Asking for Referrals: A Key Strategy for Business Development Success

Referral Marketing
••• Getty Images / PhotoAlto/Eric Audras

Referrals are a great source of new business. And yet, most businesses don't actively seek them, It’s a shame because asking for referrals is one of the most efficient and effective business development activities. 

Referrals are such an effective business development strategy because they make it easier to build the trust that is so critical in selling an intangible like legal services. You gain a measure of "reflected trust" when you are referred by a trusted source. 

Most businesses assume that if a satisfied client or good friend hears of someone who needs their services, the client or friend will refer them. Unfortunately, this happens less often than you might hope. 

One of my client’s, a real estate lawyer, came to me for help in growing her business. She was very active in bar activities and frequently wrote articles for legal journals. She spent about 200 hours a year on this type of business development. But her activities did not seem to be generating much business. 

While she had received referrals from colleagues in the past, she had never specifically asked for a referral. I suggested that she refocus her business development efforts. She should ask several of her key clients and past referral sources (what I refer to as her “raving fans”) to refer her to others who might benefit from her services. 

To her delight, when asked, a number of clients were more than willing to help. Over time, these referrals resulted in several new matters. And her referral strategy took less than 50 hours to implement. 

Even for those businesses that  do ask for referrals, the typical request goes something like this: "If you hear of anyone who needs my services, I hope you'll keep me in mind." 

There are at least two problems with this "ask": 

  1. The person being asked is probably a busy professional. Keeping you in mind for a referral is not likely to be very high on their "to-do" list.
  2. The person being asked probably doesn't have a clear idea of what a great referral would look like for you, even if they were inclined to help.

Instead of using a vague "ask," try an "ask" which creates a clear picture of the person you would like referred to you and exactly what you are asking the referral source to do on your behalf. 

An effective "ask" has two elements: 

  1. A clear statement describing who you are looking for as clients. The more specific, the better:
    1. For example, one of my clients, an ESOP lawyer, developed a clear "picture" of who would be a great referral for her: "A family owned business transferring the business to the next generation, looking for a way to pay the founder a fair price for his stock without having to sell the company." With this description, she didn't have to go into arcane details about ESOPs for someone to knew if they knew anyone who would be a good referral for her.
  1. A clear statement of the help you are asking for. Do you want to be introduced to a specific person? Would you like the referral source to set up a lunch with the three of you? Do you want his OK to use his name when you call the prospect? Do you want to know who else she knows within a particular professional organization who might need your services?
    1. For example, a client of mine who represents lawyers and law firms asked members of her networking group to forward an invitation for a seminar her firm was sponsoring on to their firm’s managing partners. Virtually everyone agreed to do it because it was so clear what she wanted them to do to help her.

    Still need proof that referral marketing is important to your business? Just take a look at these statistics: 

    • 92% of consumers trust a referral from people that they know. Source: Nielsen
    • 81% of consumers online purchases in the United States are influenced by their friend's social media posts.  Source: Market Force
    • One offline word of mouth impression drives sales at least 5 times more than 1 paid impression. Source: WOMMA
    • The lifetime value of a new referral customer is 16% higher than that of your average customer. Source: Wharton School of Business

    ​​Edited by Laura Lake