Getting referrals is usually a very hit and miss thing for professionals…If they remember to put the issue on the table at all.
Then there is the angst-filled question of when it is best to table the topic….early in an interview, or at the end? When someone is still a prospect, or when they’ve worked with you for an extended period of time and have developed trust in you and your process?
Or is one best to not ask at all, as it is just a tacky salesy thing anyway?
I think the answer is “do all of the above – BUT…change the language and don’t try and corner people into doing something they feel uncomfortable doing”.
To program clients to understand that referring others is just part of our business relationship we need to begin with the introduction of the concept that referrals are an expectation. We then need to create ongoing top-of-mind-awareness of that expectation….but we have to deserve them too.
There are several elements involved in successfully “programming” clients, and all of them have to be done if you are to get clients to the point where it is a natural and logical act for them to be referring the right prospects to you.
- Recommendations. Drop the word “referral” from the vocabulary when talk to clients.
- Introduce the expectation of “introductions or recommendations” at the first meeting. This makes the expectation “part of the deal”. That expectation is conditional of course: you understand and accept that clients will introduce you to others who need your type of expertise and service IF you do a good professional job for them. The language matters here: clients may be perfectly willing to recommend you to others, but not to go as far as getting involved in the process by arranging introductions. We have to position the expectation so that it doesn’t conflict with their comfort levels.
- Introduce this expectation during the disclosure discussion where you outline how you are paid for your time and “repaid for your ongoing service”. This taps into the principle of reciprocity, and creates the immediate understanding that if you are continuing to do good things for them then it is right that they do good things for you – except you don’t have to say that aloud. Saying “recommendations to other potentially suitable clients is how my clients repay me for ongoing service” is enough without being unduly blunt. It also positions it for what it is: part of the engagement “deal”. “I’ll do this for you if you do this for me” is the deal, right?
- Seek agreement from the prospect or client during the initial engagement discussion that they understand your business terms and accept them.
- Document that agreement afterwards, including the expectation of future introductions or recommendations.
- Provide a “buyer persona”, or target market client profile, or case study, or something in writing as part of that documentation (in step 5) which helps them understand who is the right sort of person to recommend.
- Introduce the ongoing expectation of appropriate recommendations into your client engagement and servicing material. Your review letters, your newsletters, your website, your blog…everything that gets put in front of clients eyeballs.
- Acknowledge (with gratitude) every recommendation or introduction that you do get as quickly as you can – whether it looks ideal or not. Even if the wrong type of prospect is referred to you there is a need to acknowledge that someone has still done a good thing and made an excellent effort for you. Lack of gratitude will just about guarantee that the first referral you receive will also be the last.
- Report back to the Referrer on how things worked out. They are curious – and a little nervous because they put their reputation on the line for you – and it is a further acknowledgement and reinforcement that their reputation is in good hands when they do refer to you. It doesn’t have to be detailed reporting back, and everyone wants reassurance that their private affairs are kept private (including the Referrer), but a simple “we were able to help them, so they are happy and we are happy – thank you” is sufficient. Or perhaps “we were not able to help them with the type of advice they were looking for, but we appreciate the opportunity to be considered anyway“.
- During review meetings or discussions with clients later in the relationship ask them if you can spend a minute or two to “bring them up to date with the types of work we are doing with people who have been recommended to us by other clients recently“. Apart from potentially being a method of uncovering other aspects that you feel you should be helping these particular clients with, it is a quick and easy reminder of the expectation that you will be recommended or introduced.
It is important too that we understand the distinction between “recommendations” and “introductions”: The first are those where clients have suggested to someone that they should talk with you, whereas the second are the situations where the client has suggested to you that you should talk to the prospect and is willing to help facilitate. Both are types of referrals, but with quite different degrees of commitment and involvement on the part of your client.
One of the reasons why so many prospects or clients veer away from the professionals referral process is because we push them into a space where they feel distinctly uncomfortable by asking for a level of involvement that they are not ready for, or we have not yet earned. That old technique (which I have always loathed) of asking “who do you know who….” is one which essentially corners people. They feel they have nowhere to go…they have been put on the spot…..
The result is that the majority of the time they either try and shut the issue down and refuse to participate, or they give you rubbish to get rid of the issue, or they avoid committing to any course of action. Regardless of which variation of “fight or flight” they choose, the direct referral request creates tension which was not necessary, and which was not there beforehand. Cornering people simply will not produce ongoing quality referrals, no matter which clever technique is used.
Giving people the option to pass your name along to others in the form of a recommendation is comfortable however, particularly when it you acknowledge that any recommendation is conditional. The professional has to earn the right first, and there is no expectation that recommendations will be given until that has been achieved.
Some will be comfortable reasonably early in the professional relationship with introducing you to others, but many won’t. It is an escalation of commitment and involves more effort and reputational risk for the referrer. It follows therefore that this often requires a deeper level of trust and confidence on the part of the referrer….it requires time and effort on the part of the professional to grow the relationship to the point where people are happy to do it if asked.
A significant part of getting to this stage where clients are very comfortable recommending or introducing you is obviously the delivery of your core service. No matter how cleverly one builds the expectations into the processes, poor service or poor advice simply doesn’t warrant being referred. Assuming however that the service delivery is meeting or exceeding their expectations, then it is a relatively straightforward matter of being process-driven and following the 10 steps relentlessly.
That’s how we program clients for ongoing referrals.
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