Speak with seasoned, successful professionals in virtually any industry and you’re apt to hear a common refrain: “Most of my business comes from word of mouth or referrals from satisfied customers.” Sounds like marketing nirvana, doesn’t it? After all, getting a solid endorsement from an existing customer gives an advisor a huge advantage with the prospect; you’ve already been “pre-approved” by your mutual associate.

But asking for referrals sometimes can seem awkward or pushy, especially at the end of what often can be a lengthy LTCI sales process. Here are some ideas to help you maximize your referrals and reap the rewards of meeting with clients who are already favorably inclined toward you and your products.

1. Approach your current customers
Asking your current customers for referrals is the oldest marketing trick in the book. That’s not to say it’s always an easy process, however. How do the pros do it?

“I’ve been in the business 30 years, and I ask for referrals in a little different way,” says Jim Geitgey of Geitgey Financial Services in Springfield, Ohio. “In each interview I have with my clients – whether it’s to work up a plan or do a review – I give them five of my business cards and ask them to pass them along to anyone they think might benefit from my services. It’s a continuing process with my ?A’ clientele, who know I’ll give their friends and colleagues the same type of help I’ve given them. Because they know me and have worked with me, they know I’m low-key and not pushy. Consequently, many of my clients give me referrals and I gain new business every year as a result.”

2. Develop alliances
Jack Keeter, owner of Pacific Sales & Marketing LLC, in Henderson, Nev., takes the referral process one step further. “There is a big difference between a referral and an introduction,” he says. “To me, a referral is when someone tells somebody else, ?Call him; he’s a good guy.’ It might be a customer’s friend, neighbor or someone they go to church with, and that’s certainly a technique that can work.

“However, what I prefer is to be introduced to people. There’s nothing like being personally introduced by either a customer or another business professional; it’s so much more effective. When it comes to referrals, my goal is always to be introduced, in person.”

3. Close the generation gap
Geitgey finds some of his most effective referrals come during the educational process of the LTCI sale. Educating the customer often involves talking with the individual family members who will ultimately carry forth his clients’ long term care directives and wishes. Often, the process of working so closely with his clients’ relatives gives him an opportunity to gain their trust and work with them on their own long term care plans.

“I try to do multi-generational planning, and when I plan with mom and dad, I also suggest that we develop a plan with the daughter and son,” Geitgey says. “Many times I have to talk with the adult children anyway about how we are going to structure the plans to take care of their parents. So I’ll often suggest that we have them get started with the same process and make their own long term care plans. Many of those prospects are baby boomers, and because I’m a boomer as well, I can explain the product in a way they can relate to and help them make a thoughtful plan.”

4. Network it forward
The ambiguous concept of “networking” often can involve a lot of legwork without a lot of payoff. Attending networking events and professional mixers may yield a pocketful of business cards, but how many of those contacts actually turn into customers? Keeter has learned that “paying it forward,” by changing the focus away from his agenda and toward his colleagues’ goals, actually produces better results.

“I’m constantly working on building a professional network,” he says. “First, I try to help the professionals I meet grow their business; that’s always my initial objective. But interestingly, reciprocity comes to roost right back to me. As a result, I don’t have to spend much money on traditional promotions like direct mail.”

5. Try the direct approach
Carol Hunsaker, CSA, CLTC, CIC, owner of Preferred Benefits LLC, of Denver, has been selling LTCI since 1984. Six years ago she started her own business to focus primarily on the product. She also enjoys plenty of referrals from financial planners, CPAs and estate attorneys.

“I used to try to make professional connections at events like the chamber of commerce, but I have less time to do that now,” Hunsaker says. “Instead, I’ve developed a rather direct approach. Now I simply call those professionals I’d like to have a referral arrangement with and ask for a short appointment. I meet with them, explore how they feel about LTCI, offer my services, and leave them with a brochure and card.

“Sometimes the meeting can be an educational process, because even financial planners may not clearly understand the LTCI product. But that’s actually a perfect scenario – professionals like that need an expert that they can recommend to their clients,” she says.

“Some may still view LTCI as an older person’s insurance, so you need to demonstrate that it really can be used by anybody. People don’t realize that you might need LTCI because you have a car accident. If you can show your associates how you can be helpful to them, and educate them to the fact that long term care insurance needs to be a part of any good financial plan, you’ll get plenty of referrals.”

6. Throw a great party
“One approach that has worked for us is to hold a client appreciation event,” Keeter says.

“We invite our existing customers and encourage them to bring their friends and neighbors. We explain that we’d like to thank them for their business and at the same time, grow our business. We’ll even send them five invitations preaddressed to their associates, and ask them to pass them on. When we have the endorsement of our customer’s close friends, it’s a powerful advantage. What we’ve learned is that if people like you, they’ll be your friend. If they trust you, they’ll do business with you.”

Because people are busy and inundated with demands on their time, a customer event needs to have a strong appeal to be effective. Holding it at the newest restaurant in town, offering free cocktails and hors d’oeuvres, tying it in to a sporting event, providing entertainment, holding a prize drawing, or even offering an educational seminar will give customers an incentive to attend – and bring their friends and colleagues.

7. Seek letters of recommendation and testimonials
Don’t forget about the power of the written word. The unscripted comments from your satisfied customers can create more credibility and persuasion than nearly anything else you can do. Ask your clients to write you a letter of recommendation on their letterhead that you can use in your own presentations. Or simply call them and ask for a testimonial statement that you can quote and use on your Web site or promotional materials.

“Obtain testimonial letters from your clients, both about the shopping process with you and on their experience with claims,” says Phyllis Shelton, president of LTC Consultants in Nashville. “After all, collecting benefits and the ease of the claim process are what it’s all about.” She adds, “Another really great testimonial is when you have sold to two generations in a family.”

8. Ask for advice
In his classic book, “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” Dale Carnegie wrote that most people yearn to feel important and appreciated. Keeter applies this principle to his conversations with customers.

“I don’t ask for referrals. I ask for my clients’ advice,” Keeter explains. “I might say something like, ?Bob, I love doing business with retirees like you. I’d like to ask your advice: If you were me, how would you go about marketing yourself to people just like you?’

People are usually willing to give advice, and they are also willing to invest in seeing that advice come to fruition.

Think outside the box in your approach. If you have the courage to do this, it will compound your business three- to four-fold.”