Last year our company, New Windows for America, generated 45% of its business from referrals. In the course of the last five years, our referral business has gone from less than 40% to where we are today. We've achieved this in several ways.

We actively seek referrals from clients. We provide cash incentives to salespeople and to installers who refer new prospects to us. We promote our referral program to all employees through regular memos. When someone brings in a referral that becomes a sale, we make a lot of commotion about it ? we never fail to let employees know how valuable that is. Recently, for example, we had a customer call in and leave a voice mail saying how outstanding our rep was. We played that for all the staff in the office to hear.

Small Things Huge

Many replacement companies consider a 5% or 10% referral rate ideal. Forty percent or 45% would seem insurmountable. Start with this: Your customers expect little because they're used to getting even less. For instance, in the four to eight weeks between placing an order and taking delivery, most companies forget the customer exists until reminded of that fact when the windows arrive. We, too, used to have situations where customers would call, wondering if we'd forgotten them. Now we never let more than two weeks go by without them hearing from us. That's crucial because one of the biggest fears homeowners have is a company taking their money and skipping town.

Most home improvement companies mean well. But they take for granted things like lead time and all the work that they do that customers won't see. We don't. Our installers put the homeowner's blinds back up when the windows are in. They move furniture back in place. They lay down tarps. They don't expect to get paid more for those extra efforts. We not only do the extras, we let customers know it. That's what prompts them to write or call the office to tell us how much they enjoyed doing business with our company.

On the List

In times past, you had to count on word of mouth if you wanted to use your reputation to build business. Now organizations such as Angie's List and Consumer Checkbook let homeowners give feedback about contractors. When people get treated well, they feel that they have to tell the world, and Angie's List becomes not only a feedback outlet but a lead source.

For instance, Angie's List has been in the Twin Cities for seven years. For all seven we've received their Super Service Award. Great ratings on these sites have allowed us to be positioned for free, near the top, and to have the awards and rankings that homeowners look for when choosing a contractor. What it took was treating every customer like our only customer, even if it occasionally cost us a bit extra.

But we don't just rely on these online lists to find out how we're doing. We give customers a questionnaire at the end of the job along with the completion certificate. We also require salespeople to visit at least one past customer per week with a survey on job satisfaction. Our installers have a point-based program where they can score points for things like number of windows installed per month, number of leads generated, or complimentary comments on the survey.

In this soft economy, many lead sources are not producing like they once did. But our referral leads are up. The reason: When customers are treated well, they have us back for other projects and they tell everyone they know to have us out.

?Ben Klawitter is sales training coordinator for New Windows for America, a Minnesota home improvement company.