Why strategic alliances are your marketing goldmine

Would you like a regular flow of new business, without having to much selling or prospecting? Of course you would! What business owner wouldn’t?!

But yeah, like that’s going to happen…

You’ve probably already tried networking and cold calling and advertising and a heap of other so-called “low effort” marketing, and the time or money spent hasn’t been worthwhile.

Does that frustration sound familiar?

If you’re nodding away reading this, then you should familiarise yourself with something else: strategic alliance partners.

What’s a strategic alliance partner?

A strategic alliance partner is a company operating in the same industry as you, and which has the same target market, but you don’t compete directly.

Examples of strategic alliances:

  • Plumbers, electricians, builders, rental property managers.
  • Graphic designers, web designers, marketing consultants, copywriters.
  • Beauty salon, hairdresser, gym, personal trainer, makeup artist.

… Notice how they complement each other, rather than compete directly? That’s what makes a good partnership.

So why are these partnerships so important?

These partnerships are important because the clients of one business probably need the services of a related business. (Maybe not all the time, but certainly some of the time.) So most suppliers are looking for other suppliers to recommend.

The double-edged sword of referrals

Here’s the problem with referrals: when you suggest to your Best Ever Client that they should use a certain supplier, that infers that you recommend that supplier. And if that supplier does a good job, that reflects well on you.

However, if the supplier does a terrible job, that will reflect poorly on you. The Best Ever Client will probably doubt your future judgement and referrals – and that’s not a comfortable feeling if you’re passionate about delivering great products or services. You want your clients to be well looked-after. That’s why having suppliers you can trust are absolute gold.

Strategic alliances are all about care and trust

Being in a similar industry isn’t enough; the companies that are working together need to have a similar ethos around customer service.

That means it can take a little time and effort to find strategic alliance partners that are a good fit, but by crikey it’s worth it. Because if you get it right, you can expect to receive a regular flow of new business.


How to find strategic alliance partners

So you’ve decided that strategic alliance partnerships are a good way to grow your business: congratulations! Now you have the big task of finding suitable companies to partner with: how do you do that?

How to find strategic alliance partners

The first step in finding possible strategic alliance partners is to draw up a shortlist of industries. Remember, these partners should have the same target market as you, but without competing directly.

The next step depends on how upfront you want to be in your approach.

  • The direct approach: Consult a directory or list service to identify the names and contact details of companies fitting your profile for a strategic alliance. Then make contact with those businesses.
  • The softly-softly approach: Network in places where people in those industries spend time. Or attend networking functions and events aimed at those industries.

What are you going to say when you make contact?

When you contact the possible strategic alliance partner, be clear with your intentions. Let them know why you’re approaching them; what you can offer; and what’s in it for them. Sometimes financial rewards can crop up in conversation; at other times, the organisations are just happy to have a relationship with a good quality supplier they can refer work to.

How do you grow the relationship?

Like any relationship, a strategic alliance partnership rarely just happens, kaboom. It requires things like:
Same target market: you may think you have the same target market – but do you? It’s best to double check than make assumptions.

  • Goals: are you heading in the same direction, or do your goals converge?
  • Rapport: feeling comfortable with the choice of partner is vital.
  • Trust: developing trust takes time.
  • Win-win: both parties have to gain something from the relationship, and both parties have to be prepared to put some time and effort into making it work.
  • Communication: keeping in tough regularly is vital to the longevity of the partnership.

Not all companies you identify as possible partnerships work out; that’s just the nature of the game. And sometimes those strategic alliances fade in and out. The important thing is that you persevere and are consistent (and persistent) in your approach. Do it well, and in time you should uncover a goldmine of qualified referrals to your business.


How to make your business friendly

Could your business be scaring customers awayHave you ever looked up a company and:

  • There’s no map on their website, nor opening times. Anyway, you hop in your car and hope for the best…
  • You look up the address: you reckon you should be in the right place because your trusty map (or GPS unit) got you there… yet there is no street number marked on the building.
  • You can’t find anywhere to park? All the spaces are either reserved, full, or threatening a tow-away… and every single on-street space is full too. So maybe you end up parking half a block away in a dodgy looking side-street and pray that your car (and its contents) will still be there later.
  • You’re not sure which building is the right one? There are no signs or any other indication as to where you should be going.
  • On closer inspection, you can’t even find an entrance door? So you then pluck up the courage to ask in another office, and the snotty receptionist gives you some half-baked directions which you don’t quite understand (probably because she’s just made them up).
  • You’ve now found the door, found which floor you’re meant to be on, arrive there… but the door is locked/unmarked/etc.? (One time I took the stairs, simply because I prefer stairs to elevators, only to find that they led to a fire escape door which was locked… so I had to walk all the way back down and THEN take the lift! It was a hot, humid Auckland day and I was rather clammy by the time I found the reception area!)
  • Eventually find where you’re meant to be, but are later than planned, hot, sweaty, in a bad mood, grumpy, etc?

