By Scott Harris

As the owner of a marketing company, I am often asked what the most successful marketing approach is. While it might be considering blasphemous by many in my industry—and by some in my employ—my answer is that it’s the one we can’t provide: word-of-mouth, or referrals.

Don’t get me wrong, a successful marketing campaign is a blended campaign, picking and choosing among the hundreds of different marketing vehicles and approaches. Advertising, websites, social media and public relations are all valuable and should always be considered in your marketing mix. However, none of them equal the value of a referral.

It is important to remember that whether or not you have customers (product sales, one time or ongoing) or clients (more commonly associated with services, rather than products), in the end, what you have is people buying from people. And there is no better way to attract new business than to have it referred to you by someone who is already doing business with you.

You only have to stop for a moment and think about how often you make a buying decision because a trusted family member, friend or business associate has made a recommendation. This ranges from “How did you like the movie?” to “Who is your attorney?” If you ask a friend about a new restaurant, the response will go a long way toward determining whether or not you choose to dine there. That same sentiment translates to business decisions as well.

The same conversations are happening with regards to your business. You are either being recommended, ignored or, worst possible scenario, dismissed. Which leads to the first step in the referral process.

Earn it. If you want people to recommend your business when the opportunity presents itself, or even unsolicited, then you need to earn it. This simply means that you provide a high-quality product or service, with excellent customer relations and fair pricing. And while it’s a simple concept, it’s not easy.

There was an old cliché that a happy customer would tell one person, but an angry customer would tell ten. With the advent of social media, that is no longer the case. Both voices are amplified and each business transaction you have can dramatically affect your business. Once you commit to (or perhaps you already have) the hard work of deserving referrals, you move to the second step.

Ask for it. This seems to be the one where people slip up. Either they are embarrassed to ask, afraid to ask (see step one) or think they are too busy to ask. I had one business owner tell me, “I shouldn’t have to ask for referrals, my customers should want to give them.” Maybe, but that’s not the world we live in.

Most of us are busy and don’t spend much time, if any, wondering how we can help someone else’s business grow. We are certainly willing to give our thoughts if asked, but unprompted, we have far too many other things to worry about. However, you can change that with the third and final step in your new referral program.

Reward it. If you want your business to be top-of-mind with your customers, give them a reason to think and speak of you often. The best way to do this is to reward those who take the time to refer business your way. It can be as simple as a thank you (phone, email or a nice card), a gift certificate to a favorite restaurant, a discount on future purchases of your product or service, or even a finder’s fee if the sale is substantial. It can be a formal program, or a casual as-you-fit benefit, but one way or the other you need to recognize, thank, reward and encourage those who send you business.

So, if you’re looking for a simple, economical, powerful way to increase your business (regardless of what your business is), the easiest way is referrals. Just remember the three steps: earn the referral, ask for the referral and reward those who refer you.

Scott Harris is the owner of Mustang Marketing, a full-service marketing agency serving Ventura County and the San Fernando Valley for close to 30 years. You can reach Scott at scott@mustangmktg.com or visit Mustang’s website at www.mustangmktg.com.