Marketing Bootcamp

6 Hacks to Drive Massive Referrals

6 Hacks to Drive Massive Referrals
Image credit: Cavale Doom/Flickr

Referrals and gifts are huge in business, but they’re often handled in all the wrong ways. Attempts to elicit referrals sometimes seem forced or in poor taste and can do more harm than good.

Related: Potential Referrals Are All Around You. Pay Attention.

So, instead of following those broken formulas -- pleading requests, in-your-face ads, cheap gift cards -- build brand equity using these six best practices:

1. Actually surprise and delight.

“Surprise and delight” is one of the most overused phrases in marketing, but it works. To truly surprise a client, you can’t just meet expectations; you have to exceed them.

My friend Brian Scudamore owns a slew of unsexy companies, but he’s dominated those industries by finding little ways to wow clients. For his painting business, for example, he makes sure fresh flowers are waiting when the job is done and the customers arrive home. With his moving company, his employees call families in advance to take their orders for Starbucks. Such low-cost investments often drive more referrals than the companies’ primary services.

2. Realize that 'it’s not about you.'

When working with affluent clients, understand the psychology behind the referrals they give. They’re not doing it for some kind of kickback: They simply believe that your services would be useful to their friends or families.

Make your clients feel like they’re being taken care of, then -- not bribed. If you decide to send a gift, send it “just because” at a later date, not as appreciation for the referral. If someone refers a million-dollar client to you and you return the favor with a bottle of wine, your gesture is going to seem transactional.

3. Focus on the inner circle.

Clients aren’t islands; they have significant others and families and friends. These inner circles have more influence on your clients than you could ever hope to have. The same applies to assistants. They may not be gatekeepers for referrals, but they’re definitely game-changers.

When I was working with my first NBA team, I made sure that the team's office assistant received just as many gifts as the CEO. Six months later, she helped me land meetings with five other team department heads, eventually scoring us a six-figure deal. Treating the assistant like an equal inclined her to open more doors for me.

Related: 5 Ways to Make It Rain Referrals

4. Stop asking for referrals.

It makes my skin crawl when I read, “The finest compliment you could give me is a referral to your friends and family” on a business card or email signature. If you need to beg for a referral, do you really deserve one? People naturally refer businesses they’ve had good experiences with. Focus on the experience, not the presentation.

A top Cutco distributor recently decided to put a magnetic sign with his logo and contact info on the side of his car. I asked him, “Are the one or two leads a year you might receive from that really worth appearing tacky to the thousands of other people who'll see it?” He quickly reconsidered and pulled the magnet off.

5. Don’t devalue the deed.

One of my CEO-consultant clients told me about a time he waived his speaking fee for a prestigious event. The event organizer sent him a nice handwritten note, but made the mistake of including a $25 Amazon gift card with it. What kind of message did that send? “Thanks for donating your $20,000 speaking fee; here’s $25.”

Transactional gestures cause recipients to subconsciously add things up, making gifts feel unbalanced. Even a $200 gift card to a nice restaurant feels like a bribe if you’re a financial advisor earning a 1 percent management fee. Instead, send a genuine handwritten thank-you note, and acknowledge the referral.

6. Become an expert.

When you yourself reach expert status, the barriers start to drop. Speaking at any event obviously brings in referrals and leads, but it also boosts credibility. Recently, I spoke at a professional sports conference and landed a speaking gig at Google. When my clients heard that, I became a commodity they wanted to show off to their friends.

Your customers are real people, and sabotaging your own brand equity will only make them think less of you. Instead, focus on the little things; this will actually help you build more meaningful, long-term relationships -- no $20 gift cards required.

Related: 3 Ways to Boost Word of Mouth and Referrals for Your Business