[Updated: August 2022]
Once you receive a referral… you just know.
In an instant, something shifts in how you see your business. You see the potential to grow your business with greater ease and less stress, because your new clients are being referred to you.
The holy grail of sales is generating new clients by referral.
Because it is by far the easiest way to grow your business.
Referrals are valuable because the prospective new client knows they have a problem that needs to be solved. They trust you to solve their problem – even before meeting you – because they trust the person who connected them to you. And because they trust you they are less price sensitive, typically easier to close and value you more.
You may have come to believe through experience that referrals just happen, are sporadic, and not consistent. Or maybe you’ve been taught to generate referrals you have to ask for them constantly, or network continuously to know a ton of people, pay kickbacks or use a referral gimmick* to generate referrals.
(*A referral gimmick is typically something you create, like a book or PDF guide, that you give to others to hand out to their clients so when they pass along your book (your gimmick), it’s an attempt to recommend you.)
You don’t need a referral gimmick.
Or pay an under-the-table kickback.
You don’t have to network continuously to know a ton of people.
And you don’t have to ask.
But referrals don’t just happen either.
Based on the results of my clients plus my own experience and success – if you’re receiving referrals – it’s important you know the 5 steps to follow to generate more referrals from your existing referral sources naturally.
Before we dive into unpacking the 5 steps you need to follow, let’s first get clear on the basics of referral sources and what it means to create and deliver a referral experience. Without the referral source basics and and referral experience, the 5 steps I teach in this article won’t work.
This article is broken down into four sections to aid you in putting all the pieces together.
Let’s dive in!
Section 1: Referral Source Basics
Section 2: Creating a Referral Experience
Section 3: Five Steps to Generate More Referrals
Section 4: Referral Success Case Study
SECTION 1: REFERRAL SOURCE BASICSEveryone deserves referrals, but you are not owed them. Click To Tweet
The most important fundamental you need to know if you want more referrals, is that while you deserve referrals, you’re not owed them.
Meaning you need to earn them.
There is a process to receiving referrals, especially if you want them consistently. First you have a Referable Client Experience and second, you have to have strategies in place to generate referrals naturally.
One of those strategies to generate referrals is our ability to get more referrals from our existing referral sources. Let’s unpack what I mean by that.
Defining Referral Sources
Let’s start by defining what a referral source is. A referral source is another person who refers a potential new client (prospect) to you. Best case scenario, they connect you via email or text to the prospect and the prospect knows they have a problem you can solve, which is why they are willing to be connected to you.
All of your referral sources have names – meaning a networking group didn’t refer you, someone in that networking group referred you. And when you receive referrals you need to not only track the prospects name but also the name of the referral source.
Also, your repeat clients who come back to work with you – they are not a referral. You cannot refer yourself, they are just considered a repeat client.
Categories of Referral Sources
There are four categories of referral sources but you may not have all four categories of referral sources refer to you.
First up is clients – either current or previous clients. Second, you have your centers (or spheres) of influence. This is a subset of your network that knows what you do, doesn’t do what you do and comes across your ideal client with some level of regularity.
Next is friends and family as referral sources. Not everyone will have friends and family referring them but some start out with friends and family being the biggest category of referral sources. This typically wains over time as you are no longer a new business owner and become more established.
And finally strangers is the last category of referral sources. I know that seems strange but sometimes you’ve been in business long enough or have a great reputation in the marketplace, that someone you don’t know will refer and recommend you.
It’s most important to track not only when you receive a referral and the referral sources name, but also the category the referral source falls in because when it comes time to you cultivating new referral sources, that information can be helpful in knowing where to focus.
Difference Between Existing and Potential Referral Sources
When you are first digging in to unpack your referral reality – what’s actually happening, the data of referrals – within your business, you might confuse existing referral sources with potential referral sources. It’s important to keep those separate in your mind because the strategies are different.
An existing referral source is someone who has referred you in the past. A potential referral source – sometimes called a soon-to-be referral source – is someone you want to refer you but has not. A potential referral source could be that awesome client you wish would refer you to their friends or that really connected business colleague you wish would connect you with people in their network who are your ideal client.
What I’m teaching you in this article is specific to receiving more referrals from your existing referral sources. This is important to remember because how we cultivate and deepen our relationship with our existing referral sources is different (and easier) because they have referred you before.
