What should I do about referrals I can’t take?

Q & A by C.J. HaydenRecently a client asked me what to do when he received referrals he was unable to take, either because he was too busy or they weren’t quite on target. Here are some suggestions I gave him that you may find helpful when you’re in the same situation.

1. Always leave room in your schedule to have an initial conversation with at least one potential client each week. If you talk to them even briefly, you’ll usually know whether this is truly a client you can — or want to — take on, instead of worrying what to do about them and then having the referral turn out to be inappropriate for you anyway. If you don’t do this, you’ll end up on the famine end of the feast-or-famine cycle, keeping yourself busy right up to the end of each client engagement and then having no new clients waiting in the wings.

2. When someone you think you might like to work with asks to speak with you in a week when no more time remains, tell them that you have no time in that particular week, but that this is a temporary situation and of course you want to meet with them. Then suggest some future times that might work. You don’t want to give the impression that you are always too busy to talk to people, as that may discourage them from working with you, or get back to your referral source and discourage them from referring more people. If the referred person can’t wait until next week, they won’t. But you will still leave them with the impression that you are in demand, but not constantly overloaded, and wish to work with them if at all possible.

3. Thank your referral sources for every referral they send, whether or not you can work with the person they referred (or want to). When you can’t or won’t take a referral, let your referral source know. Either say, “thanks so much for that referral, and sorry I was too booked up that particular week, please feel free to send more like that” or “thanks so much for that referral, this is a type of client I don’t work with very much, can we meet for coffee and I’ll tell you what work I’m doing more of now?”

4. If the person referred is in the second category above — they were referred by someone you’d like to keep happy, but the referral itself isn’t appropriate, don’t spend time with the referred person just to make your referral source happy. Only talk to them if you think they might be right for you. Refer out all others to your colleagues.

5. If you don’t have other appropriate colleagues to refer to, that’s an excellent networking opportunity! Who else in your field might be in the same situation as you — occasionally needing to refer out clients they can’t take themselves? Call up those people and tell them you’d like to make their acquaintance with the idea of exchanging referrals from time to time. Or ask other colleagues who they would refer to in situations like these, and ask for an introduction to those people. This type of networking can result in more high-quality referrals from your new acquaintances, and also give you the reputation of someone who always takes care of people referred to him, whether he can take the client himself or not.

The important perspective to hang on to when you’re busy is that it’s always a temporary situation, which could abruptly end at any time. You want to handle each referral as if you might need that client — or more referrals from the person who sent it — next week, because maybe you might!

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