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Smart Ways to Win Referrals

Increase your sales with this step-by-step advice for creating a steady flow of customer referrals.

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Referrals. Everyone wants them, yet few people really understand how to win them. Sometimes it may seem as if all your competitors are benefiting from strong referrals and word-of-mouth--you wonder how they manage to get so lucky. The truth is, luck has very little to do with it. It all hinges on making the right connections with "influencers" and "influentials."

Influencers are generally other business professionals who work one-on-one with your best prospects. They have the ability to make recommendations that can result in almost immediate referrals and sales. Insurance adjusters are important influencers when it comes to sending business to roofing contractors and autobody shops, for example. Mortgage brokers depend heavily on real estate agents who act as influencers on homebuyers. Get the idea?

Influentials may be members of the press or consumers who are viewed as being on the cutting edge in a particular area, such as new technology. Editors who write product reviews for websites are influentials. And we all have friends or family members who are looked to for the latest information, whether it's on the newest restaurant or nightclub, or the best baby stroller.

The kind of marketing campaign you develop to win referrals for your business will depend on whether you're marketing to influencers or influentials. To win referrals from influentials, try this:

  • Use media relations. If your key influentials are members of the media, you'll need a PR program that targets them. Make a list of the editors or journalists at the print publications, websites and blogs that have the greatest influence over your customer base. Then feed them press releases, story ideas and articles for publication as well as products to review. Go the extra mile to uncover each journalist's special needs and interests, and tailor what you send accordingly.
  • Add a blog. Depending on what you market, you may want to create your own company blog. This is a great way to reach influentials who have a specific interest in your company's product area. You can post product reviews, commentary and customer feedback. If your blog is a hit, it will attract the kind of visitors who enjoy sharing their opinions and influencing others.
  • Create your own "board." If you really want to shape opinion within your target market, you need to identify individuals who have the ability to spread the word. Then you can enlist them--formally or informally--to act as your frontline ambassadors or as a special core of users to receive the inside scoop on your latest offerings and access to special perks. This group can also be used to help you shape new products or promotions. From this core group of influentials, the buzz will spread like ripples in a pond.

For a successful campaign to reach influencers, you should try this:

  • Build relationships. Before an influencer will send referrals your way, she has to feel confident that you will handle them well. This requires a foundation based on trust that won't be built overnight. You'll need a campaign that combines sales and marketing and touches your referral prospects often.
  • Initiate contacts. If you're a business-to-business marketer, make a list of individuals who come into direct contact with your best prospects. Then contact them by phone to set up meetings to discuss how you can assist each other. These may be individuals you've met through networking, or you may need to make cold calls to other business professionals whom you believe will be great sources of referrals. If you're marketing to consumers, get into the habit of asking them for referrals. You can do this in person or through marketing tools such as follow-up surveys and company newsletters.
  • Create a database. Add the names of your influencers to your marketing database and track your activity. It's important to maintain contact without becoming a pest. This requires a mix of sales and marketing, such as by initiating contact with a sales call, following up by mail, sending an e-mail or following up with a phone call, sending a monthly newsletter, and so on. It may take six months to a year for your activities to bear fruit, so patience is important.
  • Supply helpful tools. In some instances, you may be able to create informational tools for your influencers to use with prospects. In addition to being helpful, handy tools, these pieces should contain your company name, logo and contact information. As you develop relationships with your influencers, be sure to get their input on how you can create tools that will work best for them.
  • Give feedback. Influencers want to know that the referrals they send you are being well cared for. So keep them in the loop, and let them know how you're meeting the needs of your mutual customers or clients. This will ensure they send additional referrals your way.

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