Those who know me won’t be surprised to read that I disagree with most of the published advice on this topic. Recognizing that the worst vice is “advice,” here’s my advice about how to make the referral process work for all concerned.
Barriers to being referred
Why do even completely satisfied clients not refer others to us?
- They don't think of it.
There’s nothing in it for them.
They fear that “sharing” us may diminish our availability to them.
They don’t know whom we'd like to know.
We don’t ask.
How can we motivate clients to refer new prospects at every opportunity? First, ask yourself, “Why should they refer someone to me? What's in it for them?”
The simplest answer is that people like to help; perhaps it’s human nature. If we so much as mention that we’ve had difficulty with car repair, childcare, or business problems, our friends and professional associates rush to offer helpful resources. The “source” looks good to the referral recipient—he will have helped solve a problem. Needless to say, the source looks good to you.
Post-engagement review as a doorway to referrals
This is a graceful way to let clients remind themselves of the importance of the problem you solved for them, the value they received, and how much they appreciated your help.
Immediately following successful conclusion of the matter or engagement, schedule an engagement review call to capture the lessons learned so you can do an even better job in the future (That’s “what’s in it for them”).
By the numbers, here’s how to segue the review into referrals.
- Ask your client, "How well did we solve your problem?" The first answers you get will be pretty general, e.g., “great job” etc. Ask “What did we do well?” Be prepared to prompt the client for specifics. Naturally, also ask “Where can we improve?” Refine that answer with “How?” or “In what specific way?”
- "What did you like best about working with us?" You may want to set this up with “We’d like to make sure to repeat any practices you particularly enjoyed, and avoid others you didn’t like as much.” Again, be prepared to prompt the client for specifics drawn from your own observations of the engagement.
- Observe aloud that “It seems like other [same type] companies like yours would face [the problem you solved] too.” This is particularly effective if solving it for others in the same industry wouldn’t convey any competitive disadvantage to your client.
- Setup: "We learned a lot about this problem working with you, and we think it’s prudent that we understand it as thoroughly as possible. Who among your business contacts might be willing to give me 20 minutes by phone to offer informed opinion about this issue?" The conditional "might" is very important, because it makes the question easier to answer. Nobody knows for sure who’ll be willing to talk with you; you’re only asking who they know that belongs to the class of companies logically affected by the problem. Unless the people your client knows are complete outliers, they’ll likely face the same challenges as others in their industry. Keep your question broad. The narrower your question, the more people they’ll mentally screen out.
- Write down referred names without interruption. If you’ve succeeded in getting them to think broadly, don’t limit it by interrupting them.
- Ask, “Anyone else?” Surprisingly, people subconsciously “ration” referrals. This two-word question eliminates that.
- Confirm the spelling of all names and get companies, titles, and contact info. Sometimes people have moved on. If you have to Google them to find them, misspellings will waste time unnecessarily.
- Ask, "What made you think of [name #1]?" This answer virtually writes your voice mail script: "So-and-so suggested I call. He/she thought that you [Source's reason for referring]...”
- Continue down the list, asking, "What made you think of..." for each name. Then ask, "Who would you suggest I contact first?" Why not start with the most receptive person?
- Ask, "Would it be an imposition to ask you to send an email introducing me to these folks?" Nobody will resent the request, and "imposition"is a high bar. Its emphasis on the Source’s importance is flattering, particularly if we preface our request with a light, “I’m sure these people are as busy as you are. They don’t know me; they’ll certainly open your email before mine.”
- Establish a deadline. “I don’t want to try to contact [name] before they’ve seen your email introduction. After what date should I contact them to make sure you’ve had time to make the introduction?” Phrased this way, your Source will set a deadline for themselves, and you’ll never have to wonder, “Is it too soon? Should I wait?”
- Reciprocate: “How might I help you?” Introduce the idea that you might stumble across something of use to this person, and you want to keep your ears open. “As I’m talking with people, I’d hate to overlook information or industry intelligence that’s useful to you simply because I don’t know what to listen for. What kind of information is of value to you?”
Keep your referral sources vibrant
Now that your Source has generously plugged you into his or her network, what must you do to show proper appreciation and respect?
Email the referral immediately, with CC to the Source. Your Subject line: “Intro via [Source]” This makes sure your email gets opened. You’re trading on your Source’s standing because you don’t yet have any. You’d be surprised how many people let referrals languish. Nothing says, “I don’t value your help” like not acting quickly. Don't risk having the Source speak with the referral before you do. Explain your purpose simply, directly, and succinctly: “[Source] and I recently had a discussion about [industry problem]. His insight was hugely helpful and got me thinking about it in some new ways. He thought you might be willing to share additional thoughts to help me get a better handle on it. Might I get 20 minutes with you by phone at a convenient time in the next handful of days?”
Honor the contract. You asked for 20 minutes. At the 15-minute mark, acknowledge that the end of the 20 minutes is imminent. If the person is really busy, they’ll appreciate you not abusing the time. If they’re not pressed, or they’re really engaged in the discussion, they’ll extend the time. If the deadline is hard, go immediately to the next step.
Rinse, repeat. As you did with the Source who connected you to this person, thank them for their insight and candor, and ask with whom you could have “a conversation like this one.” Since they just had a brief, relevant, respectful, peer-level discussion with you, this reminds them that there’s really no reason not to refer you.
Keep your Sources informed. Most referred people you email will Reply to All so that the Source knows what’s happened. Keep the Source up- to-speed with future developments. (At some point, most Sources will suggest dropping them out of the email thread.) People only refer you to contacts they care about. Don’t make them wonder what’s going on or, worse, have to call you to ask, “Did you ever speak with…” That’s equivalent to someone having to call to see if you’ve received his gift because you didn’t acknowledge it.
Say "Thank you." When you get hired, or receive any direct benefit, or conclude your interactions with the referred (e.g., decided not to continue after exploring), thank your Source. Separate your "Thank You" call from all other business with the Source. You want it to be clear that the sole purpose of the call is "Thank You." Don't allow it to turn to your benefit, e.g., an additional referral, a new matter from the Source, etc. Instead, call five minutes before the hour or half-hour (:55 or :25) to say, "I’m heading into a :00 (or :30) meeting, so I only have a second, but I didn't want to forget to call and say ‘Thanks’ for introducing me to [name].” If the Source offers you an additional referral or other business, cut it off with “I’d love to talk about [new matter, other referral]. May I call you back about it at [time within 2 hours, to avoid diminishing the urgency]?” Your Source will realize that you really did call just to say “Thanks,” rather than using the Thanks as an excuse to ask for or accept something else.
Maintain periodic contact. Otherwise you’ll create the (correct) impression that you only call when you want something.
The number of people who know somebody who has a need for your service is small relative to the number of people who know somebody who has a logical reason to discuss a relevant topic. Asking someone to refer people you can sell to rarely works. You’re essentially asking for money, or at least a direct path to it. The advantage of this topic-based approach is that you’re asking for advice, which most people are happy to give.
Standard advice to startup companies approaching investors: “If you ask for money, you’ll get advice. If you ask for advice, you’ll (eventually) get money.” Ask for advice.
Mike O'Horo is a serial innovator in the law business. His current venture, RainmakerVT, is the world's first just-in-time interactive virtual rainmaking training that not only teaches lawyers how to earn high-value clients, but also enables them to gain far more practical experience in the virtual world than is available to them in the real world.
For 25 years, Mike has been known by lawyers everywhere as The Coach. He's trained more than 7000 of them, generating $1.5 billion in new business. Mike can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org