Referrals are an invaluable source of new customers for small businesses. When a friend or colleague recommends your business, the selling is already done for you. Here’s how you can encourage existing customers to give you referrals and good reviews online.
Customer referrals are one of the leading sources of business for service contractors, consultants, and many other types of small businesses. When a customer is ready to hire a contractor or buy a product, they often start by asking family members, friends and business associates for recommendations. Alternately, they may have heard someone praising a product or service, or noticed a contractor working at a friend’s house or business, and ask those contacts how satisfied they were with the work.
Another thing they do before they making a purchase is go online and look for ratings, reviews and comments posted on social media pages, the Better Business Bureau, Angie’s List and similar resources.
As a small business owner, you probably realize that those personal recommendations, testimonials and good reviews are invaluable for your business. They help you acquire customers without having to “sell” people on hiring you. But if you’re not getting referrals and high ratings, what can you do about it? Here are 13 strategies that work.
How to Get Referrals and Recommendations
1. Be worthy of referrals.
This should be a no-brainer, but one of the reasons homeowners and businesses look for and rely on referrals to find contractors is because they’ve had bad experiences or heard stories from friends and associates about contractors that did bad work, were unreliable, untrustworthy or unprofessional. Among common customer complaints are:
- Not showing up when you said you would
- Not answering your phone or returning calls
- Hidden costs or extra charges that weren’t in the contract
- Leaving jobs partially finished when they could have been completed without delay. (For example: you pave half of a patio, then leave midday to go start another customer’s job.)
- Making promises you don’t keep
- Taking much longer than estimated to finish jobs
- Not fixing problems that develop. Your customers won’t have anything good to say about you if you don’t acknowledge and fix problems in a timely manner. (Worse, all the bad things they have to say may wind up on review sites and social media.)
- Making and leaving a mess
- Doing a poor job
2. Build a referral network.
In many occupations, a variety of separate skills and independent contractors are often needed to complete a job. Get to know these people in your field (i.e., if you’re a carpenter, get to know the good electricians and plumbers, for instance), and then talk to them about referring business to one another. Be sure the people in your network are worthy of referral, since your customers will be unhappy if you refer them to someone who doesn’t do a good job.
3. Go that “extra mile” for customers.
While it doesn’t make sense to spend a lot of time or money doing non-billable work for customers, if you’re doing a major project for a client, doing a small, extra task at no charge can get you some great referrals. For example, a home improvement contractor was finishing a basement for a family and noticed that there was no handrail on the two steps leading to the front door of the home. One of the homeowners had trouble climbing stairs, so the contractor built the customer a railing for the front steps at no charge out of materials he had left over from another job. The homeowner was so pleased with the way the basement came out and the fact this contractor added the outdoor railing at no charge that he mentioned the contractor’s name to several friends, and the contractor wound up getting several new jobs as a result.
4. Ask satisfied customers for referrals.
Your customers may love what they bought from you, but they may not think about referring you to anyone, if you don’t ask them to. The time to ask is right after you’ve finished their job, or completed a sale. Be specific when you ask. Don’t just ask the customer to tell their friends about you. Ask if they know anyone who’s looking for your services, and if they say yes, ask if they’ll give you the person’s name.
5. Give a few business cards to customers when you’ve finished their job.
That way they won’t have to write out your business name and phone number if friends ask for recommendations. They can just hand them a card. Include a magnetized business card or two, particularly if you perform services for consumers. Those may get used to tack up notes on the fridge, making your name and phone number easy to find.
6. Ask customers if they’ll review your business online.
If they say “Yes,” help them to take action by sending them an email that includes a link they can click on to rate your site on your Google or on other social media sites on which you’d like reviews.
7. Turn verbal testimonials into published ones.
If a customer praises your work to you in person, ask them if they would post the comment on your social media page. If they agree, write down the comment and send it to them in email along with the link to post it. That way they just have to copy and paste – they don’t have to try to remember what they told you or think of anything new. Another option: ask the person for permission to post the comment they made as a testimonial on your website.
8. Use your vehicle to get referrals.
One way to get referrals is to have your business name and logo seen in a lot of places. One way of accomplishing that – particularly in small towns – is to be sure the name and phone number are prominently displayed on your vehicle. If you’re using a vehicle that you don’t want to have painted with your business name (your family car or van, for instance) get magnetic signs and attach those to your vehicle.
9. Use yard signs on jobsites to get referrals.
If the nature of your business is such that the work you do at job sites spans several days or weeks, set up yard signs on the properties you’re working at. The signs should be large enough so your name and phone number can be read from the road. That way curious passersby (and in most neighborhoods, that will be pretty much everyone who passes by) can see who is doing the work without contacting the property owners.
10. Reward customers who refer new customers to you.
The type and size of the reward would depend on the types of jobs (and their cost) that you normally do. A company that installs air conditioners and heat pumps in homes gave a customer a $100 Visa® gift card after they got an $18,000 job as a result of the customer’s recommendation.
11. Thank people who refer new clients or patients.
If the nature of your business doesn’t lend itself to rewarding people for referrals (or if doing so is prohibited by law or industry standards), send a handwritten note thanking the person for their referral. Doing so accomplished two things. It shows the person who made the referral that you appreciate them. And, it shows the person who made the referral that their customer, client, or patient followed up on their suggestion.
12. Be active in community groups and projects.
The owner of a landscaping and lawn service sponsors a community beautification program each year that plants flowers along a main road in the town. A woman who creates and sells gift baskets gives gift baskets to several community groups to raffle off at fund raising events. The events include her business name in the promotions for the auctions. Just showing up regularly and talking with other members of local groups will help you get known and recommended, too.
13. Deal proactively with complaints.
Even though you strive to do be excellent at what you do, you may still get an occasional complaint from a customer. Sometimes things just go wrong. When they do, fix the problem as quickly as possible. If you’re dealing with an irate customer whose complaint you think is unfounded, you should still politely try to resolve the dispute (and keep a record of the things you offered to do, and their response.) The reason: Unhappy customers don’t just complain about their experience to friends and family, they go online and post negative reviews on your social media pages, social media review sites, the Better Business Bureau, and other places, effectively spreading a negative review about you to thousands of possible customers. If you make a good-faith effort to solve their grievance, it may keep them from posting negative reviews.
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