If you’ve been in business for more than five minutes, you already know that the best way for any self-employed professional to get clients is by referral. But the process of building sufficient word of mouth to produce the number of clients you need can seem daunting. You can count on some referrals from your existing clients and people who already know you, but that’s a fairly limited number. How can you start getting referrals from people outside your circle?
Actually, a better question is how to increase the size of your circle to include more people. In order to refer you business, people need to know, like, and trust you. They want to be sure that you will take good care of the clients they send you. For that, they’d like to be better acquainted than just hearing your name.
Imagine that you had a group of 100 people who were willing to refer clients to you. Now, imagine further that this “circle of 100” were people whose own work put them in touch with your potential clients every day. Sounds ideal, doesn’t it? Building a circle like this of your own may be easier than you think.
One of my clients, a graphic designer, set about doing exactly this when she first launched her business. She identified a list of people in her city who were likely to be strong referral sources, and began methodically making their acquaintance. Within a few months, she had a steady stream of new clients. Better still, since all these clients were referrals, they were usually ready to do business when they first contacted her, and required little selling on her part.
To use this approach effectively, it’s not just a matter of knowing enough people. You have to know the right people. Here’s how to begin:
1. Create a most-wanted list of ten occupational categories whose members are frequently in touch with the type of client you desire. For example, a graphic designer who specializes in working with small start-up businesses might choose accountants, attorneys, bankers, business coaches and consultants, business teachers, career counselors, entrepreneurship center staff, office supply vendors, printers, and secretarial services.
2. Make the acquaintance of ten people in each occupation. Seek them out, meet with them, and familiarize them with your expertise and the benefits of the service you offer. Find out more about what they do and the type of clients they serve so you can refer business to them as well.
3. When you connect with someone who seems open to sending you referrals from time to time, you have found a referral partner. Add their name to your list. Ten people times ten occupations equals your circle of 100.
No matter what your business is, if you can define your niche, you can identify others that serve it. A marketing consultant might target web designers, copywriters, and graphic artists. A massage therapist could seek out chiropractors, acupuncturists, and yoga instructors. If you have trouble coming up with a list of occupations, ask your current clients who else they currently do business with.
When you have a specific goal like this in mind, your networking can become much more focused. As you meet new people, you’ll be able to decide just from looking at the title on their business card whether following up with them should be part of your plan. Whenever you meet someone whose occupation matches one on your list, ask, “I think we might be able to refer each other clients. Can we get together and talk about that?”
Share your most-wanted list with others, and ask for introductions to people they already know. For example, if accountants are on your list, ask your clients, colleagues, and friends who their accountant is. Or if you are seeking business instructors, ask friends for the names of instructors they have taken business classes from.
When you aren’t able to make enough connections through networking and your existing contacts, don’t be afraid to just look them up. You can find people in almost any occupation listed in your local phone directory or on the web. If you approach them as a colleague and express your desire for the two of you to help each other be more successful, you’ll find many people willing to get better acquainted.
Regardless of how you first get in touch, some of the people you talk to won’t be receptive to getting to know you better or the idea of referring each other business. That’s okay. You only need ten names for each occupation, and there are plenty of people to choose from. Just move on to the next possibility.
Also, don’t be concerned if you fear that you won’t have any referrals to give the people you’re talking to. Neither of you are making a promise to send each other clients; you are simply expanding your circles to increase the likelihood of that happening. As you get to know more people in your niche, it’s quite likely that you will find yourself making referrals more often.
One of the most useful elements of this strategy is that it is both simple and systematic. All you have to do is look at your most-wanted list, and you’ll know right away what needs to be done next. Do you need to add more occupations, or do you need more new names in any group to reach your total of 100? Just follow the suggestions above until you get there.
Once you have 100 names listed, you can change your tactics from getting acquainted to following up. Stay in touch with everyone on your list at least once per quarter. With only 100 names, you should be able to do that easily.
Over time, you may find that some of the people in your circle aren’t particularly good referral sources. That’s to be expected. The reason you want so many names to start with is that only a few of them will consistently refer. You can always add more names later to replace some of the people who don’t seem as helpful. It’s likely, though, that just a few steady referral partners will be more than enough to keep you busy.