There's no better way to win clients than through referrals. Customers -- rightly -- worry about wasting their money on ineffective solutions or providers who can't deliver. Having a trusted colleague of theirs vouch for you takes the risk off the table. The conversation is no longer about your background or your credibility -- it's about how you can get similar results for them. Referrals make the selling process dramatically easier, because you're no longer "selling" -- the customer is coming to you, eager to buy. But how do you obtain these elusive referrals?
Some professionals believe that quality work speaks for itself. If only it were so. Unfortunately, in a world teeming with competitors, you can't afford to keep your head down and simply do a good job. If that's your strategy, an occasional referral might come your way by accident, but you're leaving money -- gobs of it -- on the table. Instead, you need to actively pursue referrals. That doesn't mean you have to become a sleazy operator, constantly "on the make." But it does mean you need to develop a clear referral strategy you feel comfortable implementing. Here are five proven strategies to get you started:
1) Give to Get. This one may be the easiest for the referral-shy to master. Train yourself to ask for referrals by giving them to other people. The secret is to develop a "connecting mindset." It's not often that someone will say to you, "I really need a strategy consultant. Who should I hire?" That may be obvious enough that you spit out the right answer (Dorie Clark, of course!). But more often than not, you have to be creative and find the opening to be helpful. It's not about fobbing off a recommendation on someone -- it's truly providing value by making someone's life easier. Your friend mentions how much she cares about the environment? Offer to connect her with the eco-friendly event planner you just met. A colleague is complaining about his aching back? It just so happens you know an ergonomic consultant! The more connections you make for others, the more they'll want to pay you back, in a virtuous circle.
2) Do Folks Actually Understand What You Do? You might assume everyone knows what you do for a living. Odds are, they have no clue. Most people are too self-absorbed to clue in, so you need to make sure they get it. One good strategy -- in line with the "give to get" theory above -- is to ask for clarification about what they do and who their ideal clients are, so you can be on the lookout for them. That provides an excellent opening for you to clarify that because you do wealth management, you're looking to work with high-net worth individuals, or because you're an audiologist, you're looking for clients 50-70 who care about their health.
3) Create a schedule. As Stephen Covey might say, it's easy to neglect the important in favor of the urgent. Unless you hire a coach, no one is going to make you ask for referrals. It seems so much easier to focus on the meeting tomorrow, the report for next week, or picking a new photo for your computer's wallpaper. But you have to be disciplined, because -- frankly -- it's a numbers game. The percentages will vary from industry to industry, but you're going to have to ask 10, or 100, or 1000 people, in order to get one new client. But that one new client may pay for all the effort, many times over. Create an outreach schedule and stick to it. Whether it's three "touches" a day, or 10 every Friday, and whether it's phone or email or messenger pigeons, you need to get it done.
4) Prioritize your asks. You probably know a lot of people, and you can't contact them all at once (well, you can, but a blast email isn't going to be that effective). Start with current and past clients, and work your way out to other business associates who have seen you in action and can testify powerfully to the kind of work you do. Later on, you can ask your hairdresser and dentist for referrals. Why not? You never know who they know.
5) Know what to ask for. Most people, if you have a good relationship with them, really want to help you. The problem is, they may not know how -- so you need to guide them with very specific requests. Make it explicit what kind of value you bring and what kind of clients you're looking for ("I help companies build their brands and increase sales, so if you know any business owners or high-level executives who might benefit from that, I'd appreciate it if you could introduce us"). And if there's a particular way they can help, be sure to let them know ("Marianne, I understand your firm has regular professional development conferences. I often speak to companies like yours about sales techniques -- do you have advice on how I might be able to break in, or know anyone I could talk to about this?").
"Sales" -- and all its ingredients, like obtaining referrals -- has a bad name in our society. That's your gain. If you practice these steps diligently, you're ahead of the 95% of businesspeople who know they should be doing it but let fear and trepidation get the better of them. Sales, really, is about providing value to people who need it. As long as you keep that in mind, you should never be afraid to ask who else you can help.
Dorie Clark is a marketing strategist who teaches at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business. She is the author of Reinventing You and Stand Out, and you can receive her free Stand Out Self-Assessment Workbook.