Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Referrals, community and business that thrives

Have you ever bought something that was great value and not wanted to talk about it? Maybe you found a piece of clothing that looks much more expensive than it was. Maybe you got a great haircut at a strip mall. Maybe you learned public speaking at a course but want everyone to think you are a natural.

I once was the editor on a self-help book on how to ask for referrals. Within the context of the book, it was all relatively straightforward. If you provide a good product or service at a good price and then ask for referrals, people will give you referrals. There are many businesses when that is true, at least some of the time.

Referrals are a great way to do business. Obviously, they help a business grow. Less obviously, they are hugely important to consumers. When we tell other people about good products and services, we make them more widely available and more competitive. The level of the marketplace rises. When we hear about good products and services, we purchase more efficiently and with more confidence. Referrals are a win-win proposition.

Unless we fear that giving the referral reveals something about us that we would rather stay private. Then we hesitate to give the referral, and to support the business that did the good work. As much as we would like to keep people in business who provide good value, we do not want to risk our own reputations or privacy to do it.

I run a business that struggles to get referrals from our satisfied clients. We have lots of satisfied clients. They take courses with us and begin to make changes in their lives. Those changes often snowball and become significant new goals and opportunities. Often, we hear their success stories at the events we hold to build community or by email or by phone. We are successful at keeping in touch. We are less successful in growing our business through our clients' success. Sometimes it is because they want to hold onto an "edge" that distinguishes them from colleagues who are also competitors. Sometimes it is because they do not want to acknowledge that something can have a significant impact on them without being easy to explain. Sometimes they are nurturing seeds that were planted during a course and won't take firm root for months. These are all good reasons.

Still. We run a complicated business. We offer people experiences that help them to connect with more of their perceptions, to alter those perceptions to produce states and behaviours, and to influence others in positive, powerful ways. There is no 2 second sound bite that will do justice to an experience in which people learn from the best that is in them. We need clients to talk about their experiences and refer others to our courses so that our business can stay alive. If the community is to thrive, it has to nurture the business that supports it.

How often have you returned to a store or restaurant you particularly liked, only to find that it has closed its door? How many people did you tell to try it while it was open? It's not enough to visit once in awhile: if we want access to interesting products offered at good values, we need to support the businesses that provide them.

How many referrals have you made this week? You have more influence than the ads during the Superbowl. You can make a difference to the people you refer and the businesses you support. Try it and notice how good it feels to participate in a community of value.

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