By Sammi Soutar, CAE

       A sometimes overlooked advantage to having great relationships with your vendors and service providers is their potential to bring you referrals.

       Sure, with reliable business associates, you and and your staff come out looking like heroes. As AMC owners, we work hard to deliver on the promise of top-shelf goods, over-the-top service and value. That's how we lend credence to one of the many persuasive arguments for selecting an AMC as an association's business partner in the first place:  Leverage.

        That leverage can and should be used to benefit your clients' bottom line and, as a bonus, it can also improve yours, since it will attract the reputable suppliers whose business associates and customers might also be interested in your service. All you have to do is ask.

        As obvious as that strategy may seem, I didn't get it, not even after we acquired a full-service client, referred by one of the accounting firms we use, and another full-service client, referred by a web designer whose services we have used from time to time.

     The light went on a few years ago after I read a handout from an educational session offered during the AMC Forum, which is held each summer during the ASAE annual conference. That's when I had one of those forehead-smacking moments and realized service providers and vendors can be a source of qualified client prospects.

      Since then our firm has cultivated those important business relationships more purposefully. We had for years coordinated one client's "vendor appreciation" event. Now it was time to roll out the red carpet and show a little appreciation for the service providers and business associates that have contributed to our success each year.

We limited invitations to those businesses that had in fact delivered consistently good value and service over the course of at least one year. Although our office is small, we wanted to host the appreciation luncheon in our conference room, so that we could acquaint guests with our operation  and introduce them to staff.

     After the invitations were distributed, but prior to the event, we sent out an email detailing the afternoon's agenda. This signaled guests to bring a supply of their business cards, brochures and, if appropriate, press releases about new products and services. Capitalizing on the networking opportunity we had created gave our guests a tangible and immediately obvious benefit.
    
        The afternoon had a social flavor, yet guests felt it was a worthwhile break from their busy schedules and, in fact, several picked up new business as a result. More importantly, they gained an understanding of what an association management company is all about, what Able Management is about in particular, and what kinds of referrals we wanted them to point our way.

       In an informal followup survey, guests said they enjoyed the experience, appreciated the recognition, and would welcome an invitation back for a similar gathering. As I write, staff is preparing the guest list for our next luncheon.

        Here's the format we've found makes for a successful afternoon function:

        Office tour. As guests show up, we introduce them to staff and give them a brief tour of our offices. Once everyone has arrived, we convene in our conference room, introduce guests and briefly describe each business represented, sharing an anecdote that illustrates our positive experience with them.

    Show and tell. Next, we invite guests to say a few words about their products and services, especially any new product lines or service features in the pipeline. (An unanticipated bonus is they often use their "air time" to share an anecdote with the other guests about their business relationship with Able Management, putting a flattering spotlight back on us.)

     Lunch is served. Over lunch, we invite guests to provide us with feedback on what Able staff can do to make their jobs easier, the rationale being that if we continue to improve upon the way we interface, it will translate to greater savings, better service, and lasting relationships.

   We also remind everyone to exchange their business cards and discuss how we can work together to continue building our referral network.

        Getting back to business. After lunch, we "sing our marketing mantra," giving guests an overview of Able Management, the services we provide and the types of clients we would like to attract. Our goal is to impress upon them the fact that we welcome referrals, especially those that come from our trusted business relationships.

        Business associates now look forward to our provider appreciation luncheons (PALs), and we plan to continue hosting them, even if our investment of time and money, which is now marginal, becomes more significant.
 
        You should consider bringing a few PALs into your conference room if you want to turn vendors and suppliers into marketing partners. Your ROI could well include a few good leads, hot prospects and, best of all, profitable new accounts.
       
        By Sammi Soutar, founder, Able Management Solutions, Inc., Columbus, Ohio.