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How to Ask for Referrals
From Stitches' State of the Industry 2010
May 2010
By Robert Carey

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Anna Johnson, owner of Phoenix-based Super Embroidery and Screenprinting (asi/339634), notes that among all decorator business clients, marketing professionals are often the most outgoing and are always excited about what they do; after all, “They always have to sell their ideas,” she says. So if they like you and your work, “It wouldn’t be unusual for them to be your biggest salesperson among their business associates.”

Johnson stresses that making minor additional efforts to meet the needs of customers – marketing people or otherwise – will fuel your referral machine. “Get out that rush order for a client’s boss for a trip he’s taking, and they’ll remember you,” she says. “Help them with ideas to make them look better, or suggest doing something a different way to save some money, and the next thing you know, you might have two or three phone calls from people who say you were recommended to them.”

Colleen Hartigan, vice president of sales for Madeira USA, suggests going a step further: Use rewards to entice customers to offer up other names. “With your best customers, offer a special deal on their next order for giving you a referral,” she says. In fact, consider creating a formal referral program for your clients, and print up your offerings on a flyer and post the information on your Web site – that gives your clients more of an incentive to actively refer you.

When you get referrals, “create an introductory letter or script naming the referring person and her company, and reach out,” says Hartigan, who does more than making contact and mentioning a client has referred her. She uses a testimonial from the client to further warm up the referral, accompanied by details on how her work improved the client’s business. Whichever way you approach it, though, Hartigan warns “not to assume that because you used insider info in your first message that referrals will call or e-mail back,” she says. “They have a hundred other things to do, and already may have someone who does that work for them. Follow up again, plus a sample, to ensure contact.”

Go In Deeper

If you have an account with a sizable firm and have completed a few successful projects there, it’s time to act further within that organization. At that point, the relationship is at a place where you can broach the subject of being referred to coworkers, or at least ask who else makes similar decisions in other departments. “However, one of the hardest parts is trying to break the bonds that other departments have with their current vendors,” says Greg Smith, owner of Thread and Ink Designs in Salt Lake City. “An internal testimonial really helps out,” especially when pitching to human resource or purchasing departments.

Price Pressure


Making a good first impression with an intriguing elevator pitch “is harder, and easier, than many people think,” says Jennifer Cox, co-founder of the National Network of Embroidery Professionals. “It’s hard to feel comfortable and confident in a setting where you don’t know anybody.” On the other hand, if you practice diligently before entering these situations, “Your description of your business and your role in it will come naturally to you, without having to think,” she adds. More importantly, “This frees up your mind to be able to adapt your pitch to what you’re hearing from the other person – you definitely need to respond from the listener’s point of view. If you can do that, approaching people at networking events becomes easy and even fun.”

When crafting a response to, “So what do you do?” aim for something memorable that also meets the listener’s potential needs. An example: “ ‘We do embroidery’ isn’t nearly as memorable or useful an opener as, ‘We help people dress professionally for work,’ or ‘We help organizations boost their name recognition through decorated apparel,’ ” Cox says.

Andy Shuman, general manager of Topton, PA-based Rockland Embroidery Inc. (asi/734150), feels that the decorating industry’s best elevator pitches are different in these tough times than the ones that worked well in the past. “The benefits a decorator provides with her timely and attentive service are key points to get across, but I don’t think the products themselves should be overshadowed in the initial conversation,” he says. “Our industry seems to be trending very closely to retail styles, products and designs, and you should get that across early on.”

Master the Dreaded Cold CallTop Sales Strategies for 2010

With so many people letting their phone calls go to voice mail nowadays, it’s critical that you’re able to use the brief time you have in a message to emphasize the benefits you can offer a prospect, rather than decoration services you sell. “We say that we can help with branding and give you many ideas you might not have known about or thought of, because this is what we do every day for a variety of companies,” says Sharon Schamehorn, co-owner of Elite Sportswear & Promotional Products (asi/186738) in Edmonton, Canada.
Another tack: “If I call a nonprofit, I say we’re in the promotions business, which means that we can help you increase donations,” says Deb Johnson, co-owner of On Target Promotions (asi/287578) in Riverside, CA. “If it’s a carpet cleaning company, I say that we can help increase your business by having people remember your name and your services.”

In those instances where you have live interaction with a prospect, either in person or on the phone, your objective should be more than simply establishing credibility – this is also the time to develop trust and likeability. Bill Lampton, a former fundraising executive who’s now president of Championship Communication, notes that this first impression isn’t about making a sale – it’s about proving to the prospect that she’s the focus of attention rather than you or your products or services.

“The one thing you must demonstrate in a first meeting is that you’re a good listener,” Lampton says. “It takes discipline to keep asking questions and making notes rather than jumping in and talking, so you have to practice. But doing this makes other people so comfortable that they think, ‘If I go with this person, they’ll listen to my problems and challenges.’ ”

For Johnson, the approach goes like this: She demonstrates a bit of knowledge about the prospect’s company and their industry, and then she frames her job in terms of the benefit it brings to clients. “I say that we use promotional apparel and products to keep their name and brand image in front of clients,” and to increase awareness among non-clients, too, she says. Then, she asks questions about the firm’s overall business objectives; who the targets of their programs are; and what the prospect has done with apparel in the past. Only after all this does she ask about immediate needs for which she could offer ideas.

Network Like a Pro 

When going to an event, Anna Johnson, president of Phoenix-based Super Embroidery and Screenprinting (asi/339634), always wears a stylish garment she decorated. Once there, she scans the room to find someone with a logo on their shirt or wearing an otherwise interesting garment. The conversation she strikes up “can go so many ways,” she says. “I might mention I recently did a similar application for a local company or a special event. Or, if I see that their shirt has a logo that’s not the best quality, I ask what the logo represents, and eventually I mention that I’d love to take a crack at making that logo look fantastic.”

Other angles to explore: “With the green movement being hot right now, I might break the ice by asking if they’re following what’s going on with eco-friendly apparel,” Johnson says. “On the whole, you can usually find out fairly soon what a person’s interest or passion is, and then just slowly relate what you do to their interest.” So if a person is athletic, you can ask which fabrics they like best while playing, and talk about the latest ones you’ve worked with. Or if someone talks about their new grandchild, you can mention the family tree or blanket you embroidered for new parents not too long ago.

In short, “Try to find out information that you can follow up on,” Johnson says. “Just make sure to frame the conversation with questions – and give your full attention – so that they enjoy giving you the information. After I’ve broken the ice, a prospect will usually ask questions about me, so I make my elevator pitch and we go from there. And someplace in that encounter, you should end up with an appointment for further conversation, or at least a referral to someone they know – sometimes even without you asking for it.”

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