Referrals are perhaps the most efficient way to get new business and establish yourself as a problem solver, but many business people aren’t giving or receiving them in a way that maximizes the benefits and encourages a steady flow.

What a Referral Is

A referral is, in its simplest form, a recommendation.

The Purpose of a Referral

A referral facilitates a business transaction the result of which benefits all parties.

Referrals: Old School Style

Years ago, I was a member of a “leads” groups. This was back before social media was a thing. Most interactions were face to face. Leads group members got to know each other, each other’s business models, and about each other’s ideal clients. Being part of a leads group was a way to expand one’s influence and get more clients.

The idea was simple. Let’s say that in the course of doing business, I met a couple who was new to the area and wanted to buy a house. I would ask them questions, and if their needs and wants were something I believed the real estate agent in the group could meet and if the prospective clients fit into the agent’s ideal client profile, I would refer the couple to the real estate agent by giving the “lead” (in this case the couple) the agent’s business card and following up by giving the agent the lead’s name(s) and contact information.

Back then, that would have been a great way to give a high-quality referral. But times have changed. We now have better tools and higher expectations.

What a Referral Is Not

A referral is no longer the passing along of a name and contact information.

How to Give a Referral: Modern Style

If you want to truly help people connect for mutual benefit, there are a few things you can do to increase the chances of success.

1. Qualify and Educate the Lead

This step is the same as it was in the old days. After the person to whom you are speaking/interacting with expresses a need that someone you know may be able to fill, mention your connection and why you believe that professional would be a good fit. Give a short rundown of the professional’s bio/resume and the results they’ve gotten for similar clients.

Remember, the goal is to facilitate meaningful connections that achieve results.

2. Make the Introduction

This is where old school meets new school. Assuming the lead gives you permission to do so, connect the two parties by email.

Here’s an example of what that email might look like:

Travis and Kate,

If we were all in the same room, I’d introduce you face to face. But since we aren’t, an email is the next best thing.

Travis, Kate is the website developer I mentioned when we talked today. Kate (hyperlink her professional website from name) has worked with X, X, and X (mention a few top clients, perhaps even linking to their sites) and is known for X (mention expertise and results). [This should be a repeat of what you told Travis during step 1 and, if you include hyperlinks, gives him the opportunity to personally vet her. It also demonstrates to Kate that you know her business and that you know how to set a relationship up for success.]

Kate, Travis is (give their title or a brief description that gives a clue about how she can help him—hyperlink to his website, LinkedIn profile, and/or company page if appropriate). When Travis described his needs and goals, I thought you might be a good fit.

I’ll leave it to Travis to tell you more, but if there’s anything I can do to help either of you, please let me know.

Best regards,

Your Name

An email like this shows attention to detail, care, and respect. Even if Kate and Travis don’t end up working together, you’ve established yourself as a professional who cares about others and thinks and acts like a strategic partner.

How to Receive a Referral

When you find yourself in Kate’s position, respond with care because not only are you opening a dialog with a prospective client, the subtext communicates a tremendous amount of information to the referrer. They will use that information when making decisions about whether to refer others to you in the future.

I recommend a response (reply to all) like this:

Hello, Travis. It’s nice to make your acquaintance.

[Referrer’s name], thank you so much for thinking of me and introducing me to Travis. (Here’s an opportunity to say something nice about the person who sent the referral and demonstrate to Travis that you’re a team player.)

Travis, your project sounds interesting. Feel free to poke around on my website. (If the referrer didn’t provide a link, do so here.) If you think we have the potential of being a good fit, let’s schedule a time to talk. (Put a link to your booking page or offer a few calendar slots.) In the meantime, if you have any questions, let me know. I’m here to help in any way I can.


Your Name

Notice that this is not a sales pitch. This is a nice-to-meet-you, no-pressure email. The worst thing you can do is start selling yourself. Praise from the referring party is far more powerful than you tooting your own horn. And, by playing it cool, you’ll establish trust with the lead/prospective client and the referrer.

When you respond quickly and professionally, you’ll close more deals. And you’ll likely get high-quality referrals from one or both parties in the future. Whether you close the deal or not, don’t let this email close the door on the person who sent you the referral.

The Key to Keeping Referrals Coming

Follow up. Follow up. Follow up.

It’s important to keep the conversation going with the person who sent you the referral because it demonstrates your ability to follow through and shows them that you’re trustworthy and understand their needs and goals.

Keep the referrer in the loop by letting them know how your conversation with the lead/prospective client went, if you’re going to work together, or if it wasn’t a good fit.

If it wasn’t a good fit, this is your opportunity to say why. This information will help the referrer better qualify a lead the next time.

Assuming you do contract with the lead, follow up with the referrer when the project is done, and share any testimonial you received from the client and the results. In Kate’s case, she could send a link to the client’s new website.

When you stay connected and play the long game, you become a strategic partner. This will allow you to serve more people, grow your business, and develop your brand.

What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

When you give a referral, you attach your brand to both parties. This is dangerous.

If you give an unqualified lead to a strategic partner, you are wasting their resources—their time and energy. If you don’t demonstrate your attention to detail and respect for their work, you risk losing their attention and respect.

If you receive a referral but don’t respond professionally, do great work, and follow up, you aren’t likely to receive more referrals from that source.

Trust is the common currency in these exchanges, but trust isn’t a one-time purchase. Trust must be cultivated by demonstrating the ability to connect and help others connect. When we do that, everyone wins.

Photo Attributions: Pixabay.com, CO0

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Cristen Iris
Cristen Iris is a book editor and collaborator, author coach and manager, and communication expert who’s lived with her husband in less than 274 square feet for a year and a half. She also works from home. (She’s the messy-desked creative.) Her clients include a New York Times bestselling debut novelist; a GRAMMY Award ® winner; entrepreneurs; and disability, social justice, and environmental advocates and activists. When not working directly with clients, Cristen speaks and teaches workshops about strategic thinking and communication related to writing, marketing, personal branding, health and wellness, and social and environmental movements. To recharge, she takes her tent into the wilderness to mountain bike, hike, and listen to the (quiet) music of birds and bugs.