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The Bermuda Triangle That Eats Your Referrals

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When you own a small business, maybe even it's just you solo, then you don't have a whole marketing department to chase down new leads. You really depend on the good word of your clients, and the referrals they are willing to send you.

This is even more true in a down economy when people are more cautious than ordinary. You know that the trust that comes from a solid referral can mean more than any other type of marketing.

Years ago I certainly believed my clients when they told me: "I told this guy Frank that he had to call you." I didn't think they were lying to my face about the referrals they were sending. And yet, I never heard from Frank.

After the 10,000th time (it seemed) a client told me they referred someone who never contacted me, I began to call it "The Bermuda Referral Triangle" after the Bermuda Triangle's reputation.

So... where were they? Why didn't Frank, or Joan, or Amin, or Josephina ever call, despite glowing recommendations and urgings from their friends?

Why Bernard won't call you.

There are three distinct reasons why they don't.

1. Life is Pain.

Bernard was referred to you by Jane. Bernard is a busy person. Even if the pain of his problem is enough to get him to want to talk to you, he may be too overwhelmed to try to match up his crazy schedule to try reach you. He may remember at 3am on a sleepless night worrying about his problem.

He tells himself, "I'll call that number Jane gave me in the morning." And when morning comes... he's off and running too fast to call.

2. Uncertainty.

Does Bernard know why he's calling you? Does he know the best time to reach you? Does he know what's going to happen when he does call? Is it a sales pitch? Is it a coffee meeting? Is it a workshop? Is it three times as much as he can afford to spend?

He's uncertain, and people hate to act when they are uncertain.

3. Fear.

When you have a problem you can't solve, how do you normally feel? Incompetent? Helpless? Needy? Vulnerable? What kinds of things do you like to do when you feel incompetent, helpless, needy and vulnerable?

I bet that calling up a complete stranger to tell her your problems is not at the top of your list. And it's not at the top of Bernard's list either. So he'll procrastinate calling you until there's nothing else to do, except die.

Unfortunately, studies show that eight out of nine people would rather die than change. Not good odds for your referral program, eh?

And yet... it's not hopeless.

What can you do to counter-act the busy-ness, uncertainty and fear that stop referrals from reaching you? And can you get up the courage to ask for referrals in the first place?

Keys to Navigating the Bermuda Referral Triangle.

• A website cures a host of ills.

At 3am can they call you? No, but they can look at your website. That's obvious, but what's even more important is that whether it's 3am or 3pm the website also cures the fear.

It allows a referral to check you out anonymously, without worrying about being caught in a sales pitch, or talked into spending three times more than they were expecting to. You weren't going to do that to them, but they don't know that.

Does your website provide enough information to answer their questions AND enough of your personality and humanity to soothe their fears?

• Warm up to 'em.

A new referral who visits your website may well be your ideal client, and yet they may not be ready to sign up with you. It may take a week, a month, or a year before they are.

You'll want some way to stay in touch with them. Whether it's having them subscribe to your blog, or to an email newsletter, you want to be able to build a relationship with them over time, giving to them as generously as possible, until they can trust for themselves that you really are the right person to help them.

• Let your referrers know what you do.

Often a referral is like this: "Oh, you should talk to Joseph. Just give him a call." That leaves it up in the air for both the referree, and the referrer.

Take the time to inform your best clients and referrers -- how -- you would like to receive referrals, and how you will interact with folks who do contact you.

"No, don't tell them to call me directly, unless they are really motivated. Just urge them to get my free download off the website, and to sign up for the newsletter -- that will be the best for them. In fact, it's easiest if you forward them a newsletter of mine, so they can read and click immediately, without having to remember."

Or, another way it can be done:

"When you want to refer someone to me, tell them that I'm happy to schedule a 20 minute conversation with them on the phone, and we'll just talk about their situation and see if I have any insights or recommendations that might help."

That way, instead of just 'give Joe a call' they can say: "Joseph says he's happy to have a 20 minute conversation with any friend of mine, just to hear what's going on. Go ahead and schedule one, he won't bite."

To keep your valuable referrals out of the Bermuda Triangle, it's important to make it as safe and predictable as possible for strangers to approach you. That involves a website, some way to stay in touch with people who contact you, and educating those who want to refer to you.

And soon after, you may find that those referrals actually get the phone ringing.

The best to you and your business,
Mark Silver