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There is plenty of education on the importance of referrals, and as photographers I think we can all agree that the lifeblood of our business is referrals; our success depends on it. You may be familiar with the saying that goes something along the lines of this:

It costs anywhere from six to eight times as much to generate a new customer as it does to sell to an existing customer.

This concept applies to referral business as much as it applies to repeat business. When an existing satisfied client refers us, that referral comes to us pre-qualified and has an existing appreciation for what we do. There is much less “selling” to convert them to a client in comparison to a “cold” inquiry from someone who Googles us.

If we can all agree on the fact that referrals are important, then I can stop that part of the conversation here. I’d rather spend the bulk of this article discussing ideas and tactics instead of convincing you that referrals are important. You know referrals are important, that’s why you’re reading this article, right?!

Referral enablers

How do we get our clients to refer us, then? Let’s look at the same question in a slightly different way:

How do we provide such a remarkable experience, deliver the highest quality product and exceed expectations in a way that makes our clients want to talk about us?

This is an easier question to answer, and it’s ultimately what referrals are all about. At Sprouting Photographer, you know that we love actionable ideas and tactics, but I want to really enforce the idea that referral tactics are useless unless you have solid business practices, an excellent customer experience and are delivering great photography. This is why I have established three “referral enablers” that need to all co-exist and before even asking for a referral:

  • Great customer experience
  • Beautiful photography and finished product
  • Exceeding expectations and delivering delight and surprise

It’s only when these three enablers are in existence that a referral can truly be genuine and effective. Before you ask for referrals, be sure that you have really perfected your photography, your products and your customer experience.

Referral rules

Building on the “referral enablers” above, here are the five “rules” that you must follow for every single client in order to truly make a referral successful:

  1. Be remarkable – give people something to talk about.
  2. Exceed expectations and only ask for referrals once you’ve over-delivered.
  3. Ask for referrals at “happy points” in the relationship.
  4. Be specific when asking for referrals.
  5. Always thank your clients for referrals when they give them.

When to ask for referrals

The best time to ask for referrals in the life cycle of a client is at the “happy points” in the relationship. You should only be asking for referrals when your clients are thrilled and “over the top” with you, your service, their images and their experience. When you are designing your customer experience (check out this article that I wrote about designing a killer customer experience) you must build in “happy points” to the flow where you intend to ask for referrals. Some example “happy points” where you may want to ask for referrals throughout the process include:

  • After the session when you’ve delivered a great experience and you’ve showed them a few images on the back of your camera. They’re happy, excited and feeling good.
  • When you e-mail (or better yet – mail) a teaser from their session and surprise them.
  • When you deliver the final product (prints, album, book, etc) and they see their finished images for the first time.
  • At some point after the session when you deliver a surprise (gift print perhaps) and delight them.

When you’re designing your customer experience, be intentional about injecting “happy points” into the flow – this is when referrals are most likely to happen. To help you define and grasp the “happy points” in the relationship, they will be at one of three points:

  1. When you exceed expectations.
  2. The delivery of happiness.
  3. When you surprise and delight.

How to ask for referrals

When most photographers think of how to get referrals, they think of the awkward process of asking their client to write down the names of three people who might appreciate quality photography for you to cold-call. First of all, this process doesn’t have to be awkward. Let me remind you of the three “referral enablers” we discussed earlier – if you are truly meeting each of them, then your client will be thrilled to give you a referral. Secondly, it doesn’t have to be awkward or icky at all. What follows are ten ideas as to how you can get referrals in your photography business.

Referral idea #1 – Just ask!

Asking for a referral at a “happy point” in the relationship is a great way to start this conversation of referral ideas. This is the “traditional” way of asking for referrals that I discussed earlier. It bears repeating that if you are truly following the “referral enablers” then this shouldn’t be a difficult process – your client will be happy to give you a referral. Here is an example script that you may use:

I really enjoyed photographing your family and spending time together. I’d love to work with more families just like you. Do you know anyone – perhaps a family member, a friend or a colleague – who might enjoy the same type of images and that we created for you?

