Stop Feeling Weird: Referral Program Tips From the Pros

Written by Bethany Johnson on September 11, 2017

“I can’t, it’s too awkward.” I white-knuckled the phone, surprised by my own shaking voice. Where did this anxious, mousy version of myself come from? My business mentor had just suggested I ask current clients for referrals, and the confident, exuberant me vanished in an instant. Believe me, I was more than surprised by the sudden erosion in my usually proud demeanor.

The panic woke me up to a weakness in my business: I needed all the referral program tips and tricks I could get, and fast. The thought of approaching clients for referral work should energize me — not reduce me to a nervous mumbler.

That day, I set out to learn the best ways to speak up and snag high-level referrals from clients who, frankly, were already looking for ways to show their appreciation. Here’s what I learned.

Why It’s Weird

First, recognize the most common reasons why small business owners feel too awkward to ask clients for recommendations. According to U.K.-based marketing consultant and author Fraser Hay, many entrepreneurs feel like they’re imposing, taking advantage or risking rejection by asking for referrals, an observation that described my hesitancy spot-on. Thankfully, he also offers the remedy to these fears:

  • Deliver stellar work consistently, so you know you’re not asking clients to do anything but speak the truth.
  • Ask for referrals after you’ve produced measurable value, not before.
  • Connect, engage and reciprocate. Write your own referrals for a handful of colleagues. Even if those work buddies aren’t in a position to send you referral work now, they may in the future. Plus, the exercise boosts your own credibility.

Fear of rejection is illogical if you’ve already improved someone’s life. Handle nerves with rationale, and they’ll disappear in the face of hard facts.

My Success Story

Now that you’ve tackled common (and unfounded) worries and their sensible, fear-neutralizing counterparts, you’ll want to know whether requesting referrals actually works. Is it worth the effort?

Take inspiration from my story. Early in my freelancing career, I made about $400 per month moonlighting after clocking out of my nine-to-five. An unsolicited referral doubled that, increasing my work load by merely an hour each week. Of course, this piqued my interest, so I compared referral marketing against social media marketing, network marketing and email marketing. By far, a business recommendation from a satisfied client had the best potential to catapult my income — and with relatively little effort on my part.

I focused there and not only did it work, it generated its own momentum. Today I make more than twenty times what I did then. To this day, I get unsolicited offers from referred clients who are hungry for my expertise.

Making It Work

Before shooting off a few loose emails to contacts, sit down and put a little strategy into your campaign. Here are my favorite referral program tips that work like a charm:

  • Consider offering a freebie. Acknowledging your request will take valuable time away from your client’s busy day, so reciprocate that by offering to produce something for them free of charge. My clients usually turn down this offer as overly generous, which is a nice way to combat the feeling of selfishness that often creeps in when I start asking clients to put me in touch with others.
  • Cross-promote your client’s causes. One of my clients is a personal finance advisor, and I enjoy sharing his posts online — especially the lighthearted posts that don’t feel overly sales-driven. When I support his firm publicly in that way, he appreciates it, making him a good candidate for “the ask” when I’m ready to take on new work.
  • Automate it. If you’d like to get serious about referral marketing, think about investing in a tool like ReferralRock or Influitive to get more traction. Not only will you see measurable data, but you’ll also enjoy the benefits of having an expert team behind your referral marketing campaigns.

Why spend hours on cold pitches, email advertising, paid promotions or event outreach when your next client may be complaining to your favorite customer that they’re desperate for someone like you? If your next client is one favor away, now may be the time to tap your trusted network as the valuable resource it is.

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