I’m sure we’ve all had frustrating experiences like this to some degree

Just imagine how hard the sales staff will have to work just to get you feeling at ease and happy to be there. They’ll be starting on the back-foot right from the outset!

Personally, my heart sinks when I visit a business like this. I figure they may as well go home, not bother. If they care that little about the customer, why should I spend my money with them?

The business doesn’t seem friendly (nor customer-friendly) – so why should I do business with them?

Sadly this scenario is fairly common – and yet so easy to fix. Here are my pointers for companies who rely on customers (and suppliers) visiting them:

1. Have a “contact us” page on your website

On said web page, include:

  • All your contact details – including the physical address.
  • A map of your location. This is soooo easy using Google Maps – and free!
  • Your opening hours.
  • Car parking details. If there are reserved spaces, mention where they are: and if you know full well that they’re nearly always taken, suggest where the best alternative parking spot is. If it’s pay-and-display, let your customers know if they’ll need cash or if they can pay with their cell phone or credit card. Better still, give them the coins or refund them their money.
  • A photo of the outside of your building – this will help people to find your business.
  • Any other directions or instructions that will help your clients.

2. Invest in signage

Invest in as much signage as is necessary – don’t be tempted to skimp. Make it easy and obvious for customers to find your business – and if you find they often go the wrong way, do something about it! Be proactive!

In some cases, a simple self-printed and laminated page is better than nothing. Yet nothing is often all you see… that’s just lazy!

Hint: if you do go for the DIY option, be sure to replace it regularly because paper does fade, get crumpled, rain-damaged etc. A dog-eared bit of paper is not a professional look.

Oh, and if your address includes a street number, please please display that street number somewhere on your building or shop-front.

Remember – there’s no such thing as making your business too easy to find!


A stressed out customer won’t feel too get about spending money with an unfriendly business.

Chances are you may not see them again, and the stories they’ll be telling their friends will be about what a nightmare they had finding your business, rather than raving about the excellent products or services on offer.


Customer referral programmes: 7 steps to get yours cranking!

Referrals are the lifeblood of most small businesses, and they are indeed a wonderful thing. What better than to have your customers doing your marketing for you!

The problem is, that if this is left to chance, the process is very sporadic. Wouldn’t it be great if you could enjoy more referral business?

The good news is that it’s totally possible to be enjoying more referral business! I’ve worked with numerous clients over the years to systemise their referral systems, and the good news it’s easy to do.

However, there are definitely some ways of creating a referral system that work better than others. Here’s your 7-step guide to getting more referral business.

1. Give your customers a service so amazing that they say, “WOW”!

First things first: you need to be giving consistently excellent service. No-one is going to recommend a business that gives terrible or lack-lustre service. So your business needs a good story behind it.

To show what I mean, here are some stories that are so dull that no-one’s likely to repeat:

“I went to ABC Dentist and it didn’t hurt too much.”
“XYZ Plumbers installed my new bathroom OK. I paid my bill and never heard from them after that.”
“I bought an ABC Gadget and it works OK. I managed to understand the instructions after reading them a few times.”
“XYZ Mechanics put a new battery in my car and it’s OK now.”

And here are some stories that you wouldn’t want your business to be part of:

“I went to ABC Dentist and it was really painful – AND their instruments looked filthy!”
“I got XYZ Electricians to install a new power point, and they left a terrible mess behind – it took me ages to vacuum up all the dust!”
“I bought an ABC Gadget and it fell apart after just 5 minutes! It’s rubbish!”
“My car was repaired by XYZ Mechanics and they did all this extra work I didn’t ask for, or approve, and the bill was astronomical!”

Instead, these stories make great conversations – and will get your business talked about in a good way:

“When I left ABC Dentist, the friendly nurse gave me a bag of freshly-baked Dental Buns to take home!”
“XYZ Plumbers installed my new bathroom and did a great job – they even left a bottle of posh bubble bath for me!”
“When I picked up my car from XYZ Mechanics, it had even been valeted for me, I’ve never seen my car look so clean and shiny!”
“When my ABC Gadget broke, the company replaced it without question AND gave me a spare set of batteries by way of apology!”

2. Find a way of facilitating referrals

Make it easy for your customers to tell your story and pass on your details.

A common way to do this is with a referral card of some kind. (Or if your business is web-based, then an online system of some kind works well.)

But let’s assume you do business face-to-face, and will be giving printed referral cards. The key here is to encourage your customer to keep them in their wallet, and that means three things.

