly reflect on them, so they want assurance that the people they send to you will be treated in the best possible manner.

Show the Benefits of Association

In the initial meeting, be prepared to provide marketing materials and have a set plan for passing referrals back and forth. Provide fliers, even if in draft form, that mention both your business and your new partner’s business: Use devices such as 20%-off specials for customers of the partner who come to you, joint customer-appreciation days, etc. These materials demonstrate that you can provide benefit to the partner and that you’ve thought the meeting through. Most networking partners will want to hear about activities you can jointly engage in that will ultimately bring in some revenue! Yes, they want their clients to exercise and get into better condition, but at the end of the day they’re in business to get paid, too.

Dress for Success

When it comes to meeting preparation, one of the biggest areas in which fitness professionals fail is dressing professionally for meetings. Always dress professionally. This doesn’t necessarily mean a suit and tie, since that doesn’t really fit our industry profile–although in some cases business attire is warranted. People expect personal trainers to dress in a manner befitting a job in which we’re exercising clients for a living. A well-kept matching top and pants or warm-up suit, preferably one made by a brand-name manufacturer, with a clean, solid-colored T-shirt or polo shirt underneath is perfectly acceptable. Carefully match the attire to the client or the type of presentation you’ll be doing. Finally, wear appropriate shoes that present well and are clean.

Follow Up!

One of the most critical yet often overlooked aspects of the sales call is a follow-up note. Before the close of business on the SAME DAY as your meeting, be sure to have put a handwritten thank-you note in the mail. This way the note is likely to arrive the very next day. In your note, let the prospect know you appreciated her time and confirm your favorable impression. This 5-minute, 44-cent investment paints you as respectful and conscientious, both traits that a high-quality partner will value seeing.

Once the relationship is up and running, keep it alive by investing time and money in meetings with the partner. There’s no need to overdo it, but at least once a quarter take your partner to lunch or out for coffee and a bagel. Use this time to discuss how things are going, areas for improvement or attention and additional partnership opportunities.
When you’re armed with these guidelines, not only will sales calls be easier; it’s likely they’ll also end with a positive result: new referral partners for you!