We all want more word-of-mouth referrals.
Not just because they’re a great ego boost. They’re affirmation that our work matters. That it’s changing lives.
Referrals are also one of the most effective ways to grow your business. They can send you new clients month after month, year after year.
And, unlike Facebook ads and most other kinds of marketing, word-of-mouth referrals don’t cost anything.
But here’s the hard truth: When we interviewed more than 200 family-services providers—including lactation consultants, therapists, parenting coaches, music teachers, and others—most told us they weren’t actively taking steps to get referrals.
They were simply waiting—and hearing crickets.
Others—some of the most successful providers we interviewed—have honed the process to a science.
They’ve identified these five specific strategies to get more referrals:
#1: TARGET THE RIGHT PEOPLE
They start by networking with other professionals most relevant to the services they offer. A lot of therapists, for example, told us they’d found success by focusing on pediatricians and other medical professionals. Others said they focus mainly on schools and preschools. Or on local parenting organizations and other nonprofits.
But the most successful ones don’t stop there. They go a little deeper and zero in on the people who most closely match up with their specialties, philosophy, and overall approach.
Here are some more good targeting strategies they suggest:
Look for professionals whose work is complementary to what you do.
If you’re a child sleep consultant, for example, you probably know some great lactation consultants, doulas, and newborn care instructors. If they’re a natural fit for you, you’re a natural fit for them. Or if you’re a college admissions consultant, you might find that all the overworked guidance counselors at high schools in your local area are a great fit.
Focus especially on providers who are just getting started.
Those in, say, the first two years of launching their business or practice will be eager to get more referrals themselves…and more likely to refer back to you.
Pay attention to influential parents.
Look for the handful of people in your area—moms usually—who are raising money, chairing committees, heading up parent groups, lobbying for causes, and actively participating on parenting social networks. Winning over just one of those parents can be a goldmine of referrals.
Finally, don’t forget about one of the best potential sources of word-of-mouth referrals: your existing clients. Think about those you’ve helped most who also have a lot of influence in your community.
#2: MEET IN PERSON
Nearly all the successful providers we interviewed put a high priority on face-to-face meetings. Among their recommendations:
- Take a different pediatrician, school principal, parent leader, or other potential referrer to lunch at least once a month or so. Or meet for coffee or breakfast.
- Go to meetups. To find the most relevant groups, go to meetup.com and search on topics related to your specialties. Or Google your specialty + meetups + your location. Then go to a few local meetups, see first-hand what each group is interested in, and choose one where you feel comfortable enough to contribute on a regular basis.
- Start attending parent-group meetings or similar events.
The bottom line: Get out of your warm, safe office or home and meet people instead of hoping the world will come to you.
#3: OFFER REAL VALUE (and ask for little in return)
Getting pushy or salesy and asking for referrals without first building a relationship rarely works, we heard over and over. If you were good at that, you’d probably be selling cars, not doing what you’re doing.
Offering real value, on the other hand, works wonders. It’s the thing that will sell potential referrers on you.
One idea that many successful providers recommend: Give free talks or workshops on a topic you know inside and out—and keep the emphasis on practical, actionable advice—not theory.
Reassure any professionals you meet with that you’ll treat their clients the way they’d want them to be treated.
Emphasize the things that you know are important to them: You won’t turn anyone away because of an inability to pay, for example, or you’re also bilingual.
Give your most loyal and influential current clients extra attention.
Respond to an email within minutes if you happen to be online, even if it’s late at night. Or offer to meet someplace that’s especially convenient for them (even if not for you). By going the extra mile for them, they’ll be more likely to recommend you to friends and family.
Be a problem solver.
One child psychologist told us that when he was first starting his practice, he noticed that the list of recommended resources a nearby pediatrician had been handing out for decades was badly out of date. A lot of the people were either retired or dead. He offered to draw up an updated list, and included his own name. The doc gladly adopted the new list—and the child psychologist has been getting a steady stream of referrals from him for the last 12 years.
A college admissions consultant we talked to recently invited a financial advisor to lunch to plan a series of talks she proposed that would help parents of college-bound kids. Cool idea—and a big win (and source of referrals) for both of them.
#4: MAKE REASONABLE REQUESTS (when the time is right)
Once you’ve built relationships and shared your time and expertise, you’ve earned the right to ask for small, reasonable favors.
Two good places to start:
Ask for testimonials you can add to your own website and other marketing materials. In a world where parents live on their phones, that kind of social proof is often as valuable as an in-person referral.
Gently ask school staff, physicians, and others if they’d be willing to include your name in their list of recommended resources on their website or print handouts. Once they know you and like you, most will be happy to do it.
#5: FOLLOW UP
Send quick, simple thank-you notes that are thoughtful, not transactional. How? Focus on what the person did for you (Thanks so much for arranging last night’s event…Thanks for making time for lunch yesterday…). Don’t mention what you did for (or want from) the organizer.
A thank-you email serves three purposes:
- It earns goodwill points. Everyone loves to be appreciated.
- It makes them more likely to remember your name, making them more likely to mention you when someone they know asks for a referral.
- It gets your contact information out into the world—especially if you include all your essential details in one place, under your signature: your specialties, contact info, and important links.
A lot of providers suggested following up in other ways as well:
After a talk or workshop, ask for feedback from the organizers. Ask questions to better understand how you can better meet their needs. Over time, you’ll get better and better at giving the organizers (and their audience) exactly what they want. And that, inevitably, results in more confident, more enthusiastic referrals.
Send follow-up materials—things like a copy of your presentation or a list of resources. Just as with a thank-you email, it gives people another reason to remember you and see your contact information, so they’re more likely to forward it to others looking for help…or to follow up themselves.
It takes some effort, but the payoff is huge.
Getting referrals from multiple sources matters, because families typically choose a new provider only after they’ve been “referred” by at least three people or online resources: a teacher, a pediatrician, and a parenting website, for example.
Hearing or seeing lots of people recommend you gives families confidence in you before they even contact you.
And every referral has the potential to generate more revenue than you might think.
Let’s say you’re a music teacher, and you charge $40 for a 30-minute weekly lesson and keep your students for an average of five years or more. The lifetime value of just one referral could easily be $10,000.
Or say you’re a therapist who charges $125 an hour for weekly sessions, and you tend to keep your clients for an average of two years. The lifetime value of one new client referral for you is easily $12,000.
Whatever the number for your business, that’s what’s at stake every time you do or don’t get a referral.
Keeping that number in mind can be highly motivating.
— Jim Scott, co-founder, dad, and ceo