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The Ten Commandments of Referral Generation

Keeping these essentials in mind will help you generate the leads your business needs to thrive.

Editor's note: This article is excerpted from Stop Cold Calling Forever!from Entrepreneur Press.

Getting a referral is a quantifiable, repeatable process. Once you get the basic principles down, you'll be able to repeat the process and achieve a predictable result--get the referral and aspire to the 40-percent [contact-to-appointment ratio] level you deserve. Once you get the basic principles down, you'll want to ask for referrals. That's a promise. The following Ten Commandments have served me so well over the years that I am going to urge you to read them at least once each and every week.

1. Understand your customer on a business level first. This is the beginning point. If you don't do this, you won't have a customer, period.

2. Understand your customer on a personal level. What drives this person? Makes him or her happy? Gets him or her riled up? Makes him or her cackle with glee?

Each and every person on the face of this Earth is unique and distinct in the sight of the Creator, but for some reason we salespeople have a disturbing habit of treating Contact A, who faces business problems similar to those of Contact B, as though he or she were Contact B.

Find out what special, distinctive, personal approaches your contact takes to business and to life in general. How does this person make decisions? Express opinions? Measure success? Set goals? What hobbies, sports, and avocations make this person's life more interesting?

The more you know, the better positioned you'll be to develop a truly meaningful relationship with each and every one of your customers, and that will lead you to the pot of golden referrals that they have for you.

3. Understand the products, services, and solutions they sell. Understanding what your customer's organization sells is just as important as understanding what you sell. Here are some ideas on how you can make this understanding a reality:

  • Make every possible attempt to use whatever it is that your customer sells.
  • Make every possible attempt to talk to a few of your customer's customers.
  • Make every possible attempt to purchase one share of stock in each of your customer's organizations.
  • Make yourself available to attend any and all of your customer's meetings that involve discussions of what you've sold.
  • Make every attempt to invite key players within your own organization to visit with your customers so that they, too, can get an insight into your customer's world.
  • Meet as many Decision Makers within their organization as you possibly can.
  • Read and frequently review your customer's mission statement.

4. Understand how to add value beyond what you sold them. This can be tricky, but it's essential. You'll have to do some digging and become what I call a thought partner to pull this one off. Here's how it works:

First, look beyond what you sold this customer and ask yourself: What other problems does this customer have that I may be of assistance in solving that do not involve my products, services, or solutions? Once you come up with an area or two, you'll have to find other salespeople and organizations that can solve those needs. To make this easier and less of a risk consider:

  • Contacting your own organization's suppliers.
  • Contacting suppliers of your other customers.
  • Joining a professional networking organization. Typically, these people and the organizations they represent are reliable, creditable, and won't disappoint you or your customer.

5. Show up for every single customer meeting on time. "Tony," you ask, "isn't this one pretty obvious? Isn't it second nature not to keep a customer waiting?" Yep. It's obvious. And maybe it should be second nature. But plenty of salespeople still let this one slide. Why? It's easy to get busy, darn busy, in this crazy business world of ours. All the same, there's very little that gets your customers more irritated than having to cool their heels while they wait for you.

So this point is worth emphasizing and re-emphasizing on a daily (or hourly) basis. Don't be late for anything that involves your customer. End of story.

6. Show up at every single customer meeting, prepared to address the topics on the agenda. If your customer expects you to be in attendance at a meeting, it behooves you to find out what it's about ahead of time. Don't waste everyone's time, effort, and energy by staring around the table blank-eyed and repeating the mantra of the unprepared: "Let me look into that for you." The more you can look into before the meeting, the more answers you'll be able to provide. The more answers you provide, the happier your customer will be. You know where this is going: The happier your customers are, the more referrals you'll get.

7. Drop in without an appointment rarely, and only when there is something of significant value to discuss. Yes, there are some situations where dropping in without an appointment makes sense as part of your initial contact method. But we're not talking about getting a share of the contact's attention now; we're talking about managing a relationship over the long term. That means respecting your customer's time. Never drop by for a chat because you happen to be in a customer's area. Use the means of contact for which your customer expresses a personal preference. In other words, ask customers what touch point appeals to them. When in doubt, always set up an appointment ahead of time.

8. Be proactive. This is a biggie. Being proactive in any relationship proves that you're a responsible partner. Here's how you can do it for your customers:

  • Have a physical and electronic file for each of your customers. Use a table of contents for each customer file that shows what is of interest to them.
  • As you read the local newspapers, trade rags, and/or the many e-zines that come your way, cut out anything you see that may be of interest to customers and paste it into their files.
  • Send it to them or deliver your "I thought you'd be interested in this" information on a regular basis.
  • Scan your own company's new product releases and future visions and keep your customers informed.
  • Invite line-of-business executives from your organization to visit with your customers, either virtually or in person.
  • Get your noncompeting customers together (here again, either virtually or in person) on a regular basis.

9. Follow up ahead of time. We touched on this in a previous chapter. Live by the rule: "Underpromise and over-deliver." Don't wait until the last minute. Don't procrastinate. 'Nuff said.

10. Return phone calls promptly. "I can't possibly return all these calls by the end of the day." You're right. You probably can't. Let's face it. A typical sales day includes more action items than you actually have time to complete. That means you'll need to prioritize your activities and not just "push the pile forward."

So let's get real. Some of the messages you receive from customers will fall into the "call me when you can" category; others will fall into the "emergency" category. Just make sure you're not putting off returning calls in the latter category.

I use the following categories to classify incoming messages:

  • Urgent: Must be returned within two hours.
  • Critical: Must be returned the same working day.
  • Important: Must be returned by the next working day.
  • Casual: Should be returned as soon as a slot arises.

Customers count on you to be there to talk to when things get weird, and if you don't come through for them, they won't come through for you. Remember, it's their checks that keep the lights on in your office and their referrals that will get you into the ranks of a 40 percent contact-to-appointment ratio. So adopt some way (you can take my example above if you like), and use it. Let your customers know how it works and ask them to put their request for your time and attention into the appropriate category.

By the way, if you're the kind of person who likes to leave personalized and date-stamped messages on your voice-mail system, make sure it's always up to date:

"You've reached Jill Somers' voice-mail box. For today, May 14, I'll be out of the office with clients all day. Please leave a message, and I'll return your call. Thanks, and have a great rest of the day."

Just make sure you keep it up-to-date.


Tony Parinello is the "Executive Sales" coach at Entrepreneur.com and has become the nation's foremost expert on executive-level selling. He's also the author of the bestselling book bearing the name of his sales training program, Getting to VITO, the Very Important Top Officer, 10 Steps to VITO's Office.He is also host of Club VITO, a weekly live internet broadcast.

Tony Parinello has become the nation's foremost expert on executive-level selling. He's also the author of the bestselling book bearing the name of his sales training program,Getting to VITO, the Very Important Top Officer, 10 Steps to VITO's Office,as well as the host of Club VITO, a weekly live internet broadcast.

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