Business OverviewIf you're the one everybody in your circle calls for help when they're trying to find a good doctor, attorney, plumber or cleaning service, and if you love being on the phone, then a referral service could be the business for you. You can specialize in one area or several, depending on your preferences and the size of your town. You might run an attorney referral service, matching callers to specialists in family, real estate or criminal law; a physicians' service matching up potential patients with pediatricians, cardiologists and other health-care specialists; or a homeowners' network, referring consumers to plumbers, painters, and cleaning and lawn care services. Keep in mind that most areas have attorney and physician referral services through local bar associations and hospitals--if you want to compete with these, you'll have to come up with a special niche that will bring consumers to you. You can also specialize in travel and tours, entertainment, apartment rentals, baby-sitters, real estate agents, bridal services--just about any service that people need help with. You can also run your referral service online instead of on the phone--or do both. The choice is yours. The advantages to this business are that you get to spend all day on the phone and you get to talk to lots of interesting people. It's a good idea to have some background or experience in the type of referrals you'll specialize in. You'll thoroughly screen the businesses on your list, finding out how they work and what they do best, then checking references so you know you're referring consumers to only the best, which means you'll need good communication and people skills.
The MarketYour customers will be both the businesses on your list and consumers who call in to get referrals, so you'll conduct your marketing campaign in two stages. First, investigate the businesspeople you'd like on your list. If they check out well, send them a sales letter or contact them by phone and explain that you would like to include them in your service. Sell them on the benefits. When you get a good list of referrals worked up, you'll need to attract consumers' attention so you can give your businesses their money's worth. The best way to go about this is to place prominent ads in the Yellow Pages under each category where people might look--if you're doing homeowner referrals, for instance, you'll want to place ads under lawn care, cleaning services, plumbing and the like. You can also place service ads in the classified sections of your local paper and post fliers where your target consumers will see them. If you're referring baby-sitters, put them up at kid-oriented areas like karate and dance academies, day-care centers, public libraries and parks. And don't forget churches and supermarkets for any type of referral service.
Needed EquipmentYou'll need a computer and database software capable of handling all the businesses on your list and a two-line phone with a telemarketer-type headset so your ears don't get sore. If you can't afford a computer for starters, you can get going with a good handwritten list and purchase your electronics later. Of course, if you're going with an online service, you'll have to have the computer as well as a good Web site.