Why Your Customers Don’t Refer and the Simple, 4-step System to Compel Them to Reliably Refer

By Tobin Jarrett


I'm Tobin

I help entrepreneurs and marketers gain leverage, make more money and save time by putting automated systems in place to do the heavy lifting!
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Now, this company was creating breakthrough results for the coaches who participate in their program, with students and grads giving nearly universally positive feedback of their programs; yet those same happy customers weren’t referring others to the program.

Like, almost not at all.

Each time they prepared to launch the next round of their program, they’d get in a mad last-minute scramble for registrations and then remember to email past grads and ask them to help spread the word about the upcoming offering.

The crux of their email went something like…

“Our next program is coming up! We’ll give you $500 for every person you send our way!”

It was more eloquent and evocative than that, but it was essentially a dangled cash carrot.

Mystified at why their first request got ’em negligible results, they hammered the folks with more emails offering the referral commission.

Their results plummeted further until at last their once-loyal list began unsubscribing from their list altogether. Wha a waste.

What went wrong?

This situation isn’t the exception, it’s the rule. I work with a lot of game-changing businesses that sell training, coaching, or other programs aimed at causing a particular result in their customers’ lives, in their businesses, relationships, well-being, and other specialized niches. I’m constantly amazed at how few referrals even the happiest of their customers send their way.

Many of these business’s customers are having their lives transformed in profound ways. Yet when the time comes for the business to ask current and past customers to spread the word, they hear crickets.

Ever experienced this? Did it make you scratch your head, like: “These people LOVE my stuff, they rave about how much they’ve gotten out of it, and yet they won’t even take a cash reward to share it with their friends? What am I, taking crazy pills?”

It’s ironic, but, yes, they did love your stuff, and, no, they’re not going tell anyone about it, and, no, (most of you) are not taking crazy pills.

There are, however, four essential things you may be doing wrong:

1. Mission Trumps Money

If you’re a mission-driven business (like, you’re trying to create some change in people’s lives, businesses, bodies, relationships, etc. or affect change on the planet), then, in most cases, offering monetary incentive muddies the primary psychological driver on which you should be relying: your mission.

It comes down to the way humans are wired. The desire for financial gain and the desire to help our friends with a great recommendation that could change their life – those two parts of the brain – are utterly distinct. If your aim is to motivate your customers to spread the good word about your business so that their friends and neighbors can enjoy the same benefit while simultaneously making the world a better place by spreading your business’s mission, then put away your money and pound that drum – the rallying cry of your mission.

Muddying the motivation by offering referral commissions confuses your customers on a subconscious level while diluting the potency of both the mission and the monetary motivation.

Ultimately, when you do this, your confused customer moves on to the next thing in their day, without being moved to share for you, because they lack the laser-sharp clarity they need about why they’re referring.

They’re not sure: are they in it to make a quick buck, or are they helping change the world by enlightening another’s soul? The two motivators cannot simultaneously occupy the same space (their cabeza) at the same time.

2. When your customer evangelists refer you, there’s nothing that makes ’em look good

You may not have done the work to understand what would have your existing and past customers/clients look good in the eyes of their friends and family. See, we humans love to be the connector, the one who turns our peeps on to the hidden gem, that weirdly underpriced dry cleaner with the amazing customer service. If we can have our referral be the source of something that a customer couldn’t have gotten without us, well then we get to enjoy that satisfaction, bigtime.

3. Sow, nurture, then harvest

Beyond your mission, your ask should be anchored in what they, the current client, student, participant, has gotten out of it, and what, by extension, their friends and family could get out of your product or program.

If you haven’t built opportunities for your customers, students, members, clients, whatever, to share the benefits they’re getting from your product throughout (and directly after) the process, then you’re leaving a lot of opportunity on the table. You’re also missing out on testimonials, which, stop doing that.

Without gaining experience talking about the benefits they’re getting from your product as they’re consuming the product and directly afterward, they’ll lack the precious fluency they need to comfortably and authentically share about what they got out of it.  Hitting them up later to essentially sell it for you, can then feel weird, awkward and pressurized.