SECTION 2: CREATING A REFERRAL EXPERIENCE
If you are going to generate more referrals without asking or without manipulation, you are going to have to create a referral experience for your existing referral sources. I know at first blush that may sound complicated or expensive or a logistical nightmare. But it’s actually quite simple if you know how to do it. Let’s start with the big picture of a referral experience (RX).
What a Referral Experience (RX) is Not
I’m going to go out on a limb and guess what you do now to maintain a referral-generating relationship with your existing referral sources isn’t experience worthy. Meaning, that monthly automated email you send out or that text or email you send every few months to “say hi” or “check-in”.
Those outreaches aren’t going to cut it.
Nor are those generic cards you mail that you didn’t even sign.
You are going to have to do better.
You’re going to have to create an experience for your referral sources that impacts how they feel about you (read that as gratitude from you) so you can direct how they think about you (referrals).
A referral experience is created through ongoing connections which builds and strengthens the relationship you have with your referral sources. Referrals only come from relationships, so it’s critical you have solid relationships that you maintain with your referral sources.
The best kinds of relationship to have with referral sources has an experience factor because they make the referral source feel a certain way – appreciated, valued and important.The best relationships with referral sources have an experience factor because they make the referral source feel a certain way – appreciated, valued and important. Click To Tweet
We are experience deprived in our society today. We will rave online or to friends about a wonderful experience we just had in a restaurant because the food was good, the server was attentive and we were greeted when we arrived.
But isn’t that what is supposed to happen when you go to a restaurant? Why is that so “shareable?”
It is because we lack experiences with the brands and companies we interact with, the people we do business with, and the products and services we use.
We are so experienced deprived that we over-dramatized what should be considered normal.
Think about the last handwritten thank you note you received. Did it get your attention? Were you excited to find it amidst all of your bills and junk mail? Did you place the card on your kitchen counter or desk at work or pin it to a board on your wall? And then when it was time to take the note down from the wall or desk – did you by chance slip it into a box with other notes and keepsakes to keep?
It was a card for Pete’s sake.
But it mattered.
Because it impacted your feelings.
While a thank you card isn’t free like an email, it is as close to free as you’ll get and a thank you card has 10x the impact on the receiver over an email or text or even phone call.
It matters and has impact because of what it represented… someone took a moment out of their day to sit and think about you, and then put those thoughts into writing. Someone spent time on you. And as the receiver of that card, you recognized the time and valued it.
You should never underestimate the power of impacting someone’s feelings in a very positive way.
Maya Angelou’s said it best when she said,
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
When people ask me how my referral generating process is different from other ways to generate referrals, I always point to the referral experience. The referral experience is a planned approach to connect with your referral sources in an ongoing way to show gratitude for their trust in referring people to you.
The referral experience is focused on evoking emotion and feelings, in which your referral sources feel valued and important, because referral sources are the most important part of your business.
Most other referral trainings focus on the basic outreach to keep in touch with referral sources, but when you create a referral experience you go further than just basic outreach like calls, cards, or newsletters.
A referral experience goes deeper, with greater impact and is a lot more fun to execute (yes, I said fun!). A critical part of the referral experience is that it is planned or mapped out in advance. BUT you don’t want to over-due a referral experience. This isn’t outreach every day, every week or even every month. When planning your referral experience, you need to pay attention to three keys.
The referral experience is always focused on the referral source and makes a connection between your gratitude and what they did for you (sent a referral). That connection and gratitude is shown through outreach, but very special outreach that is designed to be memorable and meaningful. And above all else, everything is intentional and genuine.
You will notice each of the three keys of the referral experience woven within the 5 steps to generate referrals, which we unpack in the next section (section 3).
The focus of the referral experience is always on the referral sources. Whatever you do in creating the experience you do it with only the referral sources in mind. What do they need? What would impact them? This isn’t about what is easy for you. Your referral sources are the hero and should be treated as such.
A referral experience connects in two ways. First, it connects what you are doing with why you are doing it. Your referral sources should understand why you are reaching out. The language you use will make the connection clear to your referral source. And, of course, you never ask for any future referrals, with my strategy and language, you never need to.
Second, it connects you with your referral source in an ongoing way. A referral experience is not built on a one-hit wonder. A referral experience is the ongoing way you take care of your referral sources, but like I mentioned earlier – you aren’t over-doing it. No need to reach out every month. And while you can have a big gesture (or outreach) as part of your referral experience, most of your outreach will be small, but mighty.
