Probably one of the greatest sources of solid leads is direct referrals. In my experience, when someone comes to you via referral, they are much more likely to book than if they found you through an organic Google search. The positive words of their friends carry much greater weight than any copy you can put on your website.
So how can you go about building a strong referral program?
1. Treat Your Clients Well
It goes without saying, that your clients are your greatest asset. It’s critical from the point of initial contact, until you deliver the final product, that you properly mange your client’s expectations. Communication is everything. You will want your communications with your client to be clear, concise and visually friendly. Applications like Adobe Spark can make it incredibly easy to create fantastic guides that walk your clients through your processes (think session info guides, ordering guides, what to wear, etc)
In addition, you will want to have a solid business policies contract. Your contracts are not just a legal document. Use this agreement to ensure your client understands everything from payment terms to what will happen if her child is sick on the date of the session. Don’t leave room for interpretation. Your client will be happier having a clear understanding of the process.
Also, be clear about the timeline for working with you, especially during busy season when turn-around time can be a little slower. And of course, always be on time for every job and respond to emails and phone calls as promptly as possible. If I’m away or traveling I always put an “out of office” on my email so clients know there’s a reason for my delay in getting back to them.
And of course, do what you said you will do. Your clients came to you because they were drawn to the beautiful images in your portfolio and the premium service you have offered. Make sure you deliver on that! And if something goes wrong and you are not able to deliver as your client is expecting, then make it right. Very rarely a re-shoot or a session credit may be necessary. It’s always best to ensure your client walks away happy!
Run your business like a business and treat your clients well.
2. Ask Your Leads How They Found You
When you receive a new lead inquiry, it’s really interesting to learn where they came to you from. Rather than using the standard contact form on your website, you can embed a custom contact form that links directly to your CRM. For example, I use 17 Hats and have created a custom lead intake form that also asks my leads how they found me. This not only helps tells you what marketing efforts are working, but it also let’s you know who to thank. Some of these referrals may be what I call “direct referrals” – those that come to you specifically on strong verbal recommendation from a friend, or “indirect referrals” – those that come to you via seeing your work on a friends social media feed. Both of these are important lead sources, and getting that information right for the initial point of contact with your potential client can be very helpful.
3. Reward For Referrals
Direct referrals a quite possibly your strongest lead source. These are the referrals where an existing client directly refers a friend to you. With these referrals, I believe it is best to reward both the new client and their referring client. For example, a $50 print credit towards a future session to the referring client and a free 8×10 to the new client that came in via the referral. Consider including referral cards in your packaging for clients to pass on to their friends.
I give each full paying client two $50 gift cards that they can pass on to friends (new clients only). Then, when their friends turn in their $50 card AND completes her session, I send the client who did the referring a gift card for $50 off their next session. This may seem like I’m giving away a lot of money, but the clients that come to me via these direct referrals are my target clients who truly value what I create, they are willing to invest in it, they are likely going to stay with me year after year AND they are likely to refer me to THEIR friends.
Indirect referrals are also an important source of business. These are the clients that come to you because they see your work shared by their friends on social media or maybe on a holiday card they received. While these referrals are often not as strong as the Direct Referrals, it is still important to let these referring clients to know how much you appreciate them. In these instances I will usually mail either a Starbucks gift card with a thank you note, or I will email them a coupon for a few free prints (whichever I think that specific client will appreciate more).
One important note: Don’t send any referral rewards until the new client has paid for their session!
4. Keep It As Simple As Possible
Just remember to be smart with your referral program. It must be smooth to run and logistically simple to manage. You want to create more business for yourself, not more work. In the past I maintained my referral data in a Google Spreadsheet and that worked nicely. However, somewhere along the line, I got lazy with that, and now I simply create a “To Do” item in 17 Hats under each contact (both the one that came to me via referral and the one who did the referring) of the referral award that is due to them. This task item also is dates to remind me after completion of the referred session date. This system works well for me, but it’s important to find the system that works well for you and doesn’t make this program feel hard to manage.
5. Stay In Touch & Send Cards
One of the best ways to stay on your existing clients’ minds is to stay in touch. Say thank you the old fashioned way – a hand-written thank you note shows thoughtfulness, and commitment towards your clients. You may also want to consider sending holidays cards, and even anniversary cards for wedding clients, and first birthday cards for newborn clients. I use my CRM, 17 Hats, to set up reminders for my wedding clients and newborn clients to send cards on these special occasions. A little gesture goes a long way, and it can help maintain good relationships with clients. Consider including a few business cards as well that they can give to their friends.
Your Newsletter is also a powerful way to stay in front of your clients. Consider sending out a quarterly communications announcing specials, sharing tips or glimpses of personal projects you are working on, and be sure to add in a reminder about your referral program!
6. Reward For Reviews
While these are not direct referrals, it can still really help you grow your client base if your current clients are spreading positive praise about your work and your business. Potential clients love to hear what other people have to say about their experiences! Encourage your clients to write a review on your Facebook page, Yelp or wherever else you think your target client is likely find you. You can offer them a token of appreciation such as a free print to help encourage them to set aside the time to review your business. You can also consider offering a free print for un-boxing videos or for them posting pictures online of your work hanging on their walls.
7. Keep Your Clients Coming Back
In order to build a strong referral program you need to have clients that return to you year after year. Each time you photograph a client, your relationship with them deepens and they become that much more likely to refer you to their friends. In addition to treating your clients well (as we discussed above), If you are a premium service, high-end photographer, it can help to have a returning client special. Not all clients are able to invest in a full session every year, but with a Repeat Client special, you can keep that relationship going, by offering a discounted package to be used within a year of a client booking a full session. Rewarding them for their loyalty can be very powerful. You want to keep that relationship going so you are the first person they think of when someone asks about photography. Note: If you are a lower-priced photographer, this program may not work as you may not have the room in your profit margins to shoot for any less than you already are.
8. Sell Products
There are many reasons why I think it’s preferable to always sell product with your services, but one of the unexpected reasons is that your work hanging on the walls of your clients’ homes can be a great way to get referrals! If your client has friends over for coffee or dinner and they have a beautiful gallery wall of your work displayed, people are bound to ask who captured those moments. This then can lead to some really great direct referrals!
9. Build Relationships With Vendors
If you are a wedding or event photographer, referrals from vendors can be a great way to build your client base. After completing a wedding or event, send along a Vendor Album to the venue, the florist, the stylist. When they use these images they will likely credit your business, but even better, when engaged couples visit their venue, the vendor may directly refer them to your business!
10. Tell Your Clients About Your Referral Program
Make sure your clients know that you have a referral program! Your referral program won’t do you any good if your clients don’t know that it is available to them or how to use it. You may want to consider including a card in your delivery package that says something like, “Want to Earn Free Prints?” or “It Pays To Share The Love.” And be sure to use your newsletter to remind existing clients of the rewards that await them for sending referral business your way.
A solid referral program can be such a valuable component to your marketing plan. Make sure you give it the attention it deserves, just be sure to keep it simple enough that you don’t create more work for yourself than it’s worth.