What Comes Before Referrals?

What Comes Before Referrals?

As I began to interview various coaches for a book project I am working on, one thing became clear very quickly:  Word of mouth referrals are the best source of new business.

I believe this to be true for any type of business.

Referrals put you at the front of the line, connecting you with someone who obviously has the need and desire to work with someone who can help them solve their problem(s).  Whether it’s a good fit or they are willing or able to pay for your services is another story, but referrals put you so much farther along in the buying process than being mixed in and competing with other unknown resources.


But as a new business just starting out, getting word of mouth referrals can be a Catch 22.  If you’ve never had clients or customers prior to starting your business, who is there to refer you business?

Here are some of the the best ways to get referrals while just starting out:


While I am a huge fan and practitioner of online marketing and Search Engine Optimization, I also realize that you have to get out there and interact in the “real” world.

Joining a networking group like BNI or LeTip or your local chamber of commerce can be very helpful for a variety of reasons:  Of course you want to get new business, but belonging to in-person networking groups helps you hone your elevator pitch.  It helps you articulate what you do, who you serve and why.  It exposes you to people who know other people who may know someone who needs what you offer.  It also gives you the opportunity to show your enthusiasm for what you do and allows people to sample your expertise.  BNI, particularly, allows you to practice public speaking in front of small, friendly groups of people, which helps you build confidence in your abilities and float new ideas and get instant feedback.

While I eventually outgrew BNI for the size and type of clients I wanted to meet, it provided a rock solid foundation that I rely on to this day.  It was almost like a training ground that has led me to grow my digital agency and has led to many paid (and non-paid) speaking engagements throughout the years.

But regardless of the type of in-person networking you participate in (and notice I said participate!), it’s all about planting the seeds that you can harvested later.

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While I am not a fan of working for free or giving away your services, offering “complimentary” consultations (sounds better than “free”) is a great way to go if you are just starting out.  One coach does very well by posting flyers around her town offering free, initial coaching sessions. Another coach told me she offered 10 free 1-hour consultations that resulted in 7 new clients.  You may not have that type of success rate but offering complimentary consultations is not only a great way to generate some traction for your coaching business (or other types of business) but it’s a great way to actually practice and apply your skills in a real-world environment.

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Another great way to position yourself for referrals is to look for alliance partners.  Again, this is not a quick fix but it can pay off immensely down the road.  Introduce yourself either in person or over the phone or at in-person networking events, to other business entities that may share your same customer base.   This could be Yoga studios, divorce attorneys, therapists, resume writers, employment agencies, etc.

Understand the niche you serve as well as other businesses that serve the same niche but from a different angle.  And referrals are a two way street.  By referring someone who comes to you to someone else, you are still helping them out but sending them to a trusted resource that you know will take care of them, which reflects back on you as well in a positive light.


Offering free workshops to groups of people through women’s groups or chambers of commerce is another way to attract people to your services.  Timing the workshops to holidays and the time of year can generate lots of attention.  Workshops on divorce or death of a spouse tied to Valentine’s Day (“When Love Leaves Your Life”) can generate a lot of interest.  Career coaching tied to job fairs or government employment news can draw attention.  Workshops around New Years when people are making resolutions can be great opportunities.  The point is to be creative and piggyback on real events that are going on in the world around you and your clients.


As with Internet marketing and marketing in general, you have to participate in several areas to effectively get attention.  There’s no single magic bullet so I’m a big fan of trying different things to see what works, what you’re comfortable with and what you start to have success at.  You also should think about a marketing budget. Yes, spending money to market your business is something you should plan for before you start.  Even the free workshop or complimentary consultation offer requires you to get the word out somehow.  By teaming up with an established organization like a women’s group or Yoga studio, you can tap their marketing efforts to help you get the word out.  But you still need to do some of the heavy lifting.   This blog post we wrote about setting up a marketing budget may help.   

And while coaching can be considered a “calling” for a lot of coaches, at the end of the day it’s either a real business or a hobby.  Nothing wrong with either one but be honest with yourself.  Becoming a coach in order to help people and give back may be your “why” but being able to sustain it and yourself means you have to be willing to invest money in order to make money.  Because if you are not willing to invest in your own business — both time and money — why should your clients?