Your Extended Sales Force

Feb. 1, 2013
Selling is hard. Having referral partners puts sales on autopilot.

I’m part of a weekly networking and referral group. Each week business owners and sales people give a 60-second commercial about their business. It’s always a great reminder that there are people who are more than happy to promote my shop. All they need is the right information. The motivation already exists.

When I first started leading Center City Collision at the end of 2003, I remember feeling overwhelmed by how much work went into getting customers. Thankfully, the previous owner had a good customer base and many people came in during the early years and asked for him. At least once or twice a week I’d hear, “Larry still working here?” This gave me the opportunity to tell them a little bit about the transition to my ownership and then I’d offer to write an estimate.

My strategy at the time was simply to land as many jobs as I could, one by one. As someone pulled up, I’d grab my clipboard and a blank piece of paper and walk outside. I’d jot down a few notes about the damage, get their VIN and write an estimate, all while trying to read them and see if I had any chance of getting the job or if they were just shopping or curious. When I finished the estimate, I’d give them a copy with my business card and just hope they would say “yes” when I offered to put them on the calendar. That was always the moment of truth—the close. And more often than not it worked. And one customer at a time we started to grow.

Then a really bad thing happened at the Volkswagen dealership next door. Someone ran across the hoods of several new cars. I never did hear if they caught the person that did it, but the result was eight brand-new cars were damaged and in need of repair and paint. Eight! At the time we were averaging about 10 cars a month. It was obviously more than we could handle all at once.

The dealer asked us to do four of them and they would send four to another shop. I was stoked and relieved at the same time. The pressure to sell was off for a couple of weeks and we could focus on getting these cars repaired and back to the dealer as soon as possible. We turned the vehicles around as fast as we could and we were able to match the factory paint. The dealership seemed pleased.

More importantly, this deepened our relationship with them. We were given the opportunity to show them our capabilities and grow their confidence in us. Shortly after this, we became the dealership’s primary referral, which, as it turned out, has generated a significant portion of our yearly revenue for the past eight years.

This experience taught me a very important lesson about the power of referrals and the importance of having referral partners. Rather than try to land one job at a time, I realized there are people out there who, because they are trusted and have a customer base, have the power to refer many customers. You might call them influencers, connectors, trust agents, or whatever you want. The reality is that there are people who can send you a lot of profitable work if you can find a way to get them to know, like and trust you and your shop.

So here are a couple of questions to help you uncover potential referral partners:

1. Are there businesses in your area that you don’t compete with, but do share customers with?

2. Who are the people who get to your customers before you do?

In our industry, good referral partners include car dealers, insurance agents, tow truck drivers and mechanics. If you run those through the grid of those two questions above, it’s easy to see why.

Of course it’s not all about just landing a big partner. That is only the beginning. Once the relationship is started, it needs to be nurtured and deepened by regular contact and quality work.

So how are you identifying and nurturing relationships with your extended sales force?