Where Do Referrals Really Come From?

January 13, 2014

how to get referrals

Savvy self-employed professionals know that referrals are the best way to land new clients. But getting those referrals can sometimes be a challenge. When referrals don’t come easily, it’s tempting to forget about building referrals and spend time on cold calling, boilerplate letters and emails, or advertising, even though you know those approaches aren’t as  effective in the long run.

If you’re not getting the referrals you should, maybe you’re looking in the wrong place. Here are five things to know about where referrals really come from, and how to get more of them.

1.     Clients aren’t always your best source of referrals.

Existing clients often don’t want to “share” you. They may be afraid you won’t be as available for their projects. Or if your work is of a personal nature, they may not want people who they know to work with you also. Consider also that you probably have fewer people in your pool of current and former clients than in many other categories of likely referral sources. So don’t focus on getting referrals only from clients while ignoring other possibilities.

2.     Expand your network; don’t keep expecting the same people to refer.

In order to refer you business, people need to know, like, and trust you. But the number of people you can say that about may be fairly limited. Professionals often ask how to get referrals from people outside their personal circle. But a better question is how to increase the size of your circle to include more people. That’s the fastest path to more referrals.

3.     Join groups made up of potential referral sources, not just prospects or professional colleagues.

Participating in your own professional association is valuable for many reasons, but isn’t always the best avenue to increase referrals. Within your profession, focus your referral-building on identifying colleagues whose specialty is different than your own. But also network outside your profession. An attorney, for example, might join a group for professionals in finance, real estate, insurance, or health care, where they could meet others who serve similar clients.

4.     Build relationships with others who share your target market.

Create a most-wanted list of ten occupational categories whose members are frequently in touch with the type of client you desire. Then get to know more people in each of those categories. For example, a graphic designer who works with small start-up businesses might choose accountants, attorneys, bankers, business coaches and consultants, career counselors, entrepreneurship center staff, office supply vendors, printers, and secretarial services.

5.     Help people refer to you by telling them what to say.

You can increase referrals significantly by educating your potential referral sources. Go beyond telling them what you do and the type of clients you’re looking for. Tell them exactly what to say when they refer a client to you. For example, “Jane helps her clients double or triple their income,” or “Mark specializes in building websites for health care providers like you.” When referral sources state your value proposition, the prospects they refer are more likely to call.

If you’re ready to get more referrals, expand your thinking about who might refer to you, and get proactive about your referral-building. It’s said that good things come to those who wait, but better things often come to those who go out looking for them.

For more road-tested advice about marketing and sales, see C.J. Hayden’s book Get Clients Now! (AMACOM Books, 2013).

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About The Author

C.J. Hayden is a San Francisco business coach and the author of Get Clients Now!™ A 28-Day Marketing Program for Professionals, Consultants, and Coaches. Since 1992, she’s been coaching self-employed professionals to get clients, get strategic, and get things done. C.J. has written more than 400 articles for publications and websites such as Home Business, RainToday, and, and taught marketing for John F. Kennedy University, Mills College, and the U.S. Small Business Administration.

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