As a small business owner, it’s imperative to know where to invest your resources when it comes to developing new customer relationships. Among small businesses polled by Verizon and Small Business Trends in a 2015 survey, 85% said word of mouth is the most common way customers learn about their businesses. No other type of marketing or advertising even came close (online search engines were a distant second at 59%.)

It stands to reason that referrals from existing customers can be immensely powerful in the small business realm, where building customer relationships often takes a personalized approach. Your existing customers are your best ambassadors because they have experience with you and your products. When you earn their trust and loyalty, this positive impression will spill over organically to their friends and colleagues.

Small business owners who are not capitalizing on the power of word of mouth are potentially losing thousands of dollars every year. In the spirit of National Compliment Day on January 24, we’re sharing a few ideas for boosting the number of referrals your business receives. After all, a referral is one of the best compliments a customer can give.

Provide excellent customer service.

Customer loyalty is the prerequisite for any referral, and happy customers are more likely to remain loyal to your business and share their positive experiences with others. Providing first-class customer service should be a top priority for every small business owner. This means going above and beyond to satisfy your customers’ needs and making it standard practice.

At Summit Financial Resources, our single-minded focus on client service is the foundation on which we build strong working relationships to help companies grow. If this is an area where your business can improve, the good news is it doesn’t require a big expense or a massive operations overhaul. To get started, check out our top tips for ramping up your customer service and helping your team keep customer satisfaction top of mind.

Make it easy to share on social media.

When customers let you know they have had a great experience or can’t live without a product or service, encourage them to share the love on social media. Statistics show that 68% of customers put their trust in customer reviews when they make a purchase, and online opinions are the third most trusted source of product information.

Create easy ways for customers to spread the word by having prominent links to your social media pages on your website, in your e-newsletter, and in any emails you send out. Take advantage of tools like Facebook Recommendations, which allows people to find businesses based on their friends’ referrals. If someone recommends one of the millions of businesses, service providers, or venues with a Facebook page, the system will automatically include a link to that page in the comment section.

Give your best customers a star turn.

Getting a client to personally recommend your business to their friends based on first-hand experience is the ideal referral. Putting your customers in the spotlight is a great way to leverage their loyalty and let them know how much their opinions matter. Make an example of your best customers by featuring them in video testimonials on your website, case studies in your marketing materials, or as the “stars” of your advertising campaigns. Offering them a bigger stage for singing your praises helps reinforce positive relationships and generates priceless benefits for your business.

Add an incentive.

Another way to increase word of mouth is to start a customer loyalty or referral program. There are many options to consider for rewarding referrals, such as offering customers a discounted product or service or a gift card to a popular business like Starbucks or Amazon. Offering a thank-you gift just for making a referral relieves customers of any responsibility for selling your services and serves as an incentive for continuing to spread the word. Rewarding the referee as well creates another reason to purchase.

Maximize the impact of your referral campaign by using every marketing platform at your disposal to generate buzz. Social posts and guest blogs are helpful tools for starting a referral campaign, and you can go even further by opting for paid promotions both on and offline.

Just ask.

The key to success for any strategy to grow referrals is to ask for them. Research by Texas Tech indicates that 83% of satisfied customers are willing to refer others. However, only 29% actually do, primarily because they were never asked. Most people feel good about helping businesses they believe in, so let customers know you welcome their referrals, and offer simple options for them to do so.

Generating referrals to prospects is all well and good, but the initial impression you make and how you connect with them will determine whether or not they become customers. Here are three steps you can take to leverage positive word of mouth:

1 – Google your business regularly.

While it used to take time for word of mouth to spread, the Internet and social media have made it easy for people to share their opinions and experiences with a few quick strokes of the keyboard. When people have a bad experience, they are even more eager to share.

Although you can’t prevent bad reviews from happening, you can mitigate their impact by managing the way you respond to them. The first step is to be aware of what people are saying. Set up Google alerts with your company name to track information that’s showing up online. Monitor your social media sites regularly for customer feedback, and search popular customer review websites related to your industry. When you find complaints or comments that cause concern, using the opportunity to demonstrate superior customer service can help you turn a critic into a referral source.

2 – Stay in touch with your customers.

Many business owners are unaware of what it’s like to be one of their customers. An array of easy-to-use online survey tools can help you find out what your customers value most and chart that enthusiasm to get them talking about you. If you frequently interact with customers or clients in person or over the phone, have a quick discussion to gauge how things are going. This simple step will help you get a read on their satisfaction level and allow them to raise any issues or concerns. It also demonstrates your commitment to continually improve your service.

3 – Reinforce to your employees the value of positive reviews.

Small business owners often assume that their team understands the importance of customer service and the vital role it plays in generating positive word of mouth. The reality is that each employee probably has his or her own ideas about why it matters. In addition, if you focus a lot of time and energy on fielding negative complaints, you may be sending the signal that customer service is only about resolving problems, not avoiding them.

To ensure top-flight service, you need to get everyone on the same page. This can be as simple as making it clear to your entire team that the customer is your number one priority. Reinforce the importance of viewing each interaction with an existing customer or prospect as an opportunity to turn them into a raving fan of your products or services. Reward stellar efforts by showing your appreciation publicly when staff go “above and beyond” to delight customers.

Summit Financial Resources understands the value of referrals to fuel small business success. Incorporating proactive steps like these into your business practices will increase the likelihood of generating positive word of mouth from your current customers as well as those you cultivate along the way.

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Summit Financial Resources specializes in working capital financing for small to medium-sized businesses that need increased cash flow. We provide working capital financing through invoice factoring, asset-based lending, inventory lending, and equipment financing.