You may perform a wide variety of services or offer a broad range of products to your customers, but for a referral, your description of what you do should be narrow and detailed, focused on a single aspect of your business. Yes, you may offer the most elaborate assortment of office furnishings available in your part of the state, but that doesn’t mean much to the prospect who is looking for a truckload of one specific type of high-tech desk for a new technology company.
Your referral sources will find it much easier to get you an appointment with a prospect if you have provided information that will help them address the prospect’s specific needs. You’re an office-furniture wholesaler? No help. One of your specialties is custom-designed, made-to-order desks, shelves, and file cabinets in large lots? Bingo. You’ve snagged an appointment.
It seems counterintuitive, but in reality, the more laser-specific you are, the more likely you are to get referrals. People tend to say they “do everything,” because they want to catch everyone. They want to throw as broad a net as possible. The problem with a really broad net is that there are big holes in it. When you say, “I’m a full-service printer; I do everything,” that doesn’t mean anything to your prospects, or to those who refer you to them. What they’re thinking is, I don’t need a full-service job. All I need is a particular kind of print job. If I’ve come down with a serious illness, it doesn’t help me much to know that there are three hospitals in town. What I really want to know is, in which hospital will I find the specialist who can cure me?
When you tell a referral partner you’re a full-service provider, you’re asking her to mentally sort out all the people she knows and cross tabulate what they do against all the things you do. That does not work; people aren’t computers. Yes, a referral partner needs to know the full range of products or services that you deal in—eventually. But more immediately, she needs to know with some precision the specific needs you can fulfill, because that is what the customer is focused on in any given instance.
If you say, “Who do you know who is a sports enthusiast? Here’s how he can use my product,” then you’re letting your referral source do a simple, easier kind of mental sorting. The more you can educate people about different things that you do—one at a time—the more likely you are to get referrals in the long run. And getting referrals in a specific area doesn’t mean you can’t continue to offer other products or services.
When operating in a referral network of some type, your immediate goal is not to close a sale…but to train a sales force. You’re training people to refer you, and saying that you’re a full-service provider and that you do everything doesn’t train anybody at all. You wouldn’t tell a salesperson for your company, “Just tell them we do it all.” You need to be as specific as possible. As a specialist, you can more easily articulate to your referral sources what you do and how you do it, and they can in turn articulate it more readily to other people. Saying that you “do everything” sounds desperate—as though you have to do it all because you’re not successful in any one area.
Someone who professes to be a generalist, who “does everything,” is not only less likely to get good referrals—she’s also likely to be considered a “relationship assassin” within her referral group. Suppose an insurance agent who’s just joined your group comes up to you and says, “I can cover all of your insurance needs. I have life insurance, medical insurance, auto, home, business, and every other kind of insurance you’ll ever need. I’d like to be your one-stop insurance shop.” But you already have coverage from five or six different agents, most of whom you have solid business and personal relationships with. What she’s asking you to do is dump all your relationships and replace them with one relative unknown—herself.
A better approach for her would be to say to you, “I’m a life-insurance agent who specializes in executive benefits, specifically for tradespeople. My passion, in my insurance practice, is to deliver executive-benefits packages to owners and managers of contracting firms so that they’re able to retire effectively with tax-protected investments and be able to sell that business.” In this way, she’s addressing a specific need you may have, but she’s not trying to assassinate all of your long-standing relationships. She’s presenting herself as an expert in an area where you need expert advice, rather than a generalist with broad but superficial knowledge.
You may still not be convinced that narrowing your focus is a good idea. You may be thinking that, if you present yourself as a specialist, you are limiting your potential referrals and your future business; that is, you can’t do business outside your niche. The truth is, whether you’re a true specialist or a generalist presenting yourself as a specialist in order to facilitate easy referral, you’re not limiting yourself by doing so. People are actually more likely to refer a specialist than a generalist.
If you’re like most specialists, although you generally do only one or a few kinds of business, you can still offer many other products or services that are closely related. Yes, you’ve narrowed down your business to the things you like to do or are able to do best, or that bring you the most profit, but you can do other things as well. And one good way to attract long-term business is by stepping outside your niche and taking on the occasional odd job that can win you a loyal customer for future business.
One last point: If you sell everything, you’re not selling on value; you’re selling on price. That makes you a provider of commodities. And that strategy can work for you—but only if you’re Wal-Mart.