I grew up in a small business household. My dad and his partner started with a single small carpet store and grew it to a chain of 15 stores. However, after a while, dad didn’t like how much management was involved in running an enterprise as big as his got and he eventually sold out to his partner. He started again at age 50 with a single carpet warehouse.
Inside that store, everything he had learned in 25 years of entrepreneurship was boiled down to a single banner that hung in the middle of the giant store:
“Our Word of Mouth Advertising Starts With You!”
Dad knew that no matter how much television, radio, and newspaper advertising they did (or, today, social media and Google ads), nothing matched getting a referral from a satisfied customer. Word of mouth (i.e., referrals) is a special marketing niche because it is in fact so powerful. Referrals are great because your best customers – those people who love your business, products, and brand – become your advocates.
These days of course, referrals are even more important, after all, what is social media if not a way to share your opinion with the world?
So that then begs the question: How do you get more referral business?
Here are 5 ways that work:
1. Be referral worthy: The bedrock, bottom-line rule is that if you want people to refer business to you, your business must be referral-worthy. That seems self-evident, but in fact it can be one of those things that can too easily be overlooked. People don’t refer business to boring or mediocre businesses, but they do refer business to companies that exceed their expectations and do something exceptionally well. So that is what you have to do if you want to get people to recommend you.
2. Work with your existing customers. According to John Jantsch, author of the book The Referral Engine, it is not enough to simply do your job well. “That is the minimum of what is expected of you,” he told me. No, instead, your business has to be so good that someone must learn about your business, trust it, try it, shop there, like it, and like it enough to do it again.
“Only when they become repeat customers will they refer business to you.”
Once they like you that much, then your job is to make it easy and worth their while to refer business to you. Create customer loyalty programs. Offer frequent buyer cards. Give people incentives for referring your business.
3. Connect: As indicated, people refer business to people they like and trust. If your business is fairly nondescript and anonymous, it won’t get many referrals, but if you personalize it and connect with your customers, you are far more likely to:
- Have a Facebook page that really engages people
- Interact with followers on Twitter
- Ask people in the store how you are doing
- Take frequent customer surveys
- Offer feedback forms on your site and on invoices
4. Create a strategic network: John Jantsch says that one smart way to get more referrals is to find companies similar to yours and start a referral network. Simple example: You go into a Laundromat and you see business cards on the counter for a florist down the street. At the florist, you see cards for the Laundromat.
Ideas along this line include:
- Working on joint projects
- Sending out promotions to each other’s network / list
- Offering free samples of their products and vice versa
- Have a joint sale
The beauty of this strategy is that it instantly doubles your reach. You are gaining a whole new audience, and with an introduction by someone they trust. Also, don’t just look for one strategic partner says Jantsch. “Look for many,” he advises.
5. Ask: On Amazon.com, my book The Small Business Bible has about 25 reviews, and online, a positive review is word-of-mouth gold. But not long ago, I noticed that a friend of mine has over 100 reviews for his book. So I asked him how that happened.
“I ask people,” he said.
Whether he is giving a speech or simply answering an email, he always says something like, “My new book is out, and I sure would appreciate it if you would take two minutes to review.”
It’s a lesson we can all use. Ask, and ye shall receive.
Steve Strauss is a senior small business columnist at USA TODAY and author of 15 books, including The Small Business Bible.