By Kelly Elvin, Michigan Dog Walking Academy Instructor and owner of Tip Top Tails Dog Training

Sign post showing the words Referral and Marketing as possible paths.One of the most daunting tasks faced by any small business owner is how to get new clients. This is especially true for those just starting their business. Building a referral network, however, is a productive and cost-effective way to generate new clients. Let’s take a look at how to get started. Here are some ideas to spark your creativity.

1. Introduce yourself to other pet professionals

When people need a recommendation for a dog walking or other pet professional service provider, they turn first to trusted resources like their veterinarian, dog daycare provider, or favorite pet supplies store. Make sure these folks know who you are and that they are well-stocked with your marketing materials.

Start by preparing your “elevator speech.” This is a short speech that outlines your services, credentials, and the value you provide to clients — no more than 20-60 seconds, the duration of a typical elevator ride. Write it out and practice it several times. Consider trying it in the mirror and remember to smile and appear confident.

Next, make a list of pet pros in your service area that cater to the same demographic you have identified for your business –geographic area and clientele served are important factors– then contact them by phone or email to request a short meeting to learn more about their services so you can provide a knowledgeable, personal referral for your clients.

Remember that smart business people place a premium on their time. Highlight how you can bring value to them and you are more likely to get a positive response! Of course, this also creates an opportunity to introduce yourself and the value of your own business. Tips: be on time, stick to your scheduled meeting duration, bring your business cards, and be sure to send a timely thank you note (and a referral, if possible) afterwards!

2. Work with your “competition”

In an ideal world, pet pros would view each other as resources rather than competitors. There are plenty of dogs to go around! In the real world, you may find that some dog walkers (and even pet pros in other service areas) may be reluctant to network for fear of losing clients. Consider leading off a conversation with another pet pro by explaining that you have a rule to only refer to people you know personally and as a dog walker, your clients are going to ask you for recommendations for dog daycares, trainers, groomers, pet sitters, boarding kennels, and vets. You may also find occasionally that you need to refer a client and their dog to another dog walker who can better meet their needs. Stay in touch regularly with other dog pros by passing along your newsletter, an interesting article, or info about an upcoming seminar in your area. Perhaps you could even invite them to attend with you. Building a solid referral list increases your value to your clients while developing mutually beneficial relationships with other pet pros.

3. Remember people like treats

When visiting your local pet supply store, vet clinics, grooming facilities or dog daycares, drop off a goody bag of people treats along with your marketing materials. A decorative bag filled with individual packets of chips, granola bars, cookies and candy is inexpensive and much appreciated. Repeat this pattern every month or two for the first year of your business and you will notice that people are very happy to see you walk in the door – classical conditioning in action!

4. Use current clients to spread the word

Let all of your clients know you are accepting new clients (and, if relevant, what size and/or age of dogs). Ask them to spread the word. Those word of mouth referrals from current clients are invaluable.

Building a referral network takes time, so don’t give up if you don’t see results right away. Continue maintaining your current relationships and reaching out to build new ones and your efforts are sure to pay off.