Referral idea #2 – Send a referral letter

If you want to get real serious about having a “warm” referral, then ask your client to write a referral letter on your letterhead. This is to be directed towards someone they know who would appreciate the same kind of photography that your client just had with you. Mail this letter to their friend with a small print from your client’s session and a letter saying something along the lines of:

Your friend had a great experience having their family portraits captured and wanted to tell you about it. Here’s one of their favourite images in case you haven’t seen them yet, as well as a letter from them. They thought that you might appreciate something similar for your family.

Referral idea #3 – Introduction

A softer iteration of the previous idea would be to ask your client to introduce you to a friend or family member who needs a specific photographic service via e-mail or social media. Have them tag both of you in a status post or in a photo.

Referral idea #4 – Educate your clients

If you don’t want to ask for a specific referral (or in addition to doing so), then you should educate your clients on how to refer you. This way you can stay top-of-mind in their heads. There are two parts to this:

  1. Teach your clients what to listen for to refer you.
  2. Teach your clients what to say to refer you.

As a quick example, a newborn photographer may want to educate their clients that the best way to look for referrals for you is for them to listen for the words “expecting” or “pregnant”, and anytime they hear that, they should tell that person how special the newborn images are, when their baby is so small and tender.

Referral idea #5 – Give gift certificates

Segment your client list, and determine your top 10% – clients you love working with, who have been repeat customers, spend an appropriate amount each time and really appreciate your photography. Send them a “referral package” that includes a gift certificate for themselves to use towards their next session, as well as three gift certificates that they can give (on behalf of them) to three friends for complementary sessions.

Referral idea #6 – Social media

Social media is great for word-of-mouth and you can use very effectively to build relationships and get referrals. Try posting an image from a recent session on Facebook and “tag” your client in it. In the “description” for the image, write a call-to-action that your client’s friends will see that encourages them to “like” your page or contact you for a “special”. Better yet, you could design an image with a call-to-action embedded on the photo itself and e-mail it to your client to put on their own Facebook page.

Referral idea #7 – Make an “event” out of product delivery

Offer to make an event out of the delivery of your client’s finished products. For example, if it is a family portrait client who has ordered wall portraits, offer to visit their home at a scheduled time to hang them personally to ensure they’re displayed at their best. Tell them that you’ll arrange for lunch and ask if they’d have a friend join who may also be interested in family portraits. You can talk to them about their session, they can see your finished product and service, and you can get a first-hand testimonial from your client. It’s almost a guaranteed client!

Referral idea #8 – Referral cards

Instead of just giving business cards to your clients to hand out for you, why not give them small business card sized prints or press-cards with their images on it that also just happens to have your contact information on the back. This is basically a personalized business card, and who wouldn’t want to hand out small wallet-sized prints of their own family and brag! After all, that’s why we put images on Facebook or social media, right – to share? Enable your clients to do this in-person and offline as well.

Referral idea #9 – Testimonials

Ask your clients for a testimonial, but don’t just leave it at that. Once you’ve published it (on your blog or website), share it on social media, tag your client in it and ask them to share it with anyone in specific who might be looking for that type of session.

Referral idea #10 – Referral program

I made this the last idea here on purpose. Certainly a referral program is a great idea, but it shouldn’t be your first (nor only) referral campaign. Referral programs are great for supplementary referrals (when you reward those who refer you) but personally, I would rather see my clients referring me because they want to refer me, and not because I give them something in return.

Non-traditional referral ideas

Asking for referrals doesn’t have to be uncomfortable. Remember that if you truly optimize the three foundations to being a referable photographer (experience, product and expectations) then your clients will want to refer you. They’ll be doing their friends/family a favour by passing your name on. Next week, I am going to follow-up this article with a second discussion on the topic of referrals that is all about non-traditional referral ideas, so stay tuned! In the meantime, if you want to dig deeper into the idea of “referrals” for photographers, you MUST check out Episode #15 of the Sprouting Photographer podcast, where I have a chat with Becker from Photogrefers.

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