Your marketing toolbox probably includes your blog, e-newsletters, social media, face-to-face networking - all the usual suspects. But to really grow your business, developing a steady stream of qualified, intentional referrals should be the tool at the top of the box. Of all your marketing initiatives, generating referrals takes the least amount of time, costs almost nothing and yields the greatest results.
When a close friend tells you about a new restaurant, there's a pretty good chance that you'll take the recommendation seriously and give the place a try, right? Now turn that power of referrals from "trusted others" into a marketing force that works for your design business. Your most satisfied, enthusiastic clients are your biggest fans, and each of them also is a trusted other for an untapped network of potential clients who are just waiting to hear about you from their friends.
Good word of mouth can transform a business. But if you don't pay attention to who's talking about you and what they're saying, you may attract the wrong prospects - or none at all. Your goal in generating referrals is to control the process. And for that to happen, you need a system that produces qualified referrals from your best clients on an ongoing basis.
People are willing to make referrals not because they want you to make more money or grow your business, but because they want to help their friends. Your clients will think about recommending you when they encounter someone else who needs design services. Harness this natural human drive by making it easier for your best clients to be your representatives in the world because they believe that what you do serves others and they want to be part of that helping cause.
A referral system will be most effective if it supplements an existing marketing machine for your business. So for the sake of this article, I'm going to assume that you have a marketing infrastructure in place that supports your expertise and showcases your talent. What you say about your business will support what other people say about you. Furthermore, your own marketing will encourage referrals through the effect of what I like to call "The Three R's" - when people see your marketing they react, remember and recommend.
When you truly serve your clients and help them transform their businesses and experience success, they will naturally want to tell others. Serving your clients well and doing exceptional work is the foundation to cultivating good referrals. As simple as it sounds, holding yourself to the highest standards and providing the best work possible to every one of your clients is step No. 1 in the process. Clients won't refer you based on a merely good experience; they refer based on an exceptional experience. Ask yourself: "Are my clients astonished by my work?" If you strive to wow people with the work you create, you'll naturally put the wheels of referrals in motion.
Many creative professionals are either afraid to ask their clients to refer them or don't ask properly. They worry that they might come across as desperate, so they don't ask at all. Or they ask in such a general way ("Would you mind handing my business card out to people you know?") that the client doesn't know what to do with the request.
You can get over these feelings if you re-frame the intent of your request. Feelings of desperation come from thinking that you're asking the client to help you. Instead, frame the "ask" as an offer to be a resource for helping your client help somebody else. Then, further help your client by being specific about exactly the kinds of services that you can provide to the people they might refer you to.
Come from a place of true service to others. Share with your clients the joy and satisfaction you get when you see their business thrive through the work you do for them. Then ask them if they can think of anyone else that could benefit from a similar experience. That's a powerful question. It's not about you. You're asking them if they want to help someone else.
In your request, help the other person understand what kind of people and companies you serve best. Be specific. Instead of saying "Do you know anyone in the nonprofit industry that could use our help?" try: "Our best work happens when we work directly with marketing managers in small to mid-size nonprofits who are looking to grow their donor base and promote fundraising events. Is there anyone you know that could use help with this type of challenge?"
Finally, ask your client to make the introduction for you. You want them to call their contact and share their experience of working with you. A personal phone call is far more powerful than an e-mail.
When you finish a major project, promptly thank your client for their business, and use that as an opportunity to open the door to referrals. With the thank you, ask them if they'd be open to passing along some information about your agency (most would be delighted) and give them the tools to do so. Send them brochures, business cards or any other promotional items that would help them make a connection on your behalf. Remember, your raving fans become your marketing agents. Help them help you.
The thanks don't stop with you. When you land a new client based on a referral, ask them to call the person who recommended them to you to say thanks, as well. That contact shows the person who referred you the great impact they had on someone's life. And the double thanks feels double great.
This part of the referral process is the one most creative professionals overlook, and yet they still somehow hope that others will think about them. How would anyone who refers you know the truly great impact of your work if you don't tell them about it?
Make it a point to contact the people who recommend you on an ongoing basis and inform them of the progress of your work with their friend. That relationship building and goodwill leads to more referrals.
The easiest, cheapest, most effective tool in your marketing toolbox is waiting to be used. You're likely sitting on a database of raving fans who would be happy to refer you to others if you reminded them that you're interested and available. You're already providing great service, right? Ask your best clients to connect you with someone else who needs your help, and thank them when they do. Finally, when you've started work with that new customer, get back to the old client with regular information on how it's going. You'll be keeping the wheels of referrals in motion.
Peleg Top is a business development coach and a love advocate. He helps entrepreneurs and managers in the creative industry become better leaders, better communicators and better human beings. Get more advice and other goodies from Peleg in your inbox here »