This is perhaps the easiest to explain but when violated, nothing makes your referral experience fall apart faster. A referral experience isn’t a manipulative process. It’s genuine and works because you genuinely want to show appreciation to your referral sources.
You don’t start a referral experience thinking “I will do these couple of things because it will make referrals happen.” You think “I will take good care of the people who send me referrals and I trust the acts of appreciation will help them remember me when future referral opportunities come up.” See the difference?
A referral experience is a planned approach to connect with our referral sources in an ongoing way to show gratitude for their trust in sending people to us who need our help. It has to be planned correctly following the 3 keys of focus, connection, and genuineness. It also has to be maintained and executed on each and every year.
With your new knowledge on the basics of referral sources and what a referral experience is, let’s make sure you can execute on the 5 steps that pulls it all together.
SECTION 3: FIVE STEPS TO FOLLOW TO MORE GENERATE REFERRALS
Ultimately you are going to create a referral plan that will deliver a referral experience to your existing referral sources. I know this concept may be new to you but it isn’t – or shouldn’t be – complicated or complex. There’s some work involved to create and execute on a referral plan but following a referral plan beats cold calling, incessant networking or stalking on LinkedIn everyday of the week.
There are five basic steps you need to follow to create a business that is sustained by referrals. But these five steps are built with the understanding that you have a referable client experience, are worthy of referrals and have existing referrals sources.
Here are the 5 steps to generating referrals:
- Identify who refers you
- Follow an immediate thank you process
- Create an outreach plan
- Weave in critical language to plant referral seeds
- Systematize the plan and measure results
Step 1: Identify Who Refers You
Let me start off by saying you cannot skip this first step. What you’ll do or what you’ll say to your referral sources doesn’t matter if you don’t know who they are.
If you want to more referrals, it starts with knowing who refers you. And the easiest place to start is by looking at where your clients – current or past – come from. Meaning, how did your clients find out about you? What was the source?
The source is how the client first heard about you. There are many different types of sources including attending a networking event, meeting you at a trade show, finding you in an online search, seeing your sponsorship of an event, noticing an advertisement, receiving direct mail, answering a cold call or cold email and by far the best source – a referral from someone.
Maybe you have a CRM (client relationship management database) where you track this information with laser precision. Awesome. You, my friend, are in the minority.
But the majority of business owners will need to pull a list of clients, sit down with that list and try to remember where the client came from. Sometimes you can use your memory to remember where your clients came from and other times you may be able to look in files, notes you took during your first meeting with them, in your email, in your calendar, etc.
Yeah, there’s some work involved. But to make it easier on you, I encourage you to download the 3 step exercise on identifying your existing referral sources. Just enter your name and email below and I’ll email you the template with instructions.
This template will make your life so much easier as you complete this step. Promise!
A question I receive all the time is “how far back do I have to go, meaning how many years of clients am I pulling?” I always suggest at a minimum, one full year (12 months) but if you work with me or take my Growth By Referrals program, I’ll request three to four years. This step takes the most work of the 5 steps but if you do it right, it will be beneficial to you in many ways.
Once you have your list clients and their sources, you are just going to focus on those clients who were referred to you. Essentially just create one list of the names of your referral sources.
Having the list of referral sources is excellent data for your business and provides you with a starting point. We will know a few important key points after we complete step one. You will know:
- Who has actually referred you (this may surprise you)
- How many times they have referred you (the further you go back in years the better)
- The type of client they refer to you (important later if you want to change the type of referrals you receive, meaning if there is a quality issue.)
Again, you can grab the Existing Referral Source template when you enter your name and email below. It is similar to the Client Look Back Tracker I give to my clients when they are completing this process within my Growth By Referrals program.
What if, after completing this exercise, you don’t have enough referral sources?
Its okay – don’t stress.
First we need to define what is enough. If you have less than 4 people referring you, I do recommend you focus on identifying and cultivating new referral sources. This article will be super helpful in learning how to do that.
If you have 5 or more people referring you in the last few years, we have a starting point where creating a referral plan will work. So keep going with these 5 steps.
