It’s common for trainers to give incentives to clients for referrals, things like gift cards or discounts on services.

These are fine as reactive measures for showing appreciation to someone who did something nice for you.

But they’re terrible as intrinsic motivators for encouraging action.

We all want referrals, right?

  • Referrals convert faster to clients.
  • They do less shopping around.
  • They spend way more money.
  • They’re more engaged in our services.

Referrals are way better for all these reasons.

So how do you get more of them? Well, it’s not by giving out gift cards and discounts to your existing clients, as you’ve probably been led to believe. That’s not how psychology works.

Your clients will only refer people if three things are in place:

  1. They’ve been made to feel important.
  1. They’ve been made to feel like they’re “in the know.”
  1. It’s a natural thing for them to do.

Let’s discuss each of these.

What incentives work best to encourage word-of-mouth?

Make your client feel important

The truth is, we take action in a community because we want to look good in front of people.

It improves our perceived self-worth. We like the way we feel and how it makes us look to others.

Clients refer people not because they think they’re going to get a $50 gift card or discount.

They refer people because they want to show off. That’s why it happens.

If you understand this point, you will get a lot more referrals.

So how do you make your clients feel important? Here’s an idea: Create an award for Best Client of the Month, Hardest-Working Client, or Most Dedicated Client. Whatever it is, they’re going to feel important when they get it and show it off.

They’re going to want to tell people about it—and they’ll likely mention their “awesome trainer” when they do.

Make your client feel like they’re “in the know”

Everybody wants to feel like they’re in the know.

Everybody wants to be able to say, “Oh, you’re looking for a trainer? I got just the person for you.”

So you want to position yourself as that person, and the way to do it is to make sure your clients know two things about you.

  1. That you’re accepting new clients. They might not know that.
  2. The type of training you specialize in. That’s important because when they meet someone who is looking for a particular type of fitness they can say, “I know the person for you.”

Make referrals feel natural for clients

Think about how the referral process works for most clients.

You say, “Jennifer, we’ve been working together for a long time. I’m looking for new clients right now, and I was wondering if you could think of anyone who might enjoy training with me too. Oh, and if you do think of someone and they sign on, I’ll give you a $50 gift card.”

Think about what you’re doing here. Think about the trade that you're offering.

You’re basically asking Jennifer to go out of her way to do something nice for you in exchange for a few bucks.

She knows that if she sends you a client, you may potentially make thousands, but you’re only giving her 50?

It’s completely unnatural and even unfair. And that’s the problem with these types of incentives.

So instead of trying to figure out the best way to ask clients for referrals, start thinking about how to build a “referral culture.” In other words: How can you wrap referrals, and the psychology behind referrals, into what you’re already doing?

I’ll give you a great example of this in a minute, but there’s another important piece of psychology that’s important to understand: It’s the difference between economic norms and social norms.

An economic norm is basically, “If you do this for me, I’ll pay you $X as a token in exchange.”

A social norm is, “Hey, if you do this for me, you’re a nice person and everybody will see that.”

There’s a famous example from behavioral psychology research that showcases this.

Somebody is waiting on the side of the road with a truck and a TV. If you were walking by and that person asked, “Hey buddy, I have to lift this TV into the truck. Do you mind helping me?” you’d help him, right? Of course, because that’s the socially nice thing to do.

Now if that person said, “Hey, I’ll give you five bucks to help me pick this up,” you might actually feel kind of funny about the situation.

That’s the difference between social and economic norms. The thing is, when you introduce an economic norm into a social-norm situation, it actually screws up the social norm.

So what you need to do is make your referrals social norms.

How to create a referral culture: A case study

A buddy of mine named Mike Doehla runs a multimillion-dollar online nutrition-coaching company called Stronger U.

He gives clients who reach their goal a gift code to buy new clothing at their new size. And he encourages them to donate their old clothing and make a show of it.

Think about what he’s doing. He’s not giving a client a gift card as a reward or thank-you. It’s not a money thing.

He’s celebrating their success in his program and giving them a reason to show it off. They share their new outfit all over social media. They share donating their old clothes. And everyone celebrates with them.

Then, when people inevitably ask, “How did you lose that weight?” Stronger U comes up, and Mike gets a flood of referrals.

Instead of feeling forced and uncomfortable, it all feels very natural. How wonderful.

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