I have read a few posts over the past few weeks on the subject and power of ‘referrals’. With the caveat being as long as a few fundamental rules are followed, word of mouth referrals are one of the most effective forms of advertising out there – and one of the easiest ways to earn (and give) business. As sales executives, and quite often in the role of the ‘Lone Wolf’, asking for and giving referrals in a pay-it-forward fashion can be the life blood of our profession. Whether you are a regional sales representative covering a large geographic area or a home-based telephone sales agent, the fact remains that you spend a lot of time by yourself when you are not in front of or on the phone with customers. Using some of this time to put together a plan to help get more business opportunities and leads outside of traditional fashion is essential. A plan including a look at what is right on your doorstep.
A novel approach to referrals
As luck would have it, I was recently invited to a business networking breakfast event as part of an article I was writing for a local magazine. The meeting was for a local chapter of Business Networking International (BNI), which provides structure to how referrals are made in amongst a plethora of different businesses. A prompt 7.30am start on a Tuesday morning, these meetings run weekly and are structured around a formal agenda that is identical to any other BNI meeting around the world. At present, the Beaches Chapter has 28 members who are local entrepreneurs and during the meeting each had the opportunity to deliver their own ‘infomercial’ to other members (and me!) for 60 seconds. In short, this is a chance for members to promote and differentiate their business to their peers and explain the ideal client or customer with associated needs that most suits them. The group consists of many different expert professions from Charted Accountants to Graphic Designers, from Business Lawyers to Home Inspectors. Listening to 25 infomercials, it wasn’t hard for me to imagine people in my network who would have interest and needs that can be met by the experts at hand.
And that is how it all works – referring your fellow members to people in your network to help them grow their business which is then reciprocated. As the local President points out, the BNI approach is not a ‘breakfast club’ – the group has a target of $500K (and they have closed $90K since June) worth of referred business for the year.
The 3 perils of referrals
This approach is distinctly different from more traditional types of referral attempts that happen in a more corporate structure, especially where different types of sales forces reside. I experienced this first hand in a national consulting firm where ‘cross selling’ was key strategic imperative and referrals were encouraged across practice areas – in effect, incentivising business development professionals to introduce their peers to their clients. This worked in some logical areas and between certain individuals – however, in most cases, this was not successful for the following reasons:
- Credibility: Some sales reps feel uncomfortable introducing colleagues to their key accounts for fear they will screw up the existing relationship. A true credibility issue. A kicker here, especially in a contracting economy, if the client only has x amount of $ to spend with their company, best not tempt them away from where they are spending it now.
- Compatibility: The classic square peg forced into a round hole situation. Brad asks his key client to meet with a colleague to discuss a different solution area, but there is no real client need or premise to make this a logical thing to happen. The client accepts the meeting because Brad asked them to. They find it interesting. But without a pressing need, the client is likely to forget all about it within hours. It goes nowhere, to the frustration of the sales rep who was already pretty frustrated at having to do a feature dump for 45 mins to a silent audience.
- Accountability: This really falls on the fault of the organization. If you don’t prepare the referral process, complete with proper incentivisation and guidance, it is bound to fail. In addition, the company must be prepared to help those who may not be an expert in sales position the referral with the client – or at least help them recognize whether or not a meeting should be set up in the first place. Even if all this is considered, someone needs to be accountable for collecting data to prove it’s a worth-while initiative.
In-company corporate referrals, as you can see, are not straight forward. Obviously, if you are part of this type of scheme within your organization, you generally have to play ball. However, it might be worth checking out different types of referral programs in your local neighbourhood to see how you can tap into non-competing sales team – read a group of sales individuals – who are willing to help you to help themselves.
A new project
In this vein, as I walked away from the BNI meeting I felt galvanized and motivated to give this approach a try, all the while following my own CCA advice – ensuring I am credible, compatible with potential opportunities and accountable for the whole process. I will document the experience over the coming 12 months or so starting in October. During my ‘galvanized’ mindset, I also felt lucky, in as much that being a lone-wolf sales professional allowing me to give this a go. Being an ‘out on your own’ type is not all bad. To me, the tranquility of solitude.
Please note the Coaching Controversy Part III will follow in October 2012.