I call this “seeding” the referral before you ask for it. This is a longer-term part of the strategy and if you haven’t already been seeding referrals along the way, then there’s a bit of work to do, but you can still implement a TON of this strategy and have it bear fruit before you’ve got your offering seeded nicely. And there’s no time like the present! Best time to plan an apple tree? 20 years ago. 2nd best time? Today.

4. You’re “Systemless in Seattle”

If every so often (launch time?) you just cross your fingers, and start from scratch, pummeling your past customers with emails asking for them to help you out with referrals, then you’re laying a solid foundation for failure.

You’re just taking a series of spasmodic actions again, that haven’t worked well in the past, and hoping for a different result. That’s insanity, friend. Loco en la cabeza, amigo!

If you want to apply your most strategic, creative self to this (and any) problem, then I recommend you stop attacking that same problem over and over again like killin’ snakes with a stick. Instead, create a system that allows you to solve it once, and solve it with genius.

Then, once you’ve designed and mapped out the strategy, you’ll want to build and then automate that system. Or, if you’d rather save a lot of time and hassle and get an already-proven strategic system right into your Ontraport account, I recommend checking out the Leg Up program, which contains (among many others) The Invisible Referral Machine system already done for you and ready for you to simply customize and deploy.

Let’s dig in a bit deeper:

1. Sow Seeds:

Take a step back and look at your offering. At each point in the fulfillment of your product or service, look for the times when most are getting the big ol’ bangin’ benefits.

At every one of those moments, look for a way to build sharing about that benefit, into the customer’s very experience of using the product or service.

For Example:

Let’s say your product is a training program about how to lose weight and cultivate self-love.

In this case, you might have each lesson’s assignment include a prompt to share with three of your closest friends or family members:

  • How you felt when you achieved each weight loss milestone, big and small, as you achieve it
  • One breakthrough you had in positive self-talk, say, sharing what words you used to use mentally badmouth yourself, and what new thoughts you’ve replaced those hurtful ones with as you’ve cultivated your newfound self-compassion.

…or, if appropriate, you might have the assignment be to make a “victory post” on social media, tooting their horn at what they’ve accomplished out of their using your product or participating in your program.

Keep the Prompts to Share Non-Salesy:

That your customers are participating in this cool training program will be a natural element to the conversation; however, you need to remember that the intention for your customers sharing what they’re getting out of your product at this stage is NOT to sell anything, but simply to share the victories they’re having. Unless the other person is a kitten-hating narcissist, they’ll naturally be curious about how that change is happening and in all likelihood, be curious about learning more about the program. The absolute worst thing to do at this point is to muddy the waters with anything that could even be construed as vaguely promotional.

It is these kinds of seeds that need to be planted throughout the process of the course.

Then, when finally, the time is right to ask for referrals, your customers’ communities will be rife with candidates, ripe for the harvest.

If you haven’t already planted these proverbial seeds in your product or program, no worries.

The best time to plant an apple tree? 20 years ago.
The second best time? Today.

The most important piece to have in place before you ask for referrals is a customer or client who is currently in a state of good feelings and appreciation for your product.

One of the best ways to create those conditions is by getting them to give you a testimonial first, before you ask them to refer their friends. If you’re strategic about what you ask when you’re getting them to give their testimonial, they will naturally be brought back into that state, simply by virtue of recalling all the good stuff they got out of your product or program…if you’re doing your job, that is.

So when you’re designing your referral-generation system, you’ll want to precede the referral ask with a request for a testimonial. This way, you can use automation to route ONLY those who are loving you to the referral ask phase of the system, so you inadvertently ask a dissatisfied customer for a referral, coming off as tone-deaf in the bargain.

2. Use Incentives that Make the Referrer Look and Feel Good 

The most effective referral programs are 3-prong.

That is, their’s something in it for all three parties – the business (so, you), the referrer (your current/past custy) and those they refer (your hopefully new custy!).