Firstly, the referral card has to fit in their wallet, so a business card-sized referral card is ideal. (Or at least something that folds down to business card size.) Don’t be tempted to do anything larger because it’s “prettier” – it’ll just get left on the desk… or in the bin. Trust me, the cards that work are business card-sized. End of story!

Secondly, make sure the referral cards look good. Let a graphic designer work their magic. Personally, I’ll happily put a well-designed card into my wallet, but if it’s ugly and looks cheap, I won’t want to carry it in my purse, let alone give it to my friends. It would be too embarrassing to give them something cheap and ugly looking! If your card looks bad, it makes your business look bad. Good design is well worth the investment.

Thirdly, there has to be an incentive for the referrer… and that’s what the next step is all about:

3. Think about rewards that will motivate your customer – and add value

Some businesses choose to offer a reward to incentivise referrals and speed up the word-of-mouth activity.

It can be a good idea to reward (a) the referrer, and (b) the referree.

Some schemes involve prize draws, so that only a select few win a reward. My feeling is that schemes that reward everyone will get a better uptake. People love instant gratification, rather than the possibility of a gift!

Any rewards offered must be fabulous in the eyes of the recipient: enough for them to shout your story from the rooftops! It’s probably better to offer nothing at all, than something really dull or lacklustre.

And remember, it’s all about perceived value, not the actual value of the item. Therefore value-added gifts of some kind work well; or contact your strategic partners for a relevant offer that’s beneficial for them, you, and your customers.

It’s best to avoid offering discounts: all that does is erode your bottom line. And to be honest, discounts aren’t really all that exciting. 10% off; 20% off… yawn.

But a free car valet? Or a bouquet of flowers? Yes please!!

4. Make the rewards practical to implement

The other thing to consider is that the reward has to be easy and practical to implement. I’ve seen some referral schemes offer bottles of champagne, which is great if you have a local wine shop that can pick, pack and send all the orders for you.

Otherwise you’ll have to be prepared to spend a lot of time buying the champagne; buying boxes for it; writing labels; organising couriers… you get the picture!

So yes, make sure it’s practical to implement – no matter how busy you get.

5. Offer a choice of two rewards

Here’s a sneaky tip: don’t offer one reward – offer two.

Why? If you offer just one thing (e.g. a bottle of champagne), people then starting umming and ahhing if they want that item or not. For example, they start thinking: “do I really want champagne? I don’t actually like it that much. Nope, I don’t think I’ll bother with this offer.”

But if you offer TWO rewards (e.g. champagne or a bouquet of flowers), the thought process is quite different. People don’t think “yes/no”, they think “which one”. For example: “hmmmm, I don’t really like champagne much, but I would like a nice bouquet of flowers to brighten up my desk. Yes, I’ll go for the flowers”.

Don’t be tempted to offer more than two rewards, that just makes the decision too hard!

Do send the rewards out promptly: a handwritten thank you card with it goes down a treat, too.

6. Promote the referral scheme

You ain’t gonna sell it if you don’t tell anyone about the referral scheme. It might sound obvious, but I’ve seen to many businesses carry out all the steps above… and then not implement the scheme, and then claim that “referral schemes don’t work”. You have to market the referral scheme, just like you market everything else, and you need to market it in as many ways as possible:

  • Face-to-face: you and your team need to tell your customers about it. To make sure this happens consistently, write it in your sales scripts.
  • Newsletters: this is a great way to publicise the scheme. Ideally, make it a regular slot in the newsletter, and announce how many goodies you’ve given away, or who the winner is. As well as reminding people that the scheme exists, it’s also proof that it’s “real” and that people out there are benefitting from it.
  • Website: your website is another great medium to promote the scheme. Best way to do it is to dedicate a page to the referral scheme, telling people how they can sign up; how it works, and announce how many goodies you’ve given away.

7. Test and measure!

As with all marketing, measure the response you get.

Try different offers and rewards too; if one thing doesn’t work, try something else.

Your referral programme should be flexible and measurable so that you get the best results out of it. Perhaps survey some customers as to what they think of it: chances are you’ll get some great feedback.


A referral scheme is a very effective way to welcome new customers to your business. It’s also very cost-effective: all it’ll cost you is the design, printing and rewards. And this is significantly cheaper than running advertising or direct mail campaigns.

I sometimes have clients saying to me: “oh, the referral scheme isn’t working very well. We only get or so new 5 clients a month through it”.

My response: Wow, 5 new new clients a month? That’s 60 new clients a year, and if they’re spending $200 each, that’s $12,000 of sales revenue… and the design and printing of the cards cost you less than $800! And if those clients come back year after year, that makes the whole exercise even more profitable!

In terms of client acquisition cost, a referral scheme is hard to beat for small businesses. Especially if you follow the 7 steps above.