When you're hungry, E.A.T.

Every small business has, or should have a marketing strategy. If, like us, you sell to other businesses instead of directly to consumers, referrals are likely a huge part of that strategy.

I have seen small business owners put a lot of effort into obtaining referrals: they join networking groups, visit socials, and schedule 1-on-1s with various referral partners (or potential referral partners).

However, many business owners neglect to put any thought into their best potential referral source: current clients.

Now, asking a client for referrals is a delicate science. (After all, you've already asked for and obtained their business; it can feel presumptuous to ask for even more on top of that.) But if you are strategic, while continuing to put the client first, current clients can be an incredible pipeline for new business.

If you are hungry for new business, remember the acronym "EAT".

FSP - Earn laptop


This shouldn't need to be clarified but, in order to get referrals, you need to earn referrals. If someone is giving you a referral, they are sticking their neck out for you because, if you do a bad job, it reflects poorly on them.

This is especially true for clients, who should know better than anyone what level of quality service you provide. And if they are not completely happy with your service, pushing for a referral they don't feel you've earned may actually cause them to reevaluate their relationship with you.

FSP - Ask handshake


Asking for referrals can be awkward, but if you have a client who is thrilled with your services and is already telling you they're happy, it is reasonable to transition to a request for referrals at that time. It also never hurts to have a bonus for referrals, whether that's a discount, cash bonus, or a discounted rate for the client they're recommending. (Note: Some businesses can't receive cash gifts, but might still appreciate a gift basket or being taken out for a meal.)

Beyond asking the right way, you need to be thoughtful in your timing of asking clients for referrals. Don't ask for referrals right at the beginning of an engagement, as they have not yet had accurate time to reflect on your service. Also don't ask for referrals if the client is in the middle of a crisis you're helping to solve; their minds are not in the place to think of anyone who could use your business, and it is a bit manipulative to put that pressure on them when they are already stressed out.

FSP - Teach writing on board


If your clients are very happy with you, they might want to send you referrals, but just don't know how. This can especially be true if your business is one that many people don't understand, or if you work with a wide variety of clients.

For instance, many of our clients and referral partners don't initially realize that, though we mostly work with established companies, we also work with very small and new start-ups. Once they found that out, several of my business friends told me, "I have someone who needs your help." The issue wasn't with a lack of referrals, but with a lack of education coming from me.

Keep your clients up-to-date on what you're working on, without being intrusive, and they will likely think differently about how they can refer business to you.