Step 2: Follow an Immediate Thank You Process
The reason you have an immediate follow-up process to thank for referrals received is because… why should your referral sources send you more referrals if you can’t properly thank them for the one they just sent you?
Yes, this means I need you to write a note every time you receive a referral.
So make sure you have a few things on hand so you can execute on a TY process.
- Thank You cards and stamps
- Way to track the referrals received
The Thank You Card & Stamps
The proper way to thank for a referral received is through a hand-written note. So you should invest in note cards and stamps. You can buy some inexpensive note cards from a local store or spend less than $100 to have cards printed with your logo.
If you want to go a little further with your thank you cards, I encourage you to create ones that are memorable or funny. When you can catch someone’s attention, they remember it longer. I designed a few different thank you cards for my business that I share with my Growth By Referrals students to use when they are sending Thank You cards. One of my favorite cards is my Keep Calm and Referral On thank you card.
Tackle the Tracker
Tracking referrals should be easy – one of the easiest processes you have in your business.
You need to have one document where you capture some basic information – the date the referral was received, the name of the referral source and the name of the prospective new client they referred to you. You can also track outcome – if they become a client or not.
The easiest format for a tracker is a spreadsheet. If it helps you, you can download my referral tracker for free.
But if you have a CRM, that will work great as long as it captures all the referral details.
To have a fully functioning referral experience, you need to be sending out thank you cards as soon as possible once a referral has been received. And you need to consistently track your referrals.
Okay, let’s move on to Step 3.
Step 3: Create an outreach plan
Remember in Section two of this article, I talked about creating a referral experience? Step 3 of these 5 Steps is where it all comes together. The outreach that form your referral experience becomes your referral generating plan that you follow consistently.
What makes a referral generating plan so simple yet crucial for your business is that it is a plan. A plan that you follow consistently because it is planned out in advance.
But don’t get overwhelmed thinking a referral generating plan needs a big budget – in fact you can build your plan on shoestring budget which makes generating referrals possible for any size business.
I recommend you consider 4 to 8 touch points (or outreach) to execute on in one year. Most of my clients land in the 5 to 6, maybe 7 touch points in a year. Remember, your goal is to be memorable and meaningful and stay top of mind. Which means you need variety in your touchpoints.
You can’t just take someone to coffee 6 times a year. No one has time for that.
Sending a bunch of gifts or even worse – little tchotchkes – throughout the year will feel forced and cheap.
And only sending 7 cards in a year becomes predictable and kinda boring.
I teach my clients, the outreach you do need to do needs to have variety to be meaningful and memorable. But ultimately what you do will be based on who you are doing it for. That drives everything within your referral plan so you create a referral experience.
What I would recommend you do for different touch points is different if your referral sources are mostly business owners in their 40s and 50s versus if your referral sources were mostly stay-at-home parents or young adults in their 20s.
Step 4: Weave in the critical language to plant referral seeds
A fundamental principle of a referral explosion is to never ask for referrals. It is what makes my system, my process different from others. The secret ingredient for making referrals happen is to weave in language that plants referral seeds.
With the right kind of referral seeds, you never need to ask for a referral.With the right kind of referral seeds, you never need to ask for a referral. Click To Tweet
Within the referral generating plan there are key moments to use the right language. For example:
- what you say in a thank you card
- the language you use with a touch point to a referral source
- how you invite referral sources to an event
- what you say when you forgot to thank someone for past referrals
- how to turn a word-of-mouth buzz into a referral
- how to turn an introduction into a referral
- what you say during your first meeting with the person who was referred to you and considering hiring you.
There are many moments to weave in the right language, to plant referral seeds. It is with this language that we show our gratitude and thankfulness to our referral sources. This language is never manipulative or takes advantage of the referral source. It is completely authentic.
While the language piece can seem overwhelming because you want to get the “formula” right, once you understand it, the language becomes easier to use. Within my Growth By Referrals program I provide more than 20 “scripts” or language moments for many different scenarios.
Step 5: Systematize the plan and measure results
If step #3 – the referral plan – is the what you do, then this step is how you make it happen.Your referral sources need an experience but you – as a small business owner who is pressed for time –you need a process. Click To Tweet
Your referral sources need an experience but you – as a small business owner who is pressed for time – you need a process.
A process you can follow so your referral generating plan is executed on. Because it is in the execution of the plan, consistently, year over year that we find real sustainable success. The systematization portion of the plan looks at what you can delegate, what you must do yourself and what can be triggered to happen automatically. Execution is the name of the game for all of this to work like clockwork.
