The Dreaded Ask: how to actually get referrals, and not just talk about it
Updated: Oct 10
‘Referral’ has become a word that we are scared of.
We all know how important they are. We’ve heard it said enough times. We know that if we were really making the most of the referrals that our existing clients could offer us, we wouldn’t need to look for much new business at all.
We also know how easy they are, in comparison. We know that people are much more likely to accept a recommendation from a friend or family member than go out looking for something for themselves. We know all this.
We’re not asking for them.
Only 11% of us ask for referrals from our clients, even though 91% of clients say that they would give a referral.
The R word isn’t a word that we use in conversation with our clients. It only really comes into play when our manager or mentor suggests we should ask for one. At which point, we tremble with fear, nod meekly, and write it on our notepad.
And we still never get around to asking, because we’re terrified of looking pushy, of ruining a relationship, and embarrassing ourselves.
Here are five strategies to help you make referrals your number one business source.
1. Develop a ‘referrals mindset’
As with most things, the real change we need to make when it comes to referrals is one of mindset.
One of our clients recently pointed out that in all the institutions he’d worked in around the world, the British bank he’s now with is the one that really struggles with referrals.
British culture on the whole is known for being a bit awkward about important talking points, for underselling itself, and not wanting to ‘step on anyone’s toes’.
Our mindset can get in the way of us asking the R question.
We’re worried about appearing too pushy. But reality tells us that this is mainly in our heads.
People who know and respect us are not going to think badly of us asking the question.
So put yourself out there. Accept the risk. Challenge your mindset around referrals, and you will reap the benefit.
2. Do your research
What you put into preparation, you will get back in results.
The beauty of LinkedIn is that you can use it to see who your clients are already connected with. We recommend that you look through their connections first, and see if there is anyone who you would like to be put in touch with.
Even if they’re not on LinkedIn, you can still do your research and think broadly about who they might have in other networks: local clubs, alumni groups, etc..
Once you have a few names, you are now in a position to ask directly, ‘I notice that you’re connected with XYZ, I wonder if you have any advice about the best way to get into contact with her, I think she’d be a great fit for our service.’
This is likely to yield a much more productive response than simply asking, ‘Is there anyone in your network who you think might be a good fit for us?’
3. Time it right
Once you’re actually in the meeting with them, it’s important to get your timing right.
Far too often we find that we have written referrals on our own agenda, but never get to mentioning this until the end of the conversation, at which point it all feels quite rushed and offhand.
Two times to ask:
After someone has thanked you for your service is the perfect time to bring up referrals, as they will be looking for a way to repay you for your hard work. You can even create this moment by asking deliberately for feedback on the service you have provided.
During a business update in the client meeting. This is your opportunity to share a little bit about what’s going on in your world, anything it would be helpful for them to know about your business, and to ask about referrals as part of this. Including this on your shared agenda will hold you accountable to having this conversation.
4. Don’t just mention referrals as an offhand comment
One of the reasons that we struggle to gain referrals is because we try to bring it in as an offhand suggestion.
‘Oh by the way…’, we say, ‘Just on the off chance…’. This is a weak way to begin the conversation.
Sandler says the best way to begin a conversation around referrals is to begin with a deliberate, strong opening.
Instead of: ‘Oh, by the way, do you know anybody who might be interested in talking with us?’
Try: ‘If you have a moment longer, I’d like to spend a few minutes talking with you about an area of our business.’
This strong opening signals that you have something important enough to dedicate significant thought to.
Once you have their attention, ask them to think about who they might have in their circle, people who they care about, who might be interested in understanding the service you could offer them.
Given them time to think about this there and then, rather than asking them to think about it and then get back to you.
People are much more likely to give a referral if they dedicate the time to thinking about who could benefit. And they are much more likely to dedicate that time if you carve it out for them, in your meeting.
5. Use stories
“We are, as a species, addicted to story.”
— Jonathan Gottschall, The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human
People love stories. You can use stories to justify why you are asking for a referral, and get your clients’ buy-in more easily.
For example, when you are asking somebody to refer you to someone in their network who owns a small business, you could add, ‘The reason I’m asking is that as a company we are really trying to demonstrate how committed we are to looking after small business owners in this area. We really see this as the space we can help in, and sometimes suffer from the misconception that we aren’t working with these kinds of clients.’
Adding a narrative and giving examples of others you work with shows that you’re not asking for any old referral, you’re looking for a specific introduction to move your business in a certain direction.
This sounds credible, rather than pushy.
By showing your client the part they’d be playing by giving you a referral, you make them more likely to want to help.
Put these strategies into place and let us know how you get on with making referrals your number one business source. If you’d like any more advice around how and when to ask then get in touch with the team.