In our industry, too many people act as if earning a free lead is a matter of being nice or less expensive than the competition. We are encouraged to use door hangers, conduct follow-up visits, and send newsletters in order to generate low-cost leads. But a true referral is different. Referral leads are emotionally based and therefore require that you think about the customer’s experience not in terms of service, but in terms of experience.

Let me tell you a true story. I purchased a new phone recently. After doing my research in terms of product and provider, I selected a company that was competitively priced, offered the coverage and usage plans that fit my needs, and carried a variety of models.

All of the information I was looking for was online, as I did everything I could to shorten the visit to the store. For me, shopping for technology is right up there with trips to the dentist. However, this particular consumer experience was fantastic and instructive. It also reinforced a fundamental of referral generation: You have to work harder for free leads.


I was politely greeted by an elderly woman (let’s call her Fran). Her tone was courteous. She didn’t assault me with the latest sales pitch or pressure sell. Instead, she used one of the most-effective sales tools in the business: her ears. As I explained my job and my needs as a consumer, she simply asked open-ended questions and listened to my answers.

Her active listening skills were outstanding, as were her constant affirmations that she was paying attention to my needs. She repeated my remarks with those great, “So what I hear you saying is …” phrases. She maintained solid eye contact throughout the conversation and never appeared distracted by other customers or her co-workers. She made me feel like I was the only customer in the building, and that my needs were hers as well. That sort of empathy goes a long way towards building effective rapport and taking down any potential barriers or objections.

After explaining my needs to Fran, I was ready to shop. I went right for the latest whiz-bang phone, sleek and sophisticated. My fingers were flying through the demo tour when Fran politely asked me why I was drawn to that phone. I explained that I liked the easy use and, frankly, the “cool” factor. She smiled, paused, and said, “That’s not the phone for you.”

She continued to explain that she had heard me say that the primary use for the phone was business. I agreed. She also reiterated my need to have specific features. Lastly, she reminded me that reliability was pretty high up there on my needs list. Again, I agreed.

At that point, Fran took a different (and less expensive) phone from the cabinet. She noted the specific features and benefits and explained how they were the right solution based on my needs, as opposed to a fairly new and untested product that might let me down when I needed it. Fran’s ability to apply her active listening skills to my specific needs made me feel like she had my best interests at heart. Sold!

While the transaction was being completed, Fran gave me a complete “tour” of my new phone. Beginning with the functions that I would be likely to use the most, she carefully demonstrated the operation and then gave me a chance to practice. She set up my e-mail, my Web browser, and transferred my address book. She methodically explained the rebate process and volunteered to mail it for me. She removed all of the obstacles that can usually cause consumer anxiety and a phone call to the tech support hotline.

When I was completely confident in the product, she gave me her card and asked a simple question: “Have you heard about our referral rewards program?” She went on to describe the program as a cash or product incentive for referring new business to that store. “And,” she continued with a smile, “I am the most requested consultant.”

It was easy to see why. As a professional saleswoman, she chose to deliver a level of service that elevated the experience above the norm and delighted me with the ease of the entire transaction. As the leading referral producer, she simply worked harder than her peers for those bragging rights. By the way, did I mention she also sold me a wireless headset, carrying case, and warranty?

Every aspect of the customer’s experience needs to feel personalized around their situation. From the first phone conversation until the final walk-through, the customer must feel like your team goes above and beyond the norm. You have to surpass their expectations. You have to be better than the other guys. You have to create an emotional experience. You simply have to work harder for a referral than you do for any other lead because you’re asking for a level of trust that is intimate and uncommon in heating and air conditioning.

Here’s my conclusion: If you are serious about winning the referral game, you have to be serious about improving your entire sales process. You have to dissect all of the opportunities you and your staff have to impress a customer, to elevate the experience above routine sales or service call, and to turn it into an overwhelmingly positive experience.

Like Fran, you have to do everything better than the competition in order to compel people to talk about their experience with your company. Only then have you earned the right to ask for the referral and expect to be rewarded.

Here’s the kicker: The following Sunday I needed help with the phone. It was urgent. I took her card from my wallet and called her cell number. Fran answered in two rings, even though she was at home watching football with her husband. She answered my question, took care of the problem, and thanked me for calling. I’ve referred two people to her since then. Let me know if you want her number.

Publication date: 06/08/2009