Monday, September 8, 2014

Referrals, referrals

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     from my lifetime of experience starting, operating and growing small businesses.

     All businesses get referrals. Referrals come to you on someone else's recommendation. It happens because people like to talk to each other.

     These days, people are all over phones, emails, Facebook and more. They are texting each other. Communication between individuals has exploded. Think Angie's List, Instagram, LinkedIn and other social interactions.

     The Internet offers many opportunities to reach out. Use it to go beyond your current customer/client base to put your business in front of others. But there's even more.

     Example: Takesha opened her small neighborhood cafe offering meals based on family recipes. After the initial grand opening activity, business settled into a ho-hum routine. She knew that, if she could get more people through the door, they would become regulars--and bring even more. To spread the word, she had some special cards printed. One side showed a colorful picture of a plate overflowing with a meal. The other side was printed like a coupon--present the card and receive any menu item at half-price. The card was not to be used by the customer but passed to a friend, and there was an expiration date. Soon the cards began to come back in, and Takesha saw faces that she had not seen before. For the price of one half-priced meal, she doubled her customers, putting regulars to work in the field. She continues to use this method of getting referrals--not all the time, but at least twice each year.

     This simple method can work in all sorts of businesses. Fitness centers, bakeries, salons, wellness centers, health food stores, garden centers, and others can use the coupon to put current customers to work--bringing them back, or introducing their friends to the operation.

     Example: Robert runs a small construction company, handling projects building single family homes, clinics and professional offices. To grow, he actively follows up with clients on a regular basis. Two or three times each year, he calls or visits each of them, ferrets out any problems they might be having, nails down any expansions they might be planning--and asks for referrals. These follow-ups enhance Robert's reputation and keep his construction capabilities fresh in their minds. Dentists, doctors, accountants, lawyers and other business people know what's going on in the community, including upcoming construction opportunities, and they happily refer Robert to others. Robert has developed quite a referral network, and jobs regularly coming knocking at his door. 

     People naturally refer people to you. But you can do some simple things to keep the referrals moving faster.

     Example: A more aggressive variation is practiced by Kristin. She runs a printing operation serving regional clients--businesses, colleges and professionals. Kristin makes it a point to call every one of her customers every 3 months asking for 3 referrals. It's an old tactic used in the insurance industry, and it works. That phone call reminds Kristin's customers of her capabilities and, asking for referrals, prompts the customers to pass the word around. Subsequently, Kristin calls each of the referrals, introduces herself, and asks if she might mail or email some information on her company--or make an in-person appointment. In the course of five years, Kristin has expanded her operation twice, attributing much to her pursuit of referrals. Sometimes this method works beautifully, other times, not so much. You're playing the odds here. But if you don't try, you have no chance at all. 

     When you call asking for referrals, begin by asking if there's anything they need. Only later in that conversation do you ask for referrals--names and contact information.

     Referrals are the most important source of new business. Nothing else comes close by comparison. Throughout these write-ups I've talked about referrals. See "Increasing Referrals" and "Spreading the Word" and other earlier write-ups.   

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