Okay, now you are crystal clear on the defining points of a referral source (Section 1), understand the goal of the referral experience (Section 2) and the 5 steps to generate referrals (Section 3)… let’s unpack one referral success case study to see how this works in real life.
SECTION 5: REFERRAL SUCCESS CASE STUDY
What would happen to your business if you received more than 200 referrals every year?
Most of us only need 40 to 50 or maybe 100 referrals per year. So 200 might be more than you can handle or maybe would set you up for an incredible growth trajectory.
I want to introduce you to David Erdman, an attorney who receives on average 210 referrals per year.
And 100% possible.
Every once in a while, I have people tell me their business is built by referrals and they don’t ask for them. As you can imagine my ears perk up. I’m always up to chat with those who have a built a business sustained by referrals they don’t ask for, pay for or waste a lot of time networking for.
Because I know they’ll tell me what they implement is the same process I teach my clients in my programs. When they allow me to peel back the layers of how they made their referral success happen, it’s always like looking in a mirror of the success my clients are having following my strategies.
When David talked about what he has done over the years – building his referable client experience and his outreach to his referral sources – it completely aligned with what I teach the clients in my three signature programs – Referable Client Experience, Growth By Referrals and Referring Machines.
It is rewarding and validating.
I know what I teach my students works. My results are very real – 100+ referrals every year for multiple years in a row. And my clients’ results speak volumes as well from attorneys to financial advisors, realtors to interior designers, coaches to consultants and more.
There is something really cool about meeting a business owner who over time has figured out how to generate referrals because he uncovered how and why referrals really work.
Understanding the human dynamic and science behind why referrals happen and what works and doesn’t work to generating referrals is important to having referral success.
Here are some of the highlights of what David practices:
Implement a Referable Client Experience
When we first sat down, David walked me through his process as if I was a new client…it was incredible.
He set clear expectations up front with a visual process that eliminated any guesswork of what working with him would be like.
He listened well and focused on determining if he could help the prospective client.
He put in place processes and templates to deliver superior work but also allow him to streamline his work and save time.
In addition, he focused on building relationships with his clients – one example is his sending a family Christmas card and family update letter each year.
Remember the client experience is the foundation to build from to receive referrals from clients through the work you deliver but also the relationship you build with clients.
Focus on Building Relationships with Existing Referral Sources
As I have said, referrals come from relationships. One way to build and strengthen relationships with our referral sources is to show the non-work side of yourself, the personal side.
With David’s yearly family Christmas card, he sends not only to his clients, but also includes his referral sources. David knows sending a personal Christmas card is an easy way to connect and build relationships. It kills me that I sometimes have to arm twist my clients into putting a family photo on the card. Because remember, people don’t do business with a company and don’t refer a company…we do business with people and we refer people to people.
You should be looking for ways to connect on a personal level with your referral sources because we do business with and refer people to those we know, like and trust.
Always Thank the Referral Source
David knows the importance of thanking his referral sources with a handwritten thank you note. The impact is so great because writing thank you notes is a dying art form…so we appreciate it more.
But you also need to extend the thank you to a year long referral experience complete with ongoing outreach that is meaningful and memorable.
Building a business supported 30%, 50%, 70% or even 100% from referrals is possible.
David Erdman has been doing it for more than 30 years without asking for referrals, or using manipulation tactics or paying a commission for referrals received.
It is possible.
Yes, even for you.
Even if your referrals are inconsistent. Or sporadic. Or non-existent.
Even if you don’t receive the majority of your new clients through referrals.
Even if you don’t have a system in place to nurture current referral sources.
This. Is. Possible.
How do I know? Because there’s a process to follow and results speak.
My results. My clients results. And hopefully, one day, your results.
Want to get started?
You can start by downloading the template to walk you through how to identify your Existing Referral Sources. Once you know who your referral sources are, you can decide how you want to build a referral plan to deliver a referral experience to them.
Or you can work with me and I’ll walk you through how to not only complete this exercise but also build your referral plan the right way – with some tried-and-true touch points – plus give you the exact language you need to plant referral seeds the right way and take your business to the next level with a successful referral strategy.
I can’t wait for your journey to a referral explosion to begin!