Small and growing businesses know that customers are the key to success, but not all customers are created equal. The best ones are advocates, willing to share their enthusiasm for your product and your team with potential customers and provide you with honest feedback about your services.

“Customer advocates are game changers for growing businesses,” says Callie Pfeifer, XMI customer experience manager. “Their referrals are valuable, and their honest feedback provides a real opportunity for improvement, and they can provide strategic direction as you grow. In essence, they are another pair of eyes on your strengths, weaknesses and opportunities, while also helping to promote the business.”

Becoming Customer Advocates

You might be tempted to launch an incentive-based referral program, but not so fast, Pfeifer says.

“Incentive programs can feel shady, whereas a customer advocate referring your business feels natural and credible,” she says. “At XMI, we strive to be on the same side as our customers, referring each another and looking for opportunities to partner together.”

Partnership opportunities might mean speaking on each other’s behalf, partnering on a case study or serving on a panel.

“At the same time, we continue to work together, and our relationship is strengthened every time we deliver on our promises,” she says. “From that foundation, we grow to be mutual advocates.”

Don’t Be Afraid to Ask

If the organic approach sounds like it takes a while, well, it does. But if you’re providing good service, don’t be afraid to just come out and ask a customer to vouch for you.

“If you are afraid of the answer, you have work to do on the relationship,” she says. “Not every client will be willing to be a reference for a variety of reasons. If the reason is that the client is too busy, you should be asking how you can help. If the reason is reluctance to vouch for your services, you must find out what you can do better and get to doing it immediately.”

The key to getting a “yes” is also about demonstrating the value such advocacy provides to the customer.

“Providing a referral should be an opportunity for our clients to network and promote their business as well as ours,” she says. “It’s also a chance to say, ‘Here is a decision I made for my business that worked really well. Let me tell you about my positive experience.’ This kind of exposure is good for everybody in the conversation.