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I often hear how businesses rely on referrals. That’s great. Surely that’s what we all want? No need to prospect, enough business flowing in without sweat and tears, work forecast correctly for the next six months at least… Oh, that’s not how it works? No. If anything business is all “feast and famine”, with a bit too much famine! The stress of not knowing when the next project will come in is terrible. If you could be sure of it happening you could take some well-earned time off to relax. But it’s not like that, is it?

If I’m right, and based on anecdotal evidence I am, then you can’t rely on referrals. Almost no business can. Even if you are working with a handful of big organizations they will be made up of so many smaller units and teams, none of which can be relied upon not to suddenly switch from you and your services. One new client of mine lost his contract recently and lost all his business at a stroke. His solution was superior to anything else in the market, his prices were very competitive, but still the client went elsewhere after a solid five years. We have to have new blood coming through all the time. It can’t just be just repeat business and referrals. At least not forever.

Having said that, too many businesses don’t get referrals at all. That’s worse. Why don’t they get referrals? Would you believe it’s because they don’t ask? They believe it would be cheeky, an imposition, an unprofessional thing to do. They are also maybe a bit worried that they might not get any if they asked because their client doesn’t think they’re good enough. In other words, if they asked and didn’t receive any referrals, it would be a gauge for a poor opinion the client has of them. Ironically some of the evidence they have for that feeling is the fact that the client hasn’t thought to refer them. That’s because most people won’t refer unless they are asked.

Some people, if they think the solution is good, will refer automatically. They are keen for their contacts to avail themselves of what they have found to work. Others just won’t refer because they are too concerned of the risk to their reputation, or there are company policies in place or they are just uncomfortable with the whole idea. However, that leaves a whole lot (perhaps more than half) who would be happy to refer, but they need to be asked.

We are left with the inescapable conclusion that we can’t rely on referrals but we must ask for them.

How can we ask? It can be awkward: “We’ve been doing business together for a few years now, and I know I’ve never asked before, but do you know anybody who I can contact to see if we can do similar business?” It’s not going to go well, is it? You might be forced to use this kind of approach if you’ve not asked before. In that case, it’s worth thinking a bit more about how to say this.

If you ask for “anybody” you’ll almost always get “nobody”; “I’m sorry, I can’t think of anybody right now, but leave it with me and if I think of somebody, I’ll let you know.” This is no reflection on your product or service, but it is a reflection on how you asked. Their mind goes blank and they suddenly feel awkward themselves and the conversation is going to get shut down and forgotten as quickly as possible.

Try thinking instead of who you want. Let’s be honest, you don’t even want “anybody”. You want the decision maker of a relevant organisation who might be able to use you. So ask for that. Something like “Do you know any MD, CEO or business owner in this kind of field, perhaps a client of yours or someone you know networking, who you think might have Pain#1, or Pain#2 that you could introduce me to?” Be as specific as you think makes sense. In fact, even better, do they have somebody in their LinkedIn list who you’d like to talk to and they might be able to refer you to? If you mention them by name, they might be able to put you in contact. Remember, they probably have hundreds of contacts on LinkedIn that they have never met and don’t really know, so don’t assume they can introduce you, but it will give them a clear idea of the kind of person they might know that they can introduce you to. For example, I had coffee with a long-standing client of mine and came with a list of names from his LinkedIn list to ask him if he could introduce me. He said “No, I can’t introduce you to any of these.” I had unknowingly chosen badly! “But now I know the kind of people you want, I can introduce you to these three, and I’m happy to send them an email to let them know you’re calling.” One of those became a fabulous client for me. (Notice I want “introductions”, not “referrals”. It’s much nicer to introduce people to one another, far less pressure all round!)

A far better way of asking for referrals is way back when you first did business. I was always taught that this was the ideal time to ask because your new client is delighted with you as you are fixing their Pain and you haven’t had chance to mess anything up yet! I think that’s a bit cynical. Yes, if your client would like to introduce you in the heat of their enthusiasm, great, take the compliment and the contact. However, far more likely is an agreement as to how you can ask for referrals in the future. In Post-Sell, whilst you are still with your brand-new client ask something like “Well now we’ve got a plan for regular reviews and I’ll ask about your satisfaction with our service. When would it be a good time to ask you about introducing me to people who I might be able to help?” Let them tell you; they might say at that first review, or they might be happier earlier than that, or much later than that, or even, never. At least now you know. There is a plan agreed to talk about introductions. It's not a promise of names, it’s just “talks about talks”.

If you’d like more about how to ask for referrals, let me know and I’ll send you a copy of John Rosso’s book “21st Century Prospecting”. In the meantime, do you have any clients or contacts in Surrey, Kent, Berkshire, Hampshire or Sussex who are worried they aren’t getting enough business right now or fed up with giving a lot to potential clients and not getting much back? If so, it would be great to have an introduction to see if I can help.

Paul Glynn

Paul Glynn

Sandler trainer