I thrive on word-of-mouth referrals for my freelance writing services, as do most owners of small businesses or sole proprietors.
But what’s the difference between a referral and a lead? How do you know when a referral will become money in your pocket? And how do you revive old referrals?
If you want to be able to cash in your referrals, or to be able to give referrals that will result in business for your friends, here are some helpful hints that have guided my business over the past 15 years.
Where can you find a networking group?
Business Network International is the world’s largest business networking organization, with tens of thousands of members in dozens of countries globally. BNI offers a proven system for increasing referrals built around the “Givers Gain” philosophy. I belong to a BNI chapter in San Francisco and it’s far and away the focus of my networking efforts. (Read more about the pros and cons of BNI here.)
Other networking groups that may be sources of referrals include your local Chamber of Commerce, Rotary International, Kiwanis International, and Lions Club International. And of course, your online social networks can be key to finding additional clients.
What’s the difference between a referral and a lead?
A referral is a personal introduction from a friend or business associate to someone who may be in need of your services. As an example, about six weeks after I started writing articles for the Intuit Small Business Blog, I was referred to an Intuit employee to collaborate with him on the Intuit Small Business Dictionary. That project then led to another project with a different division of the company.
Each of these referrals is a “warm handshake” in the form of an email, letter, or phone call sent from someone who endorsed me to someone who was requesting online copywriting services, along with the contact information for both sides.
In contrast, a lead is like a cold call. Someone you know may say, “I need a new website for my business.” You may respond, “I know someone, and I’ll have him call you.” When I call that person to offer my writing services, they don’t know me, my name, or who referred me, which is a tough way to start a phone call and make a sell.
When can a referral become money in your pocket?
It’s a matter of being in the right place at the right time with the right experience. Not all referrals lead to business, but if you’re introduced to someone who needs your product or service now, there’s a higher likelihood that they’ll use you after you’re personally introduced to them with a strong testimonial. Giving a quality referral is just a matter of matching two people you know who have a need and a service to fill it.
How do you revive old referrals and turn them into new business?
For a variety of reasons, some referrals just take longer to become a reality. Every company has its own timeline, and as the outsider, you’re never really in the know on what that is. I check in with these potential clients every few weeks by phone or email to check up on their status.
Case in point: I received a referral a few years ago from the printer in my BNI chapter from one of his best clients. When I first called her, she wasn’t ready to move forward. I checked back a month later. She still wasn’t ready.
A few months after that, she hired me to revise the content of her website. I referred her to my BNI web designer so we could work as a team, and the client was very pleased with the new site.
Four months later, the client handed me a huge editing and proofreading project. As part of that, I referred her to the art director of my BNI chapter, who worked with her for several years on other projects.
So you never know when and if a referral will become something more. But if you don’t follow up, they will rarely become anything.