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Referrals: Get People Talking About You

Word of mouth is an unbeatable career and business builder. Here’s how to max it out.


by Elaine Pofeldt

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As a business coach, Yoon Cannon relies on word-of-mouth referrals to grow her venture. But she faces a tricky challenge: The nature of her service makes it awkward for clients to tell their connections about her. “It’s an odd thing to say, `I think you should hire a business coach,’” she observes.

Cannon has found a way around that. To market her firm, Paramount Business Coach in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, she posts a blog that covers interesting topics, like inexpensive marketing techniques and the traits of successful entrepreneurs. When she adds a new post, she shares it on LinkedIn, making it easy for her followers to pass the links along without suggesting the recipient needs help. Similarly, she sends her contacts links to information on free webinars she holds, which they, in turn, can pass along to their network.

“Those are things that make it easy for people to refer me,” says Cannon. “They’re not referring me as, `Hire Yoon to be your personal business coach.’”

Whether you’re trying to stand out as a small business owner or in a traditional corporate career, enthusiastic professional referrals are an important way to get an edge. In a recent study by Manta, an online social network for business owners, more than half of recipients said that, compared to meeting people at events or participating in social networking sites, customer referrals provided the biggest boost for their business. At the same time, in corporate America, more companies are turning to their staff for referrals to prospective employees, instead of relying only on outside sources like ads on job boards.

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But as Cannon’s experience shows, getting referrals doesn’t happen by accident. You’ve got to understand how to make it easy for people in your network to refer you. And your timing and approach need to take into account what’s at stake for those who might refer you.

“When you give a referral, you give a little bit of your reputation away,” says Ivan Misner, PhD, founder and chairman of the global business networking group BNI (Business Network International). “People give relationships to people they know and trust." And she points to the downside when things don't work out down the line. "They understand that giving a referral can hurt their relationship with the party they are giving the referral to.” Here are 5 strategies for making yourself more referable.

Nurture relationships with customers and colleagues. The people who report the most success from their networking efforts focus on building relationships first and on doing business second, according to research by BNI, which helps members build referral networks.

That doesn’t mean wining and dining everyone around you. It’s a matter of building trust—and that comes from giving every client your highest level of service, or, if you have a corporate job, making sure you meet and exceed the expectations of your boss and colleagues consistently. “Networking is more about farming than hunting,” says Ivan Misner, Ph.D, BNI’s founder and chairman. “It’s about cultivating relationships with other business professionals.”

Those who are more “transactional” in their approach—trying to tap people they’ve just met for favors or new business--often find their approach less effective, according to BNI’s research. If you’ve ever had a great conversation with someone at a business conference and then gotten a phone call a couple of days later pressuring you to make a deal, you understand how off-putting it can be. That new acquaintance is suffering from what Misner calls the networking disconnect. “They try to sell before building a relationship,” he says.

Raise your profile. If you’ve just started a small business or recently made a career change, becoming visible and establishing credibility in your professional community are the first steps to getting referrals. “People have to know who you are and what you do—and know that you’re good at it,” Misner says. Contributing to industry publications or volunteering to serve on a committee or speak at a conference for your professional association are all good approaches.

This works for well-established pros, too. Cannon, who is in her forties, attends meetings of the local chapter of Le Tip International, a networking group where members make brief presentations about what they do. Instead of attempting to make deals with people she’s just met, she’s asked the group to consider her as a speaker or to pass along information about a seminar she is holding. “I’m giving them value as a thought leader in my area,” she says. In four or five years, the group has given her 32 referrals to people who eventually became clients.

Then give it time. If you’ve knocked it out of the park for your clients or colleagues consistently for at least six months, your name will start coming to mind when people ask your contacts if they know someone who does what you do -- without your asking for a single referral. Continuing to focus on helping clients and colleagues, including referring opportunities to them, is the best way to ensure that eventually, they will refer others to you.

“In many ways, it’s similar to financial capital,” Misner says. “You have to build equity in your social relationships. You have to invest in your relationships before you take a withdrawal.”

If you need to ask for a referral, be tactful about it, like a consultant to BNI whose approach Misner says is right on target. He sends notes after getting together with clients that say, “Thank you for meeting with me. A great way to help me, if you have any contacts who might need my services, is a referral.” Of course, you don’t want to do this if a client expressed any gripes that you need to address.

Avoid taking a quid pro quo approach to referrals, where you expect everyone for whom you make an introduction to make one for you. Some contacts will have more opportunities to help you than others; you should still extend yourself on their behalf. Referring top pros to useful contacts can build your reputation among your network as someone who always works with great people or is adept at talent spotting. “You have to be willing to give business to people if you want to get business from people,” Misner says.

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Know when to say no. Just because an important colleague or customer connected you to a deal or opportunity doesn’t mean it’s a good fit for you. The person who referred you may not know your field well enough to understand that you’ve got a different specialty or expertise than what is required. If that’s the case, there’s nothing wrong with bowing out. Saying yes to work that’s outside your expertise then struggling to do it well can backfire.

“As the person getting the referrals, you have to evaluate whether you’re qualified to take them,” says certified trial attorney Scott Diamond, a partner with Sacks, Weston, Petrelli, Diamond & Millstein. “People trust that when you take on a client, you’re going to know what to do for them.”

Tap your brain trust. We’ve all been asked for a referral from someone who does excellent work but seems to require a caveat: “He did an amazing job laying the tile in our family room, but I have to warn you, he smells like cigarettes and sometimes looks like he slept in his clothes.” “She’s a brilliant doctor, but she can be a little brusque.”

If you’re not getting a lot of referrals, it’s possible that your contacts are having a similar hesitation about you. Painful as it may be, asking your professional confidantes or closest friends for some honest feedback may be essential to turn things around. “We all need a personal board of directors,” says Jaime Klein, founder and president of Inspire Human Resources in New York City. Taking a simple step like emailing a photo of a suit you plan to wear before a speaking engagement for feedback can have big returns.

Also consider hiring a coach, says Misner. “If you are having trouble getting referrals, you need to find an expert in that field and have them be brutally honest,” he says. It could be that investing $60 in a new haircut will go a lot further than a pricey marketing campaign in growing your business.