What you ought to know about the common advice on getting client referrals
A copywriter, my friend Geneva, had been booked solid spring and all summer. And she expected lots of work straight through the end of year before a new project scheduled to begin in January.
When new work suddenly dried up in early September, she called me for ideas and we talked. She zeroed in on asking clients for referrals.
She knew referrals would be gold for her!
Later in November, Geneva called again. This time, without a hint of new business, she was panicky.
She had researched how to get referrals and sketched a rough plan. While she had a general sense of where to start, she still couldn’t answer one important question.
When’s the best time to ask for a referral in a client relationship?
All the advice she found was vague or not helpful for a newbie. Geneva was confused. Questions raced around in her mind.
Am I too late to ask my client from last summer?
Maybe, I should have asked my new client last week at our kickoff meeting. But is that too soon?
What if I do this wrong? I could ruin these relationships forever! I can’t take that risk…they’ll never call again.
She thought doing client referrals would be easy. But now she didn’t know what to do. She froze. “Now is not the right time,” she said.
So, she decided to stop looking for new business till the new year. Yes, she knew while she’d work less, she would make less money but only for a month. Or two.
Then in the new year, she said she’d go back to making cold calls. Those calls took a lot of time and effort (not to mention anxiety and stress) but eventually cold calling brought her some new clients.
She deserved to know the best answer to this important question. So, I told her I’d find it for her.
My friend was right. Lots of the advice is confusing. Especially for a business owner who hasn’t intentionally set up a client referral plan before.
Ask at the ideal time.
Those answers are vague, yet common. We don’t want to guess. Or depend on intuition that we haven’t quite developed so far!
Here’s what I discovered and told Geneva to begin doing immediately.
Don’t wait! Ask the clients you’re working with right now for referrals.
This approach is recommended by highly experienced sales coaches. They see business owners holding back and not asking because of their insecurities and fears.
Business owners also hold back because they think it’s not right the time to ask.
You may feel you haven’t earned the right to ask if the project isn’t finished yet. Or if your client hasn’t seen all the results you’ve promised.
But these coaches say your client will give you cues when you may ask her.
You get the ok to ask for a referral when a client thanks you for what you’ve done, says Joanne Black, an authority in referral sales and author of Pick Up the Damn Phone! How People, Not Technology, Seal the Deal.
Black says you earn the right once you provide value, in the article “Get Over Your Fear of Asking for Customer Referrals.” She says, “(That’s when) you’ve given them an idea, shared an insight, introduced them to people they should know, or told the truth when it was difficult to do so.”
Even when you haven’t worked together very long, if your client is grateful, she’ll likely make a referral for you.
This approach depends on listening closely to what your client tells you. And if she gives you a compliment, praise, or congratulations then acknowledge it. Don’t minimize your client’s compliments or your value. Instead, know this is your invitation to ask for a referral.
You can begin this practice now. It’s simple. You don’t have wait to set up a referral process.
If you work with clients on the phone or face-to-face, and you feel uncomfortable winging your response to a compliment, write a mini-script. Practice it.
If appropriate for your type of business, you can print and hand out special referral business cards to clients when they praise you.
When you’re together with your client (in real life or online), listen for those cues. And then ask. Use your mini-script. Try this a few times. Keep track of what happens.
How did your client react? What did you feel when asking? What would you change for next time? And did she give you people’s names or give your name to someone? Did any referrals become clients? Did they stay in touch or leave after your first contact?
Keep improving and changing what you do until you’re comfortable and see good results.
Then you’ll be ready to experiment more by asking at other stages in your client relationships.
You’re never too early to talk about referrals
“I not only make it a point to ask customers for referrals — I do it even before they become customers in the first place! The earlier you can introduce the topic of referrals, the better,” says Rob Roberge, who calls himself “A Trusted Advisor to and Grower of Sales Rock Stars.”
In his first conversation with potential clients, Roberge sets the terms of a successful working partnership. After he promises outstanding value, Roberge asks the potential client if he’s open to making referrals later.
Roberge uses this conversation to evaluate potential clients – to see if they fit his ideal client profile. And if they’re reluctant to commit to making referrals, he says, “It’s good to find out early, as they probably wouldn’t have made a good customer anyway. End the relationship and move on.”
Once they’ve become clients, and after Roberge has delivered some successes in the project, he will ask for referrals. Because he planted the idea earlier, the client is ready and willing to provide referrals.
If setting expectations upfront makes you a little uncomfortable, look at his article, The Best Way to Ask for Referrals. In the two role plays, you’ll see his ideas behind this method and why they work.
You may feel this is a bold move. But if you handle this approach in a way that’s natural for you, not only will you get more leads, but you’ll screen out people you don’t want to work with. You’ll spend more time with clients you enjoy the most.
After the project is over, keep your relationships alive
When the project is complete – no matter how long ago – periodically check in with your clients.
Call. Talk. Listen. Create a relationship with the person. Don’t make your conversations just about the business they might bring. Don’t ask for more work, or a referral each time you connect.
In this example, Ted, a business owner, regularly checks-in with his clients who also serve other small businesses. During lunch, he’ll ask a client about how and why he started his business. What he’s learned, and what he would do differently.
Only deep into the conversation does Ted eventually ask for a referral. But first he asks, as one small business owner to another, what his client recommends he do to grow his business.
His clients are eager to help. They enthusiastically offer useful ideas and advice. And more often than not, Ted never has to ask for a referral. The conversation flows naturally, and Ted’s client
His clients are eager to help. They enthusiastically offer useful ideas and advice. And more often than not, Ted never has to ask for a referral. The conversation flows naturally, and Ted’s clients happily give him names of potential clients.
Client referrals are almost passive marketing. And they can help a business grow faster.
Referrals are usually a better-quality client. Studies show that because client referrals come to you with a higher level of trust, they often buy more and stay longer.
A referral client can have a lifetime value 16% higher than your average client, according to Wharton School of Business.
Geneva decided to ask for referrals from clients she was working with now. But she to be comfortable she had to think about what to say. Her first step — write a mini-script.
Together we outlined what was important to her to include in her mini-script:
1. Thanks for the praise
2. Happy and grateful to work together
3. Ask for a referral
Then, she wrote her mini-script in her words. She practiced it out loud, getting used to saying the words. And she even did some visioning. She imagined talking with a client, listening closely for a cue and then asking for a referral using her mini-script.
Geneva called me again this past month. She was excited. She already used her mini-script a couple of times with good results. So far, her experiment with client referrals is going well. She confided, however, she’d love never again to make cold calls.
Begin your experiment with client referrals. Start using this simple process with the clients you’re working with now. Follow the outline above. Write and practice your own mini-script.
And next time a client tells you what a great job you’re doing — you’ll be ready to ask her for a referral.
In that moment, know you’ve absolutely earned the right to ask.
If you’re looking for more ideas on how to set up a client referral system for your business, get my 6-page PDF, Your Guide to Tapping Unrealized Profits with a Smooth-Running Client Referral System.