When I first moved to Los Angeles, you could count all my local contacts on both hands and still have plenty of fingers left over.
So I joined a networking group chock-full of potential referral sources and made a conscious decision to devote a day a week to building alliances.
For the first time in my professional life, I started asking for referrals from non-clients.
It was mostly great fun. Coffees, breakfasts and lunches with interesting people building their businesses. I learned more than I ever imagined about patent and trademark law, the entertainment industry and financial advisory.
As I built my local posse, I was able to send them more than a few referrals that resulted in win-wins for both sides. And I made some brilliant friends still in my circle.
But the referrals that came my way mostly drove me bonkers.
The food company CEO who needed sales advice (I’m the last person they should talk to about growing a retail sales force). The consultant who wanted to discuss her marketing plans endlessly, but never seemed to find a budget to do what she needed. The author who asked me to read her book and lay out a media plan “as a favor”.
Without exception, the people referring to me had noble intentions. They wanted to help their client/friend/casual acquaintance. They didn’t make those referrals lightly and I felt honor-bound to do my very best to respect the request. Which often meant a fair amount of homework and a phone call or perhaps a meeting and of course some follow-up. With people who were either bad fits or simply had no intention of hiring me.
Now we can argue that the fault is all mine—that I wasn’t clear about what I do or who my ideal clients are. But since I’ve always received great referrals—without asking—I decided it must be more than that.
So I did a little, clearly non-scientific, study.
I stopped asking.
I went back to what had worked so well for me before I drop-shipped myself into a new market at the height of a recession: I modeled the same behavior in my networking calls and meetings that I do with clients. We rolled up our sleeves and started solving problems. Before we signed off, I explained what I do and for whom (think 3 minutes out of 60).
And the quality of my network referrals soared, almost overnight.
So does that mean YOU should stop asking for referrals?
That depends. How’s asking been working for you?
Have non-client referrals become your lifeblood or are they sucking up your time and spinning you in circles?
One very specialized consultant I know gets about 75% of his revenue from non-client referrals (and roughly half of those come via social media introductions). Another gets almost none (she’s almost completely digital) and isn’t interested in changing her mix because it works for her.
If you’re going to ask for referrals from people who aren’t clients, then you need a system, a conscious approach to building relationships. One that relies on more than just hoping that someone who likes you will do you a favor.
Referrals are easiest when you give clients or your referral sources the experience of working with you. What’s it like to sit across the table from you or hear you on the phone? Are you paying attention or can they hear keystrokes in the background? Do you give tangible advice they can use right now to solve a pressing problem?
Do you give before you ask?
And do you stay connected so that you are top of mind when they are ready to pull the trigger?
My pal who works his non-client network for referrals is a fabulous giver. It helps that his specialty is very narrow and his knowledge deep. He solves bet-the-business problems and demonstrates his trustworthiness in the trenches by starting to consult the moment he crosses your path. He’s smart, memorable and immediately likeable. And he has morphed staying in touch—largely electronically—into an art form.
But back to you.
I wish I could give you THE magic referral formula that works across all business and revenue models. There isn’t one.
Instead, you get to decide how valuable referrals—client and non-client—are to your current and future business and build your own acid test.
And isn’t that more fun anyway?
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