Make Your Business a Referral-Generating Machine

We all know how valuable referrals can be to our growth, and we all want more of them. But getting referrals is a notorious challenge for many entrepreneurs. Even those who do generate word-of-mouth business often don't really understand why those referrals come their way -- or how to go about getting more of them in a systematic, strategic manner.

Generating a steady stream of high-quality referrals is essentially the mission of Bill Cates, author of Get More Referrals Now and Beyond Referrals. Known in many circles as the "king of referrals," Cates has spent two decades building, honing and perfecting a system for generating new business from existing clients -- a system that has lead to amazing results for thousands of businesses both large and small.

Cates believes that referrals are more important than ever in today's environment, where your potential customers are being hammered by thousands of marketing messages a day. A trusted referral that cuts through that noise can be invaluable to you and the consumer.

With that in mind, here are three key moves that you can make right now that will boost your referrals -- and could even ensure that you never have to market yourself again.


1. Identify the real referral givers among your clients.

It sounds counterintuitive, but your satisfied and loyal clients may not be reliable referral sources. For example, research on financial advisors by Advisor Impact showed that while nearly 80% rated their advisors at least an 8 of 10 in terms of overall satisfaction, just 29% provided a referral in the preceding 12 months.

To get a steady stream of ideal referrals, you need to have clients who are truly engaged with you and your offering. In that same study noted above, 100% of the clients identified as engaged clients gave at least one referral.

2. Enhance your referability.

Obviously, then, you want to take steps to enhance your referability by creating hugely engaged clients. Here's how to turn a merely content client into an engaged one who is highly likely to refer:

  • Create an initial process that is referable. Create value for the client from the start instead of just trying to make the sale. Having an onboarding process that fosters your referability helps create that feeling of engagement right away. Cates cites one example: Talk about what the future of the relationship between you and the new client will look like. "Lay out for them your client promise -- how you'll stay in touch, how often you'll meet for business purposes, when and where you'll meet and so on," says Cates. "What occurs is that they'll start to feel that sense of engagement before you actually even do any of those things for them."

  • Deliver responsive service. Great service is table stakes -- it won't increase your referability, but your referability will plummet if you don't deliver it. Beyond that, always be looking for ways to add more value to your clients on a regular and systematic basis.
  • Create a business friendship. Give clients a sense that you care about more than just the core work that you do together. If someone comes to visit with you, for example, don't just walk them to the elevator or the door -- walk them to their car. When you get outside the building, you'll find that all of a sudden the conversation changes. Client appreciation events and celebration events also go a long way to creating engagement that sparks referrals.
  • Open the curtain. Start talking to clients about bringing your value to other people in their lives that they care about and what that value proposition would look like. Educate clients about your business and your vision of what you want to accomplish. When you talk to them about your vision and goals, always explain them in a client-centric way that spells out what your vision will mean to people you serve. Clients are more likely to feel engaged with you (and make referrals) if they feel you want to help new clients -- not simply add new clients so you can help yourself.
  • These types of actions create true engagement. Clients see your value, they know who you are trying to serve and they feel the passion you have for the work you do. And as clients become more engaged, they become your advocates -- actively involved in helping you help more people by telling their closest friends and associates about you.

    3. Ask for introductions.

    Highly engaged clients are more likely than non-engaged clients to voluntarily provide introductions to prospects. But as the saying goes, if you really want something you need to ask for it. Cates recommends a process called VIPS that will help ensure you don't appear to be begging or putting pressure on your clients.

    • Value. Check in with clients about your relationship and ask them to discuss the specific aspects that they have found to be most valuable. Based on their responses, ask them how they feel they are progressing toward their goals and what else they seek from you.

  • Importance. Treat your referral request with the appropriate level of importance. Come at the request from a place of confidence knowing that your goal is to help other people like your clients achieve their goals. Set aside enough time during your discussion so that you're relaxed and don't appear to be rushing through a sales pitch. And if the client is someone you met via a referral, remind them of that face.
  • Permission. Then ask the client for permission to brainstorm. You might say, "Would it be OK with you if we brainstorm for a bit about anyone you know who might value the work I do, just as you value it?" This will tee up your request as a collaborative discussion with no pressure put on the client.
  • Suggest names or categories of names. You might suggest specific people the client has told you about in the past. You can also target specific names by seeing who the client is connected to on social media outlets such as LinkedIn or Facebook. Alternatively, you can suggest a broad category of people you know the client works with or associates with (such as other professionals in his office). You can also describe your ideal client and ask if the client knows anyone who fits the description.
  • Referrals don't just happen. You have to grow and cultivate engaged relationships with your clients, then approach them with a systematic plan in place. Do those things, and you'll build a true referral machine that generates all the business you need to soar.

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