For those businesses that are out to make a difference and which have a mission-driven component, what can work better is giving the referrer the opportunity to help their friend out with something special that they couldn’t get on their own.

This could be:

  • A discount
  • Access to the product outside of a launch window (so, while the cart is closed)
  • Extra bonuses, group coaching sessions, etc.
  • What else?!

Now, the referrer gets the opportunity to look good in the eyes of the person they’re sending your way, by providing special access to something of value they couldn’t otherwise have gotten. This is psychologically powerful if you get this right.

In most cases, you’ll also want to give your referrers something valuable as well!

If your biz is in one of the “make money” types of niches, then giving referrers regular old cash affiliate commissions is the coin of the trade and nobody cares about your stinkin’ mission, anyway. Sorry.

But if you’re one of the lucky ones who don’t have to rely on cash as the incentive, you should take some time to consider what these customer evangelists will find valuable.

This could be:

  • Early access to a new product before the general public
  • Extra digital bonuses, group coaching sessions, etc.
  • If a single sale is worth a lot to you, it may be warranted to do something like send them a bouquet of flowers or a bottle of wine!
  • What else?!

3. Only Ask Your Happy Customers for Referrals

You may have the best product on earth, but some of your customers still aren’t going to dig it. That’s life.

Pro tip: you don’t want to ask the “haters” to refer. It has you come off as tone-deaf and it’s a recipe for problems. Thusly, you’ll want an automated system that allows you to get feedback from all your customers, but then only asks those who were happy with their experience for referrals. On the other hand, those who gave negative feedback, giving them the opportunity to vent is critical, because…

  1. You get to learn from their experience and improve, and…
  2. They’re less likely to take to the streets with their message of malice (#blastyoura$$onsocial).

This can also be automated if you have the right system in place. In fact, if you’d like, we’ve taken all of the heavy lifting out of creating this very system. You can learn more about Leg Up, which contains The Testimonial Engine + the Invisible Referral Machine, right here.

4. Give Specific, Measurable Calls to Action:

“Please help spread the word” is ten kinds of lame.

It’s vague and squishy. People have no way to know, for certain, how they should go about spreading the word, nor any way to know, objectively if they’ve fulfilled the request.

Instead, use the same framework that most successful people use for setting goals when you create your referral request plea…make ’em SMART… er, SMART-I!

  • S-  Specific: clear – the opposite of vague
  • M – Measurable: Can be counted (did they do it 1 time or 4 times?)
  • A – Actionable and achievable: When someone reads it (or sees you asking them to do it in a video) they understand exactly what actions are required and they can see themselves actually achieving what you’re asking them to do
  • R – Relevant: Your request for them is relevant to your mission – the two ideas must be connected – and the act of their referring MUST clearly further your mission and allow them to be part of the fulfillment of that mission.
  • T – Time-bound (if possible): if you can add in a time-bound component, so much the better! This can sometimes be done with “we’re out to help X people in Y days…will you think of 3 people you want to share this within the next 3 days?”
  • I –  Inspiring: it’s gotta light people up!

How to Deploy this Referral Strategy in Your Business:

You’ve got the framework for this strategy! Now you need to:

  1. do some planning and clarify how to customize the strategy, the incentives, the narrative, etc. in YOUR business for your offering, aligned with YOUR mission.
  2. Then, I recommend mapping out the flow using a mind mapping program like LucidChart, or else just do a step-by-step numbered outline that encompasses the flow.
  3. From there, you can deploy it in your business.

Or, if you’d like, you can save yourself a month or so of time, work and hassle with the Leg Up program!

You can learn more about Leg Up, which contains The Testimonial Engine and the Invisible Referral Machine, right here.

[box] I use ONTRAPORT to implement these campaigns but you could other software available. If you’re not already an Ontraport customer and you (wisely) decide to sign up for ONTRAPORT through us, you’ll also get my LaunchPad program (valued at $1,982) for FREE! Just sayin’[/box]

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