Don’t Wait for Word of Mouth

Article by C.J. HaydenProfessionals and service business owners who have been operating for a while always say they get most of their clients by word of mouth. But if you’re relatively new in business, no one is talking about you yet. How can you start building word of mouth right away instead of just waiting for it to happen?

The fastest and most effective way to do this is by actively working to generate referrals. A referral acts as an endorsement for your business. A prospective client who is referred to you by someone they trust is much more likely to hire you than a client you attract through advertising or promotion. Referred clients are also much less likely to question your credentials or your pricing, so you can close the sale more quickly.

Referrals come from a wide variety of sources, including satisfied customers, your friends and family, colleagues and competitors, and business owners who share the same market niche as you. Here are a few ways you can work with each group to increase the number of referrals they give you.

1. Satisfied customers are typically your best source of referrals. When your list of past clients is short, you’ll need to put more effort into keeping in touch with each one. After completing a client project, give your clients a call a few weeks afterward to ask how well what you did is working out for them. Invite former clients to coffee or lunch, or to business or social events you’re planning to attend. Consider hosting an annual open house or free workshop to thank clients for doing business with you.

Don’t contact past clients just to ask them to refer you more business. Instead, contact them regularly with information, resources, or invitations that they will find valuable. These contacts can take the form of a regular newsletter or ezine, periodic updates sent by mail, or a postcard series. To generate the maximum number of referrals, you should be in touch once per month, but make sure it’s at least three to four times per year.

2. Personal friends and family can send plenty of business your way if they know enough about what you do. Don’t be afraid to include them on your mailing list and invite them to your business events. They already know and love you, and will be happy to help your business grow — just ask them.

Since these people may not understand your business well, tell them exactly what kind of clients you are looking for, and when a referral might be appropriate. For example, a chiropractor might suggest that his family members refer people when they hear them complain of back pain or headaches, or about an injury from an auto accident. A technical writer could tell her friends that a good referral for her would be someone in the high-tech or financial services field who mentions the upcoming release of a new product.

3. Colleagues and competitors will refer you clients under many circumstances. Perhaps you have a specialty or expertise that they don’t, or they have more business than they can handle at times. Get to know other people in your field through your professional association or a local business network. Ask colleagues you already know to introduce you to others. Or just look them up in a directory and make contact.

Propose a referral partnership, where the two of you will be on the lookout for clients you can potentially refer to each other. Not everyone will be open to this idea, but you’ll find that some people will be enthusiastic about it. Keep in mind that the only real difference between a colleague and a competitor may be your attitude about them.

4. Business owners who share your market niche are in contact with your prospective clients all the time. If you can form referral partnerships with a variety of businesses in different fields but the same market, you will create a far-reaching referral network. For example, a marketing consultant might get to know graphic designers, business planning consultants, bankers, and accountants, all of whom have regular contact with businesses looking to grow.

Spend some time brainstorming about the categories of businesses that serve your marketplace, and begin to seek these people out. Ask the people you already know who they know. You could gain introductions to many accountants, for example, just by asking your friends and colleagues who does their taxes. If the referral relationship you are offering is reciprocal, savvy entrepreneurs will welcome your approach, even if they don’t yet know you.

Finally, to generate more referrals from every group, remember to thank the people who refer business to you, even when a referral doesn’t turn into a client. The more thanks you give, the more referrals you will ultimately get.

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