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Is the death of the ‘social-network’ approaching?

Is the death of the ‘social-network’ approaching?

What is the COVID-19 impact on rainmaking?

Johnny 'Bob' Spence
March 25, 2021

Throughout the last 9-months we have seen a migration of business development activity. Previously ‘top end’ rainmaking has been the preserve of the face-to-face business card exchange and the face-to-face referral request. Post ‘social distancing’ rainmaking activity has largely morphed into the virtual environment. It is not so measurable how successful that morph has been in terms of generating the longer term relationships that create fees. This article questions the likely ROI that on-line relationship building delivers within the context of professional services.

What is the COVID-19 impact on rainmaking?

Probably less visible but a medium term consideration is the impact that this epoch is having on the next generation of rainmakers that every firm will require. The business development talent that comes through the COVID-19 era has a different starting point to the existing rainmakers already succeeding in professional services.

By 2025 the majority of the working population may be defined as ‘millennial’.

The millennial population is the generation born between 1981 – 1996 recognised as tech-literate with an expectation of connectivity ‘anywhere at any time’. This period is post the birth of the internet. It coincides with the introduction of smart phone technology, via the iPhone 4 in 2010, so the millennial has accessed non-stop virtual technology whilst in their teens.

The working population born into this era of technology will be generation ‘Z’.

Generation Z, or ‘Gen Z’ for short, is the age group in the workplace that will succeed Millennials. (Researchers and popular media use the mid-to-late 1990s as starting birth years and the early 2010s as ending birth years. Most members of Generation Z are the children of Generation X). Despite being dubbed “digital natives“, members of Gen Z are not necessarily digitally literate.

This portion of the labour market will have a reliance on technology to create contacts. The current cessation of the traditional face-to-face approach to relationship building will reinforce reliance on media platforms for this group. By default it will reinforce that this is the preference rather than ‘buying into’ the hard graft of building relationships via the handshake and ‘investing into’ those short but crucial conversations that create rapport and confidence. It is worth a reflection by the leadership team of a practice or firm to think through the impact that this deterioration of social communication ability might mean in terms of retaining key relationships.

Technology versus empathy

Whilst we are in a virtual ‘locked-down’ world it is worth considering, within the context of sourcing prospects and creating meaningful relationships, the gap between software development and social science. Developers are generating visible arguments supported by compelling marketing messages that virtual relationships can/will facilitate rainmaking.

The social science behind rainmaking is not as conclusive.

How large can a group of meaningful connections be managed in this evolving workplace? There is the ongoing static that suggests the social media tools available to us enable larger potential for rainmaking connectivity.

This is an easier argument to digest for the millennial and Gen Z populace as they begin to populate 64% of the labour force in 2025.

How do we make our connections valuable?

This is a two-way street given our cognitive ability and the reduction in the amount of time we can invest in relationships.

You will note that in previous articles published by 5next I revert to the work of the anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar. Anyone that has seen my presentations on the subject of business development at events across Europe will be familiar with the Dunbar number of 150. I define this number in terms of:

The limit to the number of relationships where both parties are willing to do favours for the other.

In previous articles I have referred to this as a structure called ‘social-commercial-comfort’. Unless both parties are willing to do favours for the other what validity does a rainmaking network have? Below is a quick recap of social science using a model called ‘The Social Cortex’. This is a social group size that a network of connections will sit within.

The Social Cortex references 150 relationships.

This figure of 150 is found repeatedly throughout human communities at different points in time and it is suggested that this is the limit. A comparison could be that this limit exists in the same way as limits exist within sporting endeavour. Think of the physical barriers that elite athletes work within, in terms of the 100 metre sprint. Athletes push that barrier in increments. In the same way there is a limit to the ability of our brain to maintain quality relationships. I agree in the idea of variance between rainmakers but that variance will not be so big that it can be altered drastically by technology and virtual relationships. The difference is the amount of skill and preperation in the same way an elite athlete has improved performance through skill and preperation compared to someone on the street running for a bus.

In terms of technology: the two views.

There are diferent views and 5next Software looked long and hard at the CRM market place to see what technology could offer and we pulled out the two extremes from reviewing 17 platforms.

  • We reviewed relationship technology where the founder states; technology can stretch the Dunbar number by a factor in excess of two. Using that thinking you are looking at 300 connections as a minimum. This technology is still in business.
  • We reviewed relationship technology built to the framework that you cannot have more than 150 connections. This technology is no longer in business.

This comparison was not conclusive but two diferent ‘CRM’ methods. However Robin Dunbar completed an academic study on the impact that social media technology had on his original number. I am quoting from edited interview material:

The 150 limit applies to internet social networking sites just as it does in face-to-face life. Facebook’s own data shows that the average number of friends is 150-250 (within the range of variation in the face-to-face world). Remember that the 150 figure is just the average for the population as a whole. However, those who have more seem to have weaker friendships, suggesting that the amount of social capital is fixed and you can choose to spread it thickly or thinly.

Your amount of social capital is fixed; spread it thickly or thinly.

As rainmaker, rainmaking author, rainmaking developer, rainmaking trainer and rainmaking speaker I believe that there are two ‘social-commercial-comfort’ strategies we engage in with regards to our network of connections.

  • Mass announcements
  • Personalised communications

These are the two methods that generate the social capital that ‘social-commercial-comfort’ is built on. That is the currency that generates reciprocity whereby people feel comfortable introducing and recommending people.

Can virtual processes communicate through a 3rd party the following reasoning?

“You should work with my lawyer and this is what they would represent to you”
  • Work zealously to protect your best interests
  • Work efficiently and economically, using your resources as their own
  • Return all telephone calls or client communications promptly
  • Arrive at meetings on time and well-prepared
  • Follow-up promptly and as appropriate
  • Provide you with advice about alternative dispute resolution procedures
  • Be respectful of everyone, regardless of their position, role or status
  • Be neat and project the image of success appropriate for your business
  • Behave appropriately in all situations
  • Follow all applicable laws and ethical canons
  • Not do anything that would create the appearance of impropriety

The considerations for the PRO Rainmaker are to question the current virtual environment for business development:

  • Can these messages be delivered via anything but a personalised communication?
  • Will millennial designed communication processes carry those messages?
  • Is the Gen Z population creating relationships that are fit for those messages?
  • Can CRM technology systems impart that messaging?
  • Does an automated email system secure that value?

Everyone will have their own take on this but the jury is out on virtual rainmaking. An over reliance on mass announcement communication to a network of connections may see diminishing returns as relationships built pre-COVID start to fade and fail to engage with this approach.

Johnny 'Bob' Spence

Bob is the Rainmaker Coach for Wilkinson Read & Partners established in 1993 who specialise in enhancing the fee earning performance of legal firms. Bob is a trainer, networking coach & writer. Educated at L. S. E. & Wits University. ‘$1,000,000 Round Table’ sales qualifier. Author ILM accredited: ‘Executive Programme in Professional & Business Networking’. Rainmaking experience in RSA, UK, France, Finland, Austria, Belgium, Hong Kong, Pakistan, Dubai, Poland, Germany, Slovak Republic & the USA.