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Referrals are the lifeblood of any professional service business. Why do even completely satisfied clients fail to refer others to us?

  1. They don't think of it.

  2. There’s nothing in it for them.

  3. They fear that “sharing” us may diminish our availability to them.

  4. They don’t know whom we'd like to know.

  5. We don’t ask.

Client studies show that #5 is the biggest obstacle, and the only one that we can influence directly.

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?”  

One 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.

Tip: Gently remind clients that you were referred to them—with positive results. How? In their presence, or on the phone, "remember out loud" that you must remember to call and thank the person who referred you to this client. This eases their fears and reminds them that it’s OK to refer.

Post-Engagement Satisfaction Survey

One of the easiest ways to alert and motivate clients to make referrals is to conduct a Post-Engagement Satisfaction Survey. This is a graceful way to give clients the opportunity to remind themselves of the importance of the problem we have solved for them, the value they received, and how much they appreciated our help.

Immediately following successful conclusion of the matter or engagement, schedule an engagement review meeting to capture the lessons learned so you can do an even better job for the client in the future (That’s “what’s in it for them”). Some argue against doing this with non-local clients, but unless the cost of going to the client is completely out of line with the value of the engagement—or potential future engagements—I encourage it. If you judge the expense prohibitive, it can be done over the phone, but not as well.

A 12-step program

1.   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 way, specifically?”

2.   What was the experience like?  

"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.

3.   Observe aloud that it appears that the problem you solved could easily afflict others.

Unless the problem you solved is a one-off, this is particularly effective if solving it for others in the same industry wouldn’t convey any competitive disadvantage to your client. Get your client's concurrence.

4.   Ask, "Who else (in your company, your circle of professional peers, etc.) do you know who, due to the nature of their business, would logically face this type of problem at some point?"  

The conditional "may" is very important, because it makes the question easier to answer. We don’t want to ask unanswerable questions. We want potential referral sources to see the largest possible universe of people to refer. Don’t ask them for certainty, only reasonable belief, based on categorical factors. Unless the people your client knows are complete outliers, they’ll probably face the same challenges as have others in their industry. Keep your question broad. The narrower your question, the more people they’ll mentally screen out.

5.   Write down names without interruption.  

If you’ve succeeded in getting them to think broadly, don’t limit it by interrupting them.

6.   “Anyone else?”

Surprisingly, people often “ration” referrals out of some subconscious concern that they may be giving us more than we want. This simple two-word question eliminates that. (Think of the sales-doubling shampoo instruction: “Repeat.”)

7.   Confirm the spelling of all names and get companies and titles.

Sometimes, people have moved on. If you have to Google them to find them, misspellings will waste time unnecessarily.

8.   ”What made you think of [name #1]?"  

This is how we reveal the source’s perception of the potential business problem the “referred” faces, or personality traits that may make him or her receptive to your call. It also forms a reliable basis for you to approach the referred. It virtually writes your approach-email content or voicemail script: "So-and-so suggested I get in touch. He/she thought that you (Source's reason for referring)...”

9.   Continue down the list, asking, "What made you think of . . ." for each name.

10. ”Who would you suggest I contact first?"  

Cultivate the Source as a Guide. His or her “reasons why” yield the same quality of info as #8, and may enrich what we already learned.

11. ”Would it be an imposition to ask you to call and introduce me to [name #1] now?"  

If the meeting has progressed to this point, a surprising number of people will do so.  None will resent the request. Its emphasis on the Source’s importance is flattering, particularly if we preface our request with a light, “I’m sure [#1 Referred] is as busy as you are.  She doesn’t know me; she will certainly return your call before mine.”

12. “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?”  

How do you keep your network vibrant?

Now that your Source has generously plugged you into his or her network, what must you do to show proper appreciation and respect?

Call the referral immediately.  

Don't risk having the Source speak with the referral before we do (unless you’ve been successful with your request for introduction in #11 above).

Call the Source back immediately

After you attempt to contact the referral, let your source know the status of the referral contact (made contact, scheduled to meet, think they can help [or can't], referred you to another [identify] and why) and that you will keep the Source up-to-speed with future developments.

Remember, 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. It’s like a person having to call you to see if you received his gift because you didn’t call to acknowledge it.

Reassure the Source that he or she made a good decision to refer you by keeping the promise you made in #2:

Say "Thank you."  

When you get hired, or receive any direct benefit, or conclude your pursuit of the referred (e.g., decided not to pursue after exploring), thank your Source.

Separate your "Thank You" call from all other business with the Source.  

You want it to be apparent that the sole purpose of the call is "Thank You."  Don't allow it to turn to your benefit, e.g., an additional referral, new matter from 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 _____.”  

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 urgency)?” Your Source will realize that you really did call just to say “Thanks,” rather than using the Thank-You as an excuse to ask for or accept something else.

Maintain frequent, periodic contact. Otherwise you’ll create the (accurate) impression that you only call when you want something.

Mike O'Horo