I recently delivered a keynote and workshop in Chicago to a group of individuals who owned small to medium-sized enterprises. Afterward, I received an email with a request. The sender said they have a very successful financial advisory firm, but, in her own words, “You’re going to laugh or maybe cry, but our firm has been in business 22 years, and nobody has ever asked for a referral. It’s never been taught here. It goes back to my dad and his style. He was a very humble man. Humility is a virtue we stress here, and it is deeply embedded in our culture. It’s hard for me to reconcile humility and the idea of referrals. I think we might be missing something. Do you have any advice on how to ask for referrals?”

Sarah, I’m glad you enjoyed my sessions. As I mentioned during the workshop, 99.99% of my business comes from referrals. So, this is a topic that is near and dear to my heart. Here is the way I approach asking for referrals.

Do Great Work 

The absolute most important thing in getting referrals is to do amazing work and deliver excellent service. I have a favorite Steve Martin quote, “Be so good they can’t ignore you.” You must add massive value, and dazzle and delight your customers with how you care for them. You must be so good that they want to tell everyone about you. If you do not take this first step, nothing else matters. Nobody sends referrals to a mediocre company. Fortunately, it’s clear from the history of your firm that you have been doing an impressive job of delivering spectacular value to your clients!

You Still Have to Ask

However, even if you do spectacular work, it is still necessary to politely let people know that you would very much appreciate their referrals. Like you and your father, I struggle with asking for referrals. What helped me the most was changing my perception. I now realize that I am not trying to sell anything; I’m trying to help people. I have dedicated my life to helping businesses and people be more successful. I’ve got a 30-year track record of excellence. I know that I can help companies improve. Therefore, I feel it’s my duty to do everything I can to convince people to let me help them. If I don’t ask for referrals, I do a disservice to all the organizations I can assist. I am not greedy for money. But I am insanely greedy to help people. That paradigm shift completely changed my view of asking for referrals.

You Want the Right Referral 

Yet, you don’t want just any referral. When asking for referrals, be clear and specific about the type of customers you’re looking for. The best way to do this is to create a “buyer persona” for your ideal target client. Determine the essential details that define your target customers. This includes demographic information such as age, gender, occupation, location, and income. Additionally, gather psychographic information such as interests, values, goals, challenges, and buying behaviors. Once you have a good feel for this you will be better able to help your existing customers identify potential matches within their network.

Your Job is to Help 

If someone does send you a referral and they are not a good match, I feel it is vital to help them find someone who can assist them. Even if you have to send them to your competition. The goal here is to be of service. I promise they will remember your professionalism and that you focused on their needs and will send others to you who are a good match for your offer. 

Pushy vs. Professional 

Several years ago, I attended a workshop on how to get referrals. The presenter shared with us some research their firm did. They brought together a focus group to watch videos of salespeople asking for referrals. Each audience member had a dial to rotate from -100 to 100+. As they showed videos of salespeople asking customers to contact five people from their network and set up lunch together, the focus group members dialed toward -100. They saw that approach as aggressive, high-pressure, and offensive. However, when they used a different approach, people dialed toward +100. Here is the general outline of the well-received referral request. 

When a client compliments you on doing fantastic work, you reply with something that sounds like this (I will use myself as the example). 

“I’m so glad you are pleased with what we have done for you and found value in it. It is our pleasure to be of service to you and your team. I got into doing this sort of work because I get frustrated when I see a great business like yours struggling in areas that can be fixed. So many organizations have everything they need to be successful but hold themselves back in a few critical areas. Leadership, communications, high-performance teams, strategy, and execution are things that I repeatedly see as roadblocks. If you know anyone in your network who is challenged in these areas, it would mean a great deal to me if you could put us together. We are always looking for great new clients to help.” 

I don’t say it that way every time. It depends on my relationship with the client. Many of my clients have become very good friends and I can be much more direct. What’s important is that I haven’t tried to put any pressure on them. I tell them that if they know other people who struggle in these areas, I can help them just like I helped their company. 

I look at it this way.

Suppose you have a fabulous meal at a restaurant and are raving to the waiter about how much you enjoyed yourself. In that case, they often say, “We hope to see you back again soon, and please tell all of your friends about us.” Wouldn’t you want to tell all your friends if the restaurant is fantastic? Why would you keep it a secret? You want your friends to enjoy themselves and have a spectacular meal like you did. At the exact moment you are expressing your thanks for an epic experience, the waiter has simply reminded you that they would appreciate the opportunity to take care of your friends the way they took care of you. There is a bit of reciprocity at play here. They’ve done something great for you, so you feel obliged to do something great for the restaurant. That would be sending them referrals. 

It is subtle, but it is still a request for referrals. I believe if I do great work and professionally ask for referrals of other businesses I can help in a similar way to how I helped my current client; they will be more enthusiastic about telling others about my services. 

Make it Easy 

Remove every possible roadblock to your client giving you referrals. Use your buyer persona to help them understand the kind of clients you want to work with. Make it clear where you can help those clients. Explain the value you can bring to those clients. Send them a note with all the information they need to refer someone to you. Create an email that they can use to send to their network. Help them to help you. 

Say Thank You Through Excellence 

Lastly, when you get a referral, call back your original client and thank them. Tell them you will take excellent care of the person they sent you. Then do that. Make sure that you deliver extreme value to the referral. This will do two things. It will give your original client confidence that anyone they send you will be pleased. Also, it allows the new client to become a referral source for you. It is a virtuous cycle. 

Simple But Not Easy 

In closing, I want to reiterate the Four Keys to Referability from the famous executive coach Dan Sullivan. As I mentioned at the conference, these are exceedingly simple yet incredibly powerful. 

1. Show up on time 

2. Do what you say you will do 

3. Finish what you start 

4. Say please and thank you 

And I added a fifth. 

5. Always give a little bit more than they expect. 

I challenge all my audiences to think about a business they deal with that consistently does these five things. Invariably, only one or two people in a group of several hundred raise their hands. If you did these five things exceptionally well, you would earn many high-quality referrals. 

I hope you found this helpful – John 

PS – If you know of anyone you feel that I could help it would be wonderful if you could send them my way. We are always looking for great new clients to serve (you would be disappointed if I didn’t take my own advice and ask for referrals!)


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