5 Steps for Advisors to Develop a Successful Referral Habit

Using fear and discomfort to ignite action towards your goals. 

When I was seven I started to run with my dad. He was a runner – a marathon a year type of runner – so I knew if I was going to run with him it was no joke. 

I still recall my first run around the “big loop.” It was 3-miles (which I now realize is a lot for a seven-year-old). We started off strong but not even a quarter of the way in I got a cramp, it was a bad one. I didn’t want to quit but couldn’t imagine continuing. Wincing, I finally said, “I have a really bad cramp, I have to stop.” 

What my dad said has become a motto I live by. “Just keep putting one foot in front of the other.” 

I took his advice and shifted my focus from 3-miles to the next step. I ended up finishing the run, cramp free and proud. 

Today, I’m admittedly not a runner but I love exercise and pushing my limits. When I do run those first steps are always the hardest. Just like most things in life, starting is often the hardest part. When you keep going, magic happens.

The funny thing is, we usually know what’s best for ourselves but by nature we stay in our comfort zone. Yet, it's those things we fear and avoid that we typically most need to do, develop and start.

In the book, The Way of the Champion, author and sports psychologist Jerry Lynch shares, “Most of us sell ourselves short. …when you identify qualities in others that you like yet seem to lack, those traits are actually part of your nature, and they remain dormant unless developed.”

Said another way, let fear and excitement be your guide. Those things that scare you but you admire or aspire to do are the things you need to start doing. The hard part is starting. 

You start by reframing the fear and discomfort start to take small actions – one foot in front of the other. 

Consider the real-life example of referrals. Referrals are one of the best ways for advisors to effectively grow their business but too many advisors aren't comfortable asking their clients and professional partners for help. 

Let's walk through the psychology of overcoming this discomfort and creating a referral habit.

You have a client that you’ve delivered value, you’ve known them for years, they are loyal, they love you and your team but they haven’t referred anyone. You know their friends and colleagues would be great clients and you could help. 

On one hand, you’re excited about the potential to grow your business through referrals from this client. On the other hand, you are afraid to ask for help. You’re afraid that you won’t do it right and will come off as salesy or disingenuous. You’re afraid that asking will hurt your relationship. Maybe you’re afraid of letting them down if they do refer someone to you.  

When you’re consciously or subconsciously focused on the negative outcomes, the scary parts, it very hard to take action. 

To ignite action start by reframing your fear and discomfort. Reframing rationalizes the perceived risks and introduces the potential positive outcomes and the motivation needed to act. 

Well-known author and entrepreneur, Tim Ferris uses a tool called fear setting to help reframe situations to encourage action. Fear setting can be used to rewire your discomfort around referrals and other blocks.

Watch Ferris explain, Why You Should Define your Fears Instead of Your Goals in his 13-minute TedTalk.

Here’s how you can use Ferris’ approach to overcome your referral block.

Step 1: List all the reasons why you’re afraid and the worst possible outcomes. 

I’m afraid to ask for a referral because:

  1. I don’t know how, it makes me uncomfortable and I don’t want to look stupid
  2. I don’t want to hurt the relationship
  3. What if they refer someone and they don’t join or they do become a client and they aren’t happy?
  4. I could lose my client
  5. I could hurt my reputation

Step 2: List how you can prevent the things in step 1 from happening

To overcome “I don’t know how, it makes me uncomfortable and I don’t want to look stupid” you could:

  1. Ask a peer or expert that has grown their business through referrals how they do it 
  2. Role play asking for referrals 
  3. Practice asking for help and referrals in other ways 
  4. Start with clients that have lower relationship risk

Step 3: List how you could repair the damage if a worst-case scenario happens

Let’s pretend that you ask for a referral and completely crash and burn. You look stupid, you insult the client, hurt the relationship and they threaten to leave. 

If that happened (which is very, very unlikely) you now have an opportunity to show them how much you care about them and your relationship. You could own up to not being professional, apologize and remind them why you love working with them, and how committed you are to their success. You could thank them for helping you learn an important lesson. Maybe you ask them for advice how to go about asking for help in a better way. 

We all stumble and fail. When you fail, fail forward. Quickly and gracefully admitting your wrongs, taking accountability and doing what you can to make it right, is one of the best ways to earn trust, respect and confidence. Doing the right thing, even when you’re in the wrong, is an incredibly powerful way to showcase your true self and values, and often deepen relationships. 

Step 4: List all the benefits of taking action 

If you were to effectively ask for referrals what are the benefits you may reap? How would these impact your business and life?

  1. More AUM and revenue
  2. Earned credibility, which helps you grow through more referrals 
  3. The opportunity to work with dream clients (be specific, name, names if you have them)
  4. More joy working with more ideal clients
  5. Deeper relationships with those clients or partners that refer
  6. A new growth skill you can teach your team
  7. Less time and money resources spent on sales and marketing activities

Step 5: List the consequences of inaction 

What are the 6-month, 1-year, 3-year implications if you don’t take action?

If you don’t build the skill and confidence to ask for referrals what are the consequences?

  1. Slow or stalled growth
  2. More effort, time and money, to grow in other ways
  3. Less high-quality relationships with clients
  4. A feeling of regret, maybe failure 
  5. The inability to support your family and team members financially in the ways you desire

When I work with clients a lot of the initial coaching is focused on identifying the blocks that hold them back. The goal is to get them doing very focused activities that are most impactful to their business, often those things are the things they have been avoiding. 

One way to quickly work through a block is to list the one or two things you can do daily to build comfort, skill and ultimately momentum. Using the referral example, you may practice asking and accepting help daily. Another daily activity may be committing to prep for every scheduled client conversations by listing the one or two ideal outcomes at the top of your agenda, a referral or introduction being one of them. Work towards making referral prep, conversations and tracking part of your routine. 

We all have to walk before we run but once we get going you’ll be surprised what you can accomplish.

Ultimately, trust your gut, you know what’s working and not working. Follow the fear, growth comes as you work through discomfort in business and in life.

Related: Fear and Uncertainty Are Kryptonite to Growth, Purpose Is the Antidote.