I would like to revisit a topic I covered once before: client gifts. This time, let’s look at client gifts through the lens of client referrals. We always talk about how our connection with our clients is relational, compared to the Big Boys who are transactional. Just by the nature of our industry, we get to know our clients in a rather intimate way. We need to stand out from the loud cacophony of business out there and stress that relational aspect. Client referral gifts are one way to do that.
Recently, a discussion popped up on one of the travel industry message boards from a travel professional wondering how to properly thank clients who have provided referrals. One of her clients consistently referred clients (the good clients who actually book travel!) to her and she wanted to show her appreciation. The response on the message thread was quite interesting to read. Many travel professionals feel the need to gift for referrals, and others do not, stating examples of other professional occupations that take referrals and don’t reciprocate in some fashion.
In our industry, referrals are highly prized, especially if they are the ones who are serious about travel, take your advice under consideration, and make it a pleasant experience for all. It can be a bit tricky asking for referrals, because if you do a poor job, the referrer is likely to hear about it and it may affect that client relationship in some way. Also, the expectations of you may be higher than they normally would from a client earned via some other method.
There are a number of different ways you can show your appreciation to a client who refers you. Many travel agencies have a structured referral program of some kind; usually, the referral earns the client dollars off future travel or a choice from a selection of items, such as gift cards or travel-related doohickeys or even agency-branded merchandise. There are some agents/agencies that gift for each referral that books over a certain dollar amount, and actually travels. Still others gift for certain referral milestones, and don’t announce the gifts ahead of time, relying instead on the clients to take the initiative to refer without any known incentive. All are valid methods of rewarding referring clients, and some work better than others depending on your location, client base, niche market, and other factors.
Some agents have suggested that others who reward referrals are spending their money away – examples are given, such as referring a friend to a specific doctor. The doctor doesn’t reward referrals to him, so why should we? We work very hard for our commissions, as small as they can be sometimes, that it does not make sense to spend that money on gifts for the clients. To those agents, I have to say you are slightly misguided. Perhaps in your market, or within your agency, you do not feel the need to reward referrals. You may have enough business coming through the doors through your own marketing that having a referral rewards program would not have the same impact as it would on a home based agency with one or two agents. Also, there are many examples of professional services that reward referrals: I know of one where a chiropractor will provide a free adjustment to someone who refers new clients.
It really all comes down to your personal situation and what you think makes sense for your business and your client base. Even certain niche markets are better suited to referral rewards than others; family travel, for instance, is terrific for a referral program of some kind. Giving something for EVERY referral is a bit overboard, especially if someone sends you a lot of referrals. I do believe in giving a gift for “milestone” type referrals – like the 10th or 20th referral – like you would honor milestone anniversaries.
My personal favorite is the surprise referral reward. Sometimes I’ll just call a client and invite them to a meal somewhere, my treat. One of my clients books a big group cruise with me each year, and every few groups I like to treat him and his wife to a meal to further nurture that relationship we have with each other. He is a businessman himself, so he’s fully aware of what I’m doing, but I try really hard not to “talk shop” during the meals, but instead spend the time learning more about them and their lives, and discussing current events and whatnot, like a friend would do. Recently, I invited this couple to dinner at a local restaurant. The meal itself cost me $30.00, including the tip. We all ate well, and even had leftovers! We had a good time getting to know each other a bit better, which will really help solidify our business relationship, and I came away from our dinner meeting with a new group booking for next year, plus two individual bookings for the couple themselves.
I see referrals as a form of relationship marketing. It doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg, and it can be something like treating your clients to a meal, or giving them a little doodad they can use on their next vacation with you. There are many ways to do it, and it’s up to each businessperson to decide for him/herself what is right for their business model and clientele, especially the clientele they want to reward.
Steve Cousino, ACC, CTA, LS is a four-year industry veteran and owner of Journeys By Steve, an affiliate of Sunnyland Travel Center in Springfield, MO. He specializes in cruise vacations, escorted tours of Europe and the Holy Land, group travel, and culinary-themed travel. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit his website at http://www.JourneysBySteve.com