Using Centers of Influence to Grow Referrals

Everyone appreciates a good referral. It’s like a fish biting your bait when you didn’t even know you had your line in the water. Referrals are great because they take less effort; you don’t have the usual hurdles to overcome—establishing trust, winning over the prospect, building your credibility, etc. Sadly, referrals don’t usually just happen.

Say you’re not merely a sales rep, you’re a true trusted advisor: you’re customer-centric; you’re an active, experienced listener; your solutions make solid sense to your customers—they aren’t just a means to get a commission. And still you’re not catching referrals. Let’s look at why they’re slipping through your net.

It could be that your network is lacking when it comes to centers of influence, or COI—well-positioned folks who can give you names of contacts that will look upon you favorably the moment you approach them.

Stocking Your COI Pond
What we used to call “networking” largely boiled down to glad-handing at events and stocking your wallet with business cards: in other words, there was no follow-up plan in mind. In order to fish where the referrals are, you’ll want to build a network of COI, and take a strategic approach to doing so. For starters, figure out who out in your customer network holds you in high enough esteem that they might become your unpaid brand ambassador.

Fish in the Sunny Spots
Put time and effort into determining who should be your brand ambassadors, AKA your COI team. Include individuals who meet the following criteria:

  • You’ve worked with them already
  • They are connected with others who could use your products and services
  • You know them fairly well on a professional level
  • They’re very happy with the products and services you’ve provided them
  • They’re very happy with how you sold to them

Make a list of all the people you’ve zeroed in on; then put them all on a team. Call it “Team COI”—whatever helps—the professional group voted most likely to cheerlead for you. After you’ve got a list of names, devise ways to reach out to those people. Once Team COI is established, figure out how to work the team so that they’re influential when it comes to your brand. What you’re doing here is transforming them from professional connections to champions of your business offerings.

What’s in It for Them?
Before you hit up Team COI for a favor that might launch a thousand sales ships in your future, offer them something of value. Maybe you share with them articles you’ve clipped from reputable industry magazines, or you provide them face-to-face professional advice. Here and there, treat your COI to lunch, and while you’re munching on good food, check in on their pain points and discuss ways you might be able to help them problem solve. Doesn’t matter whether they’re in the market for your offerings, they’ll be inclined to think of those they know who are currently looking for the type of solution you have to offer. And they’ll refer you.

Sometimes All You Have to Do Is Ask
By offering value to your COI, you’ll be establishing a healthy working relationship, one in which it would be quite natural to ask for a referral. There’s nothing wrong with asking—and there are those businesspeople who, though they love a good referral themselves, might not think to give them freely. So don’t be shy or feel like you’re being crass; just haul out and say, “By the way, Linda, I’m looking for new clients who might benefit from the kind of services we offer. If you know of anyone we could help, would you mind referring them to me?” If you’ve cultivated your professional relationships, the COI in your group will be more than happy to help grow your brand.

Finally, make sure you keep in touch with those in your COI network. Make it an ongoing action item to meet with your COI team members frequently. You might one-on-one it with them, shoot the business breeze at tradeshows, or ping them with phone calls or notes. What’s key here is staying top of mind for them. That way, your name is more likely to roll off their tongue when someone else’s need comes up. It just makes sense—there may be a lot of fish out there, but it’s a small pond after all.