Mutually Beneficial - Growing your Business with Relationships
As a wedding cake maker the single most important business decision I made was to improve my vendor to vendor relationships. Networking is such a simple concept that people overlook the importance of establishing a network of business friends. We are always looking for that "complicated marketing strategy"; convincing ourselves that if something seems complex and difficult-or expensive- it must be the route to success. The real route to success is getting the basics down. Simple strategies, executed well, will trump complicated marketing ideas every time. Connecting with others and establishing mutually beneficial business arrangements is one of the best and easiest ways to grow your business.
The wedding industry is full of generous, hard working, business folks looking to make connections with other like-minded individuals.
Collectively, you can work together to reach your target audience and build your businesses up, together. When people work together, you can pool your resources and share the successes.
Where does your business come from?
We're all trying to grow our business, but how few of us take a moment to look at where that business really comes from? I think the first step to knowing why a strategy is working so well is to analyze your business to find out why. Where are your business leads coming from? Who is booking you? Who is referring you?
20% of my business (wedding cakes) is through client referral and word-of-mouth.
The national average is actually closer to 1/3 or 33%- which is still a significant number. Despite the growth of platforms such as wedding wire and wedding.com, the majority of bookings actually come from referral- which is another reason why, for me, the vendor/vendor relationship pays.
In business you have both internal and external customers. Clients who book a cake for their events are external customers, and other wedding professionals are more like internal customers. When a client books me for an event- they might refer me to others, but the likelihood that they refer me to potential clients who need a wedding cake is quite low.
Conversely, wedding vendors who work with me at events and see my work might also refer me- but the likelihood of them referring me to another couple who are getting married is very high. Is a vendor likely to refer you out of the goodness of their heart, or, are they more likely to refer you if you form a relationship with them?
The truth is, you're just another vendor, in a sea of vendors, but, if you get to know them, talk to them, and network with them; you're a partner in the industry, and yes, they will refer you to their network of clients. Impressing them and forging a relationship with them provides the opportunity to reach your target audience. In return, I can recommend them to my own clients and also reward them by providing really great, reliable, service. They can count on me to deliver a little something extra every time. I even have event planners that I work with who get a small loyalty-discount for referring me to their clients. Occasionally I may offer a kickback - though I don't like to work with vendors who request a kickback. A kickback is sort of like a "finders fee". Overall these relationships benefit their business as well as my own.
Networking with other event-professionals can boost your business.
20% of my business comes from paid services and advertising.
And, in fact, 20% is the national average- I have spoken with several wedding cake designers who pay for advertising and club memberships and see a lot of success, however, you really have to know what you're doing to make this work for you. You have to know your audience, and your bride, because targeted-advertising is going to be a lot more successful than throwing your money at a platform and hoping for the best.
Targeted advertising will only work for you if you have:
- An established portfolio of work
- A reliable and unbiased source of reviews that document your work history
- A real life website (not just a Facebook page)
Actually, the second point is really the MOST crucial because pretty pictures on a wedding website are all well and good, but they mean nothing to the internet savvy millennial who's FIRST job will be to google your business and search Yelp and other sites for reviews of your products and services.
The Lead Journey
You see, It's not JUST important to look at where your leads are coming from, but additionally, you need to follow the path, or journey, those leads take. Most of my leads that come from the knot, wedding wire, or wedding.com take a segway via Yelp. Clients FIND me on the wedding website, this is the initial connection point, they probably think, "oh, those are nice pictures, but is she the real deal?" Then they take a little journey; they hit up my website, check out my portfolio, read my testimonials, look at my prices, and THEN they search for me on Yelp, and finally they probably take a good look at my social media platforms. How many times has someone recommended a restaurant to you? What is one of the first things you do? You look them up to read what people are saying about them.
Reassured that I am a legit business-and not some scammer - they then may send me a message and reach out, and that can come via my website or via Facebook.
Personally, venue referral for me is at an all time low. Only two weddings last year came via venue referral - this is something that hasn't escaped me and I have spent considerable time investing in strategies to reach venues. Nationally, venue referral figures are around 35-40%. Here in Virginia we have around 25,000 weddings each year. Statistically wedding business for venues is booming (it's at an all time high), while vendors are struggling to bring in wedding clients.
Why are vendors struggling to reach new clients in a market that can sustain vast amounts of business?
