How to Reinvent the Referral

As an independent agent or broker, you understand the importance of referrals for generating new business. As many as 79% of insurance shoppers ask family and friends for recommendations, according to the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, while 65% turn to work colleagues and social acquaintances.

When you present yourself to someone who has been referred to you, you face fewer sales objections than you do when pursuing leads generated by other means. As many sales trainers point out, the closing ratio for referred leads can be as high as 70%, while the closing rate for non-qualified leads can be as low as 10%.

Referrals can also be viewed as the gifts that keep on giving. People who purchase insurance based on a recommendation from someone they know are more likely to become highly loyal insurance customers, as well as loyal promoters of the agents and carriers who insure them, according to research conducted by Bain & Company.

There is a catch, however.

While there’s no question that referrals are the best way to reach qualified prospects, a Texas Tech study presents an interesting conundrum. A majority of 83%  of satisfied customers are willing to refer a product or service—but only 29% actually do, according to the survey.

It seems that willingness to make a referral does not a referral make.

The Action Gap

So, why do such a relatively small percentage of people make referrals when they are naturally predisposed to do so?

From my conversations with insurance professionals around the country, I’ve found that there are two frequently cited reasons for the gap uncovered by Texas Tech. First, many agents or brokers simply forget to ask for referrals. They either don’t have a formal program in place to automate and incentivize referrals. Or, their referral marketing efforts have taken a back seat to daily operations—essentially, they get too busy working in their business to work on their business.

Sometimes, agents don’t want to be perceived as needy, bothersome or pushy—so they don’t ask for referrals at all, which is a shame because most of us grossly underestimate the willingness of others to be helpful and to say ‘yes.’

In fact, according to Dr. Robert Cialdini, author of “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Revised Edition,” most people have a natural tendency towards reciprocity which moves them to help others who’ve helped them.

On the surface, Cialdini’s premise seems simple. However, dig a little deeper and you’ll discover that societal expectations regarding reciprocity have changed dramatically since Cialdini first published his work. For consumers in the digital age, great products and stellar customer service are no longer enough. Although important, they meet what most of us have come to expect as the basic standards of doing business.

In other words, operational excellence doesn’t automatically make a provider referral worthy. For insurance professionals, this means having to work harder to build deeper and more personal connections with customers and prospects—and recognizing that the relationship comes first, while the “ask” comes later.

Offer Value First

Agents and brokers who focus first on cultivating connections will find that asking for referrals eventually becomes a natural part of a strong relationship. Strong relationships are built on trust, and the best way to earn trust is to provide value without consideration for how you will benefit.

One of the traits that define great connectors is that they connect to give—not to get. I call this having a “Connector’s Mindset,” where the focus is on adding value wherever possible. But what does it mean to “add value?” Well, value means different things to different people, which means it’s up to you to find out what your customers want and to help them get it.

Not surprisingly, the most successful agents and brokers are great listeners and keen observers of human behavior. This is a valuable skill that applies to the physical world as well as the virtual one. Consumers may have gone digital, but when it comes to insurance they still want to engage with a real person.

By paying attention to what your customers post online, you’ll gain a better understanding of their perspectives and be able to communicate with them in a personal and non-promotional manner. As for social media, remember this simple rule: Be the most interested instead of trying to be the most interesting. It’s far better to engage with a handful of people in meaningful ways than to broadcast to an audience of thousands—most of whom aren’t paying attention anyway.

You might also find that the most valuable thing you can offer is a heartfelt conversation and a sympathetic ear. We’re often taught that when it comes to business relationships, we need to keep a professional distance—that we need to keep things from “getting personal.” But people do business with people who they know, like and trust.

Ask yourself: How can I use my skills, abilities and connections to make someone else successful? Think beyond insurance to offer value in the form of a strategic business connection, a suggestion for getting through a difficult situation or a tip on a job opening, for example. By consistently serving others, you lay a solid foundation that generates loyalty and referrals for a lifetime.

Finally, one of the most worthwhile ways to add value is to say thank you. Acknowledging others is a powerful way to build connections that last forever and shouldn’t be limited to policy renewals. Schedule a regular time in your weekly calendar for making calls, writing cards, sending gifts or sharing other meaningful expressions of gratitude with your professional connections.

Asking for Referrals

You’ve built strong relationships and now it’s time to ask for something in return. If you’re confident in your abilities and you treat everyone well, even when you don’t need anything, you’ll find your connections are more than happy to refer prospects. The secret? Ask for them.

As the Texas Tech survey illustrated, referrals don’t often happen on their own. Remaining passive is not an option. But fortunately, there are very specific, yet simple things you can do. Here are three things you can do to take control of the process and make successful referral requests:

1) Be specific. The best way to ask for a referral is to give people specific reasons for why you enjoy working with them—and that you’d appreciate having more customers just like them. Your specificity may trigger an immediate referral. Or, it may plant a seed that results in a recommendation several months or even years later.

The beauty of this type of request is that your customers know exactly why you appreciate doing business with them, which makes it easier for them to send qualified referrals your way. It also strengthens your relationship and their loyalty to you.

2) Be direct. When requesting referrals, eliminate the word “just” from your vocabulary. If you’re using this word to soften your requests or appear less “pushy” and more polite you’re unconsciously undermining your efforts. The word “just” also suggests that what you’re asking isn’t that important. As a result, their incentive for helping you becomes a lot weaker. It’s much better to say, “I would appreciate an introduction to Bill.”

3) Be sincere. Be upfront about why you are asking for a referral and the steps you’ll take to follow up with someone who is referred to you. One of my biggest professional pet peeves is taking the time to make a personal introduction or referral—and then never hearing back from the person whose business I referred.

As a professional, it’s important to show people who offer you their time and support that they’re helping you achieve your objectives. Provide them with updates to keep them in the loop, even when a referral is not a match.

Of course, it should go without mention that you should have a formal referral program in place which should not only be manageable but also worthy of positive word of mouth. My independent insurance agent rewards all referrals with a $10 coffee gift card and a chance to win a $50 restaurant or retail gift card in a monthly drawing. In addition, the agency donates another $10 to one of several local nonprofit organizations.

The program is simple, yet highly effective, and the agency does a great job promoting it on their website, in every newsletter and through all their communications. When it comes to structuring a referral program, make sure you create something that’s easy to replicate and promote—and leaves you and your team with enough time to pursue other proactive outreach tactics, such as sending thank you notes.

Bind Relationships…and Business

Strong relationships have always been the hallmark of the independent agent and broker. As consumers become increasingly distrustful of paid advertising and marketing, the strength of these relationships is more important than ever. Strong relationships are central to your business. Considering 71% of people say that social media recommendations from family or friends influence their decision to use a company, brand or product, according to a survey conducted by Hubspot, while another 75% think that companies purposefully misrepresent the truth in advertisements.

To leverage hard-earned relationships into generating solid referrals, you must take control of the process. Get in touch with your connections and let them know how they can help you succeed. Be specific, direct and sincere, and remember that the basic facts of human nature translate into people naturally wanting to help you if you’ve made efforts to help them.

Think of it like this: Referrals reflect the health and strength of the relationships that you’ve worked so hard to cultivate. By asking your customers for a referral, you’re giving them an opportunity to provide value for the important people in their lives by recommending you.

Patrick Galvin is a speaker, coach and business relationship building expert who works with insurance carriers and agents across the country. He is author of “The Connector’s Way: A Story About Building Business One Relationship at a Time,” the bestselling business parable that features an independent insurance agency owner as its central character.