Jerry McLaughlin: Discovering the real value of referral sales Featured

8:45pm EDT May 31, 2011
Jerry McLaughlin Jerry McLaughlin

While every business appreciates referral sales, many seem to overlook the usefulness of referral data. Referrals are easier to close and more profitable than leads from most other sources. But more important, referral sales are the most accurate test of whether or not your customers believe that your offering works.

If you think about it, prospects are created primarily by circumstance, not by marketing. When a bee stings your child at the playground, you don’t need Madison Avenue to point out the problem. You immediately want a solution. You know that there are all kinds of pain relievers out there, but this isn’t a muscle cramp or a migraine. In this situation, you need a tailored response.

When you get to the pharmacy, you see a host of products on the shelf — everything from generic ibuprofen to something called, let’s say, Auntie Beth’s Children’s Strength All Natural Bee Sting Be Gone. I’m guessing you’ll go with the product that seems to be designed with exactly this situation and your sobbing toddler in mind. Whichever product you choose, from the business’s point of view what is most important isn’t the fact that you bought its product — it’s what happens next.

Let’s assume you go with Auntie Beth’s bee sting product. You swiftly apply the treatment. Within minutes, you and your child will make a discovery about the product that will stick with you much longer. It will become part of the story you tell the ice cream man when you wander back to the park, that you share with the rest of the family when you get home, that you tell your officemates when they ask about your weekend, and that you pass on to other parents at playgroup.

Auntie Beth’s just took the marketplace equivalent of a final exam, and whether it passes depends on one thing: Does your retelling of the bee sting story create new customers?

If the product was a dud, it gets a zero. If it worked, it becomes a hero. When an offering effectively solves a problem — when it becomes a hero — customers tell others in ways that drive referral sales.

Some businesspeople might think they already know that their products work because they have tested them in the lab. The problem with this thinking is that lab tests are constructed to determine whether the product offering does what the company intends for it to do, not what the customer wants it to do. Furthermore, controlled tests are lousy at discovering whether customer enthusiasm about the offering will be high enough to generate referral business.

You might then ask, ‘What about sales data?’ For one, nonreferral, first-time sales don’t speak to the effectiveness of your offering but rather the effectiveness of your advertising, positioning, distribution, promotions and pricing. Although repeat sales send back a more useful signal — whether customers perceive your offering to be good enough, at least some of the time — only referral sales can tell you whether your offering is really taking off.

For most businesses, referral data should be treated as the most important operating metric. Referral business is the ultimate truth-teller — and sometimes the truth it tells is a harsh one. If your referrals aren’t strong, you need to go back to work on the offering, your marketing or both. But given proper attention, referral data can point the way toward a rapidly growing market share. Once you’re able to secure referrals from referrals, you’re well on your way to market dominance for your offering.

Jerry McLaughlin is CEO of Branders.com, the world’s largest and lowest-priced online promotional products company. Contact Jerry at JMcLaughlin@branders.com.