Clearly vendors are missing a huge opportunity by not connecting with venues, which for most newly-engaged couples is the first investment of their wedding. Venues are booking clients left, right, and center- and for the most part they filter those leads down through their list of preferred vendors. If you're not on their list, chances are, you have very little opportunity to provide services for the event. Even if you have a personal connection to the bride, many venues limit services to either their in-house teams or to their preferred vendors.
How do you get onto preferred vendor lists?
I should first start by saying, I NEVER work with venues that charge vendors to be on their preferred vendor lists. I want to work with a venue that looks for the best vendors in the industry and rewards them, and not those who are willing to pay for referral. If their only concern is their bottom line, I know they don't have my or an engaged-couples' best interests at heart. I have reached out to several venues and been asked to pay for membership or preferred vendor status and I say no every time.
Become a Preferred Vendor
Connect with other wedding professions to join their preferred vendor lists.
However, here are some of the steps I have been taking with success:
1) Know your bride and know their budget and then search for venues within your serviceable area that meet those requirements.
2) Find a dedicated contact at the venue that deals with the wedding-end of the business.
3) Craft a well written e-mail discussing your services and why you would be an ideal fit for their venue. Ask them if they have any preferred vendor vacancies.
- be sure to include your website (make sure it looks good)
- social media (make sure you're posting and engaging regularly)
- recent reviews
- portfolio of work
- and any recent events that would show them the caliber of your services
4) Keep correspondence professional.
5) Request a site visit - tempt them with the offer of cake samples.
6) Follow up your e-mail with a site visit and take some samples of your product and a collection of business cards or postcards.
7) Offer an incentive- such as a small discount to any clients they refer.
Venues can be a tough nut to crack BUT can be a lucrative avenue for wedding referral and potential business. The key here is forming a relationship and of course offering consistent service.
Wedding and Event Planner Relationships
It Takes A Village
Joining professional networking associations and attending meetups will expand your referral network.
The last section of my blog post is dedicated to vendor/planner relationships. Planners, or wedding coordinators, ARE other vendors - but after the venue - they are likely the most connected and sought-out people in the industry. This is because a wedding planner forms a very close and personal relationship with the wedding couple, and it is their experience, expertise, connections, and preferred vendors that a bride and groom are utilizing for their wedding. For those exact reasons, wedding planners will also keep a dedicated preferred vendor list. If you work with a successful planner, they can filter business to you on a frequent and regular basis. Working with wedding planners/coordinators can be extremely lucrative and rewarding, and it can take out a lot of the leg-work of finding new business leads.
I work with four dedicated wedding planners on a frequent basis. They are all talented and successful individuals and they value the relationships they form, and I value them. Not just as business associates, but as friends! They show loyalty to those who connect with them, and it is this loyalty that provides the greatest potential for new business.
This year 60% of my business came from wedding planner referral
In fact, one planner, CTG Events and Designs has booked more than 14 different events with me, each one a large-scale event. The reason this relationship works so well is because, for me - as the vendor- it is consistent business, my client is both the planner and the couple. I know her and her expectations. I get paid on time and in a way that works for me and my business, and we work well together. It is a collaborative partnership. For the planner, she gets a bit of a discount (I always give her clients a little bit of a deal) and she can rely on my consistency. She knows her clients will always be happy with the end result, she trusts me to deliver a cake on time, provide great service, and be trustworthy. It provides peace-of-mind and it is one less thing she has to worry about.
How can you connect with wedding planners to boost your business?
It sounds simple, but reaching out to them, and connecting with them- making contact - is really the way to establish relationships. Most planners, especially the ones I work with here in VA are members of professional organizations or groups. I have joined those organizations (notable the Virginia Wedding and Event Network) which has allowed me to network with many other wedding professionals, including wedding coordinators.
I pay a yearly membership fee and in return I get access to a vast network of people and resources. There are opportunities for mixers and meet-and-greets. There's also the opportunity for styled shoots and wedding fairs. There's a dedicated facebook page and an abundance of social media interaction. There's also a dedicated face behind this business- Didi Russell- who is the CEO of VAWE and works tirelessly to connect vendors and clients.
You Never Know Where A Relationship will Take You
Networking led to me landing this 14 tier wedding cake, created for former first lady, Michelle Obama's Chief-of-Staff.
The take-away from all of this is simple: connect, connect, connect. My mum always said to me, "Becky, you don't get, if you don't ask". That's my advice- if you want more business; if you want to work with other professionals- get out there and ask them!