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Nearly every marketing book will tell you that referrals are your best sources of new business. All you need to do is ask.

If that's the case, why do they seem so hard to generate?

To be successful, you need to do more than ask, There's an art to generating referrals: You need to be systematic in your approach. Turning your business into a referral-generating machine won't happen overnight, but with a little effort, it's an achievable goal.. Here's a step-by-step process to follow each week.

1. Focus your efforts

Identify your key "centres of influence" (COIs), and focus your energy on them.

COIs are individuals and businesses with the strongest potential to bring you referrals. Ask yourself, who your strongest referral sources are –the people and companies with the broadest connections to prospective clients and the influence to be able to send referrals your way.

Step One: Develop an initial list of potential "centres of influence" (COIs).

2. Target "octopus heads"

Referrals one at a time are good, but unless you have more business than you can handle, referrals from groups are better. Call them "octopus heads" because their connections spread out like tentacles.

For example, depending on your industry, some great places to start might be professional and trade associations, group-buying organizations or business associations. By getting to know key people in organizations like these, you will be able to spread your reach much wider and faster.

An IT support businesses I know has successfully used this strategy with its local law society. As a result, it's ended up with a large number of law firms as clients.

As with all relationship-building, it will take time. Be prepared to network with such organizations for several months before expecting new business to come your way.

Step Two: Identify at least three "octopus heads" with which you could start to network.

3 .Be referral-worthy

No matter how much you want to gain access to your centres of influence's networks, they won't give much more than lip service to the idea unless referring you will also help them in some way.

So before asking for a referral, put yourself in their shoes and ask: Why should they take the risk of introducing you to their network?

While part of the answer might be that you'll make them look great, you'll likely need something more concrete.

For example, if you sell commercial audio equipment that you want a construction contractor to recommend to clients, demonstrate how quickly and easily it can be installed, or how it will bring significant cost benefits.

Step Three: Break down the benefits to your centres of influence of working with you as clearly as possible, on paper.

4. Give before you get

Your centres of influence most likely want out of the relationship exactly what you want: referrals.

So work hard to be the first on the giving end of the relationship.

Step Four: Identify contacts you could potentially refer to your centres of influence, and make some introductions.

5. Help your centres of influence help their networks

Think of ways you could add help your COIs add value to their own networks.

For instance, you might have great articles or white papers you could send for them to forward, or perhaps if they have a newsletter, you could offer to submit an article. Co-branding is also an option. Seminars and webinars are also great approaches; you might offer to put on an event, or jointly create one Many lawyers, bankers, accountants, and consultants offer joint seminars on the topic of succession planning for business owners.

Step Fve: Brainstorm ways you could collaborate to help your centres of influence and your own business.

6. Consider formalizing your relationship

If the referral relationship is clearly mutually beneficial, adding some structure might be a great next step. For example, you might be willing to offer a discount to all referrals that come through your centres of influence, or provide a referral fee for all referrals. It might make sense to co-brand the marketing material that goes out to their networks and yours, and develop a structured schedule.

Step Six: Brainstorm and outline ways you could formalize your relationship and the best possible outcomes; when the timing is right, float these by your centres of influence.

7. Offer incentives

In some cases, offering a referral fee to your COIs can work well, especially when the potential for receiving referrals is greater for you than the potential for giving them. This could mean commissions or other creative arrangements. The more flexible you are about offering incentives that benefit your COIs, the better.

It's important to note, however, that referral fees on their own are not sufficient to form the types of relationships you seek with your network partners. Consider this step only after the relationship is solid. An example of this would be where an existing customer is offered preferential pricing once he or she has referred a certain amount of new business.

Step Seven: Document the best possible incentives you could provide to your centres of influence. Gather input from your staff, board, and trusted colleagues before you make the offer official.

The ultimate goal is for everyone to benefit – your business, your centres of influence, and of course, the referrals. It may take time to implement a system that works well, but soon you'll have a strong referral-generating system that could help to provide all the business you might want.

Mark Wardell is the founder and president of Wardell Professional Development , an advisory group that helps business owners plan and execute the growth of their companies. He is also the author of seven business books.

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