As a new business owner, you go to battle for every sale. Wouldn't it be great to have a steady stream of hot prospects calling you for a change? Referrals from consumers and other entrepreneurs can help put your new company on the map. But it takes more than just passing out business cards and spreading the word to friends and family. You need to build relationships with influencers--individuals who have the power to affect opinions about your company or who can make direct referrals when they're one-on-one with your best prospects.
Here are five ways to win referrals from your most important influencers:
Build Referral Relationships
Identify key influencers by networking, then arrange face-to-face meetings to get acquainted. Referrals are generally based on trust, so build relationships with influencers over time. After meetings, stay in contact via phone calls, letters, e-mail and soft-sell marketing tools such as news-letters. Be sure to add these influencers to a database and maintain ongoing contact with them as part of a regularly scheduled campaign.
Gather a Group of VIPs
When you treat influencers as VIPs, you gain an immediate referral army. And if this group has a special cachet, others will want to emulate them by using your products and services. For example, to win referrals for a teen product, you could create a list of hundreds of influential teens and make them the first to receive free product samples. To gain referrals to a high-end business audience, you could assemble an influential advisory board and ask members to send referral letters to their peers and make one-on-one introductions for you.
Target Professional Reviews
If you're marketing a product, media reviews can dramatically affect prospects' opinions. Well-placed media coverage will allow influencers to refer your business via online and print reviews. Make a list of the media your prospects look to for information on what you sell. Identify the right journalists, webmasters and bloggers, and send them press releases, product samples or pitch letters. Then follow up by phone or e-mail.
Get Online Referrals
Consumer products benefit from online peer-to-peer referrals. Many new social networking sites let you post products and have them reviewed and ranked by site visitors. These kinds of referrals are becoming more essential for businesses as the number of people using social networking sites continues to climb. And with a high percentage of Americans researching products and services online before making purchases, peer reviews are considered highly credible resources that have the power to influence sales.
Arm Influencers with Selling Tools
If your top influencers are businesspeople who come into direct contact with key prospects, give them tools that empower them to sell for you. Mortgage brokers, for example, provide Realtors with mortgage calculation sheets and other tools imprinted with their logos to give to prospective homebuyers. When you get a referral, it's imperative to keep the sender in the loop. Start with a thank-you card, then report on your progress. Once influencers know they can trust you to handle their referrals well, they'll continue to send you business year after year.
Contact marketing expert Kim T. Gordon, author of Maximum Marketing, Minimum Dollars: The Top 50 Ways to Grow Your Small Business, at smallbusinessnow.com. Her new e-book, Big Marketing Ideas for Small Budgets, is available at smallbizbooks.com.