so much more than word of mouth marketing

To accelerate and multiply the likelihood of genuine quality referral business, you need to get the timing right, ensure the member has good things to say, and incentivise their action, says Paul Brown.

Everybody loves a holiday, and there's nothing better than getting a great deal to an exciting new destination where all your cares just melt away. The minute you book your holiday you start telling people about it; most are genuinely pleased for you, some are a little envious while others have been there before and either endorse your choice or warn you of the traps. It doesn't take long before your circle of influence are all in the know that you are finally taking that break, but few – if any – will rush out to follow in your footsteps and book their trip too. For many, the timing will not be right, and for those who are interested in emulating your experience, most wait to see how it all pans out for you first. It's when you get back and tell everyone about your experiences that the real referrals start, be they positive or negative.

It can be an equally exciting journey starting a membership at a health and fitness club, engaging a new personal trainer or even trying a new eating regime under qualified supervision. New clients have already been through many planning stages in their own cycle of change and are finally ready to make the transition from their old lifestyle to a fitter and healthier new one. While many of their close friends and loved ones will be aware that this has been on their mind for some time, very few will themselves be ready to follow the same path just yet. For those that are, it is understandable the majority still sit on the fence and wait to see how it all works out first.

So why then is it common practice in many sales-focused roles, including memberships and PT packages, to make the point of sale the primary, and often the only, time to ask for referrals? Not that consultants don't enjoy some success through this process, but it suggests the most excited the member is ever going to be about their decision to join is on day one – and if that is true, then the problem goes way deeper than 'how can we get more referrals?'

Every member and client you have has a circle of influence that can become an 'army of influence' sufficient to fill your business ten times over, so it stands to reason that 'friend or family' is a common response to the question often asked of new members: 'How did you hear about us?'

However, this does not really tell you if their choice was strongly guided by the recommendation of others, and importantly there are steps every business can take to accelerate and multiply the likelihood of genuine quality referral business. It's all about timing, ensuring they have good things to say and incentivising and rewarding their action.

So how do you make referrals a genuinely proactive and successful form of marketing, and when is the best time to secure these introductions? For those readers in a hurry for answers, the skinny is this:

  1. Best time for referrals: 30 to 45 days after joining, ideally at their Results Review when they are excited about their success; 'Who else do you know that needs and deserves this kind of life changing support?'
  2. Next best time for referrals: 14 days into their new member journey, once you have already proven the promises you made are becoming a reality and their initial reservations are appeased.
  3. Third best time for referrals: any time. Every day another wave in this army decides they are ready for change. The place they will go first is the one that is doing a good job of looking after their loved ones and friends. All year round you need rotating referral campaigns visible in your clubs and businesses through signage, video messages, emails and newsletters encouraging members to bring guests.
  4. Of course, it is still advisable to get referrals from new members when they join – with all the other strategies in place, there's every chance the word has already spread about your culture of care, and therefore a level of trust allows you to ask without apology;
    'You probably have loads of friends and contacts in your phone that need something like this and would love a free chance to experience our club – who are the first two that come to mind that I can set up a complimentary trial for?'

Whether you get quality referrals right away or not, you've planted the seed that you can return to in the ensuing points of contact suggested above.

Now the caveat: you have to earn positive referrals and at the same time avoid buyers' remorse, as we all know that an unhappy customer tells way more people about you than a happy customer does, and you do not want that kind of publicity.

As basic as it sounds, the first step in earning a recommendation is to at least meet, and ideally exceed, your client's expectations. People join health clubs and take on personal trainers and nutritional programs to get an experience, expertise and results they could not achieve on their own. It is vital they see results within 30 to 45 days, as this is a critical timeframe in the cycle of change: if you hit, you win, and if you miss or ignore, you lose big time. It is equally vital that the results not only focus on the physical enhancements that a new program can quickly bring, but also highlight the emotional, motivational and psychological benefits that carry over into their everyday life and relationships.

It's great to be able to reward and thank your clients for referrals. Gifts, discounts and incentives can all play their part, but the most powerful thing you can do for a member or client to make them feel happy with their decision to recommend you is to properly look after those they send your way. Honouring the introduction and doing the right thing makes them look good – and that is the most powerful reward of all. Conversely, the most common reason people choose not to volunteer referrals is the fear that their friends will be annoyed by being exposed to pushy sales strategies. It's only a win-win if everybody is better off.

When it comes to business strategies, you should always start with the end in mind. If you can sit down with every new member or client around a month after they joined and together recognise all they have achieved so far with a real sense of excitement and achievement, they will be highly motivated to help you connect with the people they know and care about. When they directly influence a friend or family member's decision to join, that is a true referral and goes way beyond just word of mouth awareness. This is more than a campaign or a strategy; it's a culture that can mobilise a sleeping army and ensure your business success.


Paul Brown
Paul is the president of Face2Face Retention Systems and consults in sales, marketing and retention systems to some of the world's most successful health and fitness clubs. Having lived and worked abroad for the past decade, he is now based back in his native Australia and working with select club operators in Australasia. For more information email or call 0416 299892.