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How to Drum Up Customer Referrals

Norm Brodsky gives advice on how to get more customer referrals and sales leads.

Norm Brodsky is a veteran entrepreneur.

Dear Norm,

I have a company that works with people who have credit problems. We offer a free initial consultation and then suggest ways that our clients can improve their creditworthiness. You'd think that—given the poor economy coupled with a credit crunch—a lot of people would want, and need, our services. Yet business has been slow. Almost all of our customers have come as referrals from mortgage brokers or Realtors. Unless the pipeline is constantly fed, we have too many weeks of inactivity. Part of the problem, I think, is that people with financial problems are ashamed to let that be known. I know they're out there. How can we make them aware that we are here and that anything they tell us is strictly confidential?

Eilene Kondysar
CEO, Innovative Financial Solutions
Williamsburg, Virginia


I have two rules of selling that I often recommend to people. First, if you've found a good way to make sales, focus on getting as many as you can with that approach before spending time and money on untested methods. Second, always try to turn negatives into positives.

I thought both of those rules would be helpful to Eilene Kondysar and her partner, Harold Vazquez. About 70 percent of the time, she said, she could persuade the real estate professionals she met with to start sending her potential clients, and about 95 percent of the prospects would sign up after the free consulting session that she and Harold offered. With such a success rate, it seemed obvious how to increase their customer base: Get more referrals. I could think of two ways to do that: First, go to real estate professionals outside their immediate area. Second, try doing similar referral deals with accountants, lawyers, bankers, and other professionals who would be likely to know or meet people with credit problems.

Eilene liked that idea, but felt she still had a challenge overcoming the "shame factor," as she called it. I suggested she could turn that negative into a positive by addressing the problem head on. For example, she could produce a brochure saying something like, Ashamed about credit problems? You don't have to be. It could happen to anybody. We can help you get rid of them, and we can do it in strict confidence. She could put a similar message on her website and in ads in local publications. Eilene loved that idea and said she planned to implement it immediately. I asked her to let me know how it worked.

Please send all questions to Norm Brodsky is a veteran entrepreneur. His co-author is editor-at-large Bo Burlingham. Their book, The Knack, is now available in paperback under the title Street Smarts: An All-Purpose Tool Kit for Entrepreneurs.

From the May 2011 issue of Inc. magazine

NORM BRODSKY | Columnist

Street Smarts columnist and senior contributing editor Norm Brodsky is a veteran entrepreneur who has founded and expanded six businesses.

The opinions expressed here by columnists are their own, not those of

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