Q: What can we do to win more referrals for our business? We see a lot of our competitors getting customers this way, but we don't seem to have the same luck.

A: When it comes to winning referral business, luck plays a smaller role than you may think. What matters most is cultivating current customers or clients and creating an ongoing program to generate referrals from "influencers."

Learn to Ask
Your first step is to communicate with your customers to let them know you're open to receiving referrals and what you're looking for. This may be done in person-when meeting or speaking with them on the telephone-and it's best to be direct. Let's say you write a newsletter for a division of a major corporation. When meeting with a department head with whom you regularly work, you could ask her to refer you to other divisions within the company that might benefit from copywriting services. If you have a good, solid working relationship and a happy client, she may be willing to make introductions for you throughout the company.

But sometimes this kind of direct request is difficult for entrepreneurs, and you may find you're more comfortable using comment cards, surveys or other forms of written communication with your customers to get referral names. A remodeling contractor, for example, could send a follow-up letter at the end of each project asking for feedback and include a section requesting referrals. Depending on your type of business, you may find it advantageous to offer an incentive to your current customers to provide referrals, such as a discount or rebate, when their friends or family members make a purchase or sign up for services.

Market to Influencers
Influencers are people who have direct contact with your primary prospects and can send them your way. For instance, real estate sales associates are major influencers for home inspectors, since many prospective homeowners rely on them to recommend an inspector before they make an offer on a home. Likewise, home security companies that install smoke detectors and other equipment often consider insurance agents major influencers, as they frequently recommend installing such devices when reviewing new policies with homeowners.

What types of businesses or individuals are major influencers for your company? There may be thousands in your area-as in the case of a home inspector who relies on referrals from real estate sales associates-or just a handful. Often, marketing to them can be as important as the campaigns you use to reach your prospective customers or clients. That's why it's essential to set up a program that includes a combination of sales contacts and marketing tactics to keep referrals coming in year-round. Since referral relationships are based on trust, it's vital to get to know your key influencers one-on-one. So you'll need to identify them, then call and set up meetings to get acquainted.

Once these relationships are initiated, it's important to nurture and maintain them by staying in contact by telephone, in person and through marketing tools such as direct mail, e-mail or by fax. A great way help your influencers send business your way is to supply them with marketing tools to use directly with your prospects. The home inspector, for instance, could create a "10 Point Inspection Checklist" with his company's name and contact information for real estate sales associates to use with prospective home buyers.

Set up a database with your referral list and schedule your ongoing activity in your contact management program just as you would contacts with prospective clients or customers. This will keep your program on track and important contacts from falling by the wayside.

The way you handle the referrals you receive will solidify your relationships with your sources. So be sure to keep your influencers in the loop with thank-you notes or calls and updates on the satisfaction of each referral they send your way. With a hard-working referral program in place, you won't have to rely on luck to win the business your company needs.