Customer referrals are one of the most powerful and lucrative ways of building business. While word-of-mouth gets you noticed, referrals are even better because the best ones bring purchase-ready customers or clients right to your doorstep (or website) complete with an existing customer’s endorsement.
So it simply makes sense to not only foster more referrals, but also be smarter about the ones you get.
Membership type businesses, such as health clubs, constantly run referral programs by offering existing members discounts or freebies for bringing in others. But small business owners of all types know the magic of referrals, which offer instant credibility for what you sell.
Finding and using referrals effectively, however, can be harder than it looks. Referrals come in several different flavors. If someone merely provides you a name or email address, that’s a low-grade referral. But if an existing client actively talks up your product or service, sets up a meeting or brings the prospect in, that’s a superstar referral.
Here are eight ways to get more and better referrals:
1. Create a referral-generation plan and put it to work
Referrals aren’t automatic. Some business owners assume that a great product or terrific customer service will automatically generate referrals. Not so. You have to ask. Don’t be shy. Most loyal customers are open to providing referrals. Some even appreciate the opportunity to tell friends, family and associates about something good they’ve discovered.
2. Ask at the right time
Timing is important, but many businesses ask for referrals at the wrong time. The worst time to ask is at the cash register or when you present a bill. Instead, look for opportunities earlier or later in the process when customers are more receptive. There’s really no predetermined time to ask. Do it whenever opportunities arise.
3. Provide some support
Don’t ask customers to recommend you to others without providing them some kind of backup or support. It can be as simple as a supply of business cards, a link to a special page on your website. It could also be a brochure or some other type of printed material that reinforces the referral and describes what you do.
4. Offer appropriate incentives
The incentive you offer must fit with the kind of business you run. It could be a discount, service credits, an upgrade, a free item or some other trigger that will entice clients to provide referrals. Test different offers to find out what works best.
Communicate details of your referral program to your best customers through whatever means you have available, including a blog, newsletter, email or customer mailings. And be sure to thank customers when they make referrals.
5. Get the right information
When asking for referrals, consider using a form, checklist or web-based system that requests details that will make the referral more valuable. A simple name and number isn’t really a referral at all. It’s just a lead.
At the other end of the spectrum are referrals where the customer actually facilitates a meeting, visit or purchase by the referred person. This makes the customer an active agent on your behalf. Between these two extremes are referrals where the customer authorizes you to use their name when contacting somebody.
6. Target your most influential customers
If resources are limited, consider seeking referrals only from your most influential customers. These might not actually be your best customers, but they are the people whose opinions would carry the most weight with other people in your industry, community or customer base. By targeting these influencers, you avoid spreading yourself too thin or generating weak referrals.
7. Target related businesses
The health care profession is one of the most adept at fostering referrals between complementary disciplines – specialists, imaging services, physical therapists, medical equipment suppliers and others. Consider the same strategy yourself. Contact businesses that provide complementary services to your own and ask for referrals.
8. Build your relationships
This takes time, but it’s critical because many of your most influential customers won’t provide referrals until you gain their complete trust. You’ll want to treat each customer contact as if it’s critical to your next referral. Through each sales, marketing or customer service “touch” you are building a foundation of trust that that will one day lead to a valuable referral.
About the Author: Daniel Kehrer, Founder and Chief Content Officer of BizBest Media, is a senior-level leader in digital media, content development and online marketing with special expertise in startups, SMB, social media and generating traffic, engagement and leads. He holds an MBA from UCLA/Anderson and is a passionate entrepreneur (started 4 businesses), syndicated columnist, blogger, thought leader and author of 7 business and financial books.