When I was heading out to college, several of my elders told me, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” As it turns out, who you know really is key to getting good referral business…and referrals are the cheapest and most effective marketing tool out there.
Regardless of your business, you ought to work on building a good, solid referral network. There are a variety of sites and groups available to help you. For those new to business, tapping into groups and sites that offer networking opportunities can be invaluable. Even if you’ve been doing what you do for a long time, the time you’ll spend tending your network will return good business to you ten fold. You may even have a relatively good network, but expanding into my favorite dirt cheap networking groups will strengthen both your business and your value to your existing network.
First off, of course is Facebook. Look for and join any Facebook group pages specific to your field. Post often, of course, and get to know the others in your group. Likewise, update your Facebook company page often and become a follower of others in your network by liking their company pages. Linked In is another networking site that’s free and easy to use. Create your profile and connect with people in your field. Just as with Facebook, take the time to get to know others through your Linked In account and let them get to know you.
Too many people make the mistake of stopping with Facebook and Linked In. Don’t. Face-to-face networking is more powerful than its online cousins, even if it’s not completely free.
Business Networking International (BNI) is one example of a business networking organization that operates face-to-face. They meet weekly, taking time to teach all members about the ins and outs of referrals, and generally hold the ideal that all businesses can succeed through referrals. The overall cost comes out to about $40 per month, and they usually require a significant time commitment. You can visit a few different groups in your area before you sign on the dottted line. Once you decide to sign-up, plan to commit to at least a year with the group to get the most benefit. The rewards can be amazing.
Your local Chamber of Commerce is another networking opportunity. They generally offer a number of meetings, luncheons, and afterhours events where you can build relationships with others in your community with a focus on business. They’re generally fairly inexpensive and usually offer a listing in their memberhsip directory with your basic membership.
Lastly, look for opportunities to volunteer your services to your favorite local charity or non-profit organizations. Keep tabs on the numbeer of hours you volunteer, so you don’t get carried away with donating. Many charities and non-profits will let you leave business cards or fliers at their storefront or will offer you a free banner ad on their website or your logo where ever they display their sponsor’s logos. Plus, when you’re working with them, be sure to get to know the key players. Often, folks who run non-profits and charities are well-connected in the community. They can become terrific referral sources who will connect you to their connections.
Online or in-person, observing good business manners makes good sense. If you’re networking online, be sure to keep it professional. Don’t post pictures from last night’s party or complain about the mess your partner made in the kitchen this morning. Keep it positive, whether you’re online or in person. Even when you’re having a bad day, try to keep your attitude generally upbeat by focusing on whatever is going well. If you’re in-person, smile. It’s amazing how a simple smile can make a lasting impression on others.
Giving a Referral
When you’re giving referrals, you can make them more effective by listening carefully to the needs of the potential customer. Before you speak up, be sure you understand what it is he or she wants and that the business you’d like to refer him or her to can provide it. Once you’ve got a good handle on the potential customer’s needs and feel confident you’ve got a good business contact who can help, don’t be afraid to speak up.
Ask if he or she wants the name of a business or service provider who might be able to help out. Sometimes, folks already have friends, family, or other contacts in mind when they talk about their current needs. Sometimes, they’ve already gotten several referrals which may or may not have worked out. They may feel frustrated and not want to deal with referrals. More often, though, they’ll be glad you asked and happy to get a name from you.
Assuming your potential customer does want the referral, go ahead and offer it up. Ask if it’s okay for you to pass his or her information on to your business contact as well or if he or she wants to make the first contact. Some people feel shy about making first contact with a potential new business or service provider while others can feel badgered or hounded by a call. By asking, you set yourself up to turn what’s really a good lead or soft referral into a hard referral with a little follow-through on your part.
Be sure to take a little time, too, to text or email the contact information for the business or service provider who might be able to help to the potential customer either right away or within the next 24 hours. It’s easy to forget a new name, business name, or other contact information when you get it out of context. If you’re offering up the name of your favorite insurance salesperson to a fellow disc golfer on the course, she may not remember that name by the time you’ve finished your game, met for drinks afterward, and returned home. By taking a few moments to send her your insurance contact’s name and number, you’re making it easy for her to follow up on her own…and remember who passed her that name at the same time.
The follow-through that helps you turn your soft referral or lead into a hard referral is offering news of the referral to your business or service contact. Call, text, or email the details of the referral you gave to the business contact you suggested can help. For example, send your disc golf buddy’s name, number, and what it was she needed to your insurance salesperson. Be sure to include whether she’d like a call or if she would prefer to make first contact. That gives the business or service provider you referred a heads-up to expect a call and some context on what the potential customer needs so he or she can better turn that referral into a sale.
Know the Business Before Your Refer
There’s nothing more disheartening than getting a referral, especially a hard referral, for services or goods you cannot provide. That’s happened to me on a few occasions, and I can tell you it frustrated both me and the person who was referred.
Before you offer out referrals to anyone, it’s wise to know the folks you’re planning to refer and what they can truly do. You should know, for instance, if the writing coach you’d love to refer to the aspiring graphic novelist you just met actually works with graphic novelists, or if he’s really focused on helping writers of non-fiction with just a handful of traditional novel-writing clients who only write literature. There’s no sense in wasting either the aspiring graphic novelist’s or the writing coach’s time making the connection when it’s clear that it’d be a stretch at best for them to work together.
On the other hand, if you’ve taken the time to get to know your writing coach well, you may know that she’s always loved science fiction, and comic books in particular, but has never had the opportunity to work with graphic novelists. This could be exactly the referral that’ll launch her into the arena she’s longed to enter in a way that truly will benefit the aspiring graphic novelist as well. The key is, you took the time to know and understand your potential business or service providers, what they can or cannot provide, and how they want to grow their business. When you refer with that in mind, you’ll be doing both them and their potential customers a real service, one they’ll both likely return by referring you to their contacts as well.