The Case of the Missing Referrals


Article by C.J. HaydenOne day, the phone just stopped ringing. At first, you may not have noticed it. You were busy serving your clients, keeping up in your field, and getting the bills paid, like all good professionals do. But then a project ended or a client quit, and you didn’t have a replacement waiting in the pipeline. Suddenly you realized that it had been quite some time since any new prospects were referred to you. Yikes, what’s going on?

Whether you’ve been in business ten months or ten years, it can take you by surprise when referrals suddenly dry up. When business is thriving, referrals routinely arrive in one of two ways — either you hear from prospects who say they were referred by someone else, or people in your network pass along the name of prospects who need you. If neither of those things are happening, you have a problem. Without referrals, you’ll have to work much harder to get new business.

But where have your referrals gone? You may need to put on your detective hat and do some sleuthing to find out. Here are some of the most common reasons why referrals disappear, and what you can do to get them back.

1. You’ve dropped out of sight. When was the last time you attended a networking event? Volunteered on a committee? Wrote an article? Spoke in public? Sure, you’ve been busy, but if you stop being visible in your target market or professional community, people forget about you.

Clues: The only appointments in your calendar are client meetings. When you run into colleagues, they say, “I haven’t seen you in a long time.”

Solution: No matter how busy you are with client work, make it a practice to do at least one thing each month that keeps you visible.

2. Your network has stopped expanding. When your contacts are limited to people you already know, your referrals are limited to only the people that THEY know. Without anyone new in the circle, there’s nowhere for fresh referrals to come from.

Clues: You haven’t added any new names to your contact database in months. You can’t follow up with your network to stimulate more referrals, because you’ve already talked to everyone you know.

Solution: Ask the people you know to introduce you to any of their contacts who might be helpful. Spend some time getting to know these new folks. Then they will become your contacts, too, and your network will automatically expand.

3. You’re networking with the wrong people. Perhaps your clients are consumers, but your networking contacts mostly have a corporate market. Or all your networking is through your professional association where most of the members are direct competitors.

Clues: You’re in touch with many people on a regular basis, but no one is referring to you. When a referred prospect does contact you, their needs aren’t a fit for what you do.

Solution: Identify categories of people who have regular contact with your target market, and are likely to encounter needs you can fill. For example, a small business accountant will be more likely to get referrals from networking with attorneys, financial planners, and bookkeepers than by spending time with corporate consultants, health practitioners, or other accountants.

4. People think you’re too busy. When you give the impression you’re overwhelmed with work, your contacts will stop referring to you. But if you wait for your workload to lighten before putting out the word you’re ready for more, it will usually be too late.

Clues: You hear that one of your old referral sources sent business to a competitor. Someone tells you, “I thought you weren’t taking new clients.”

Solution: Return phone calls and emails from referred prospects promptly, even when you’re too busy to help them. Refer them on to someone else you trust, then thank the person who sent them to you. This will encourage your contacts to keep referring in the future, as they know their referrals will always be taken care of.

The secret to avoiding the “feast or famine” cycle that plagues many professional service businesses is to stay visible instead of hunkering down in your office, and nurture your network even when you don’t need it. In order to keep a constant flow of referrals coming, you need to give your referral-building activities the same high-quality, consistent attention you give your client work.

That way, you’ll be able to focus your detective skills on solving problems for your clients instead of having to worry about where your next client is coming from.

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Reader Comments

Wow! Talk about a timely article! I read this through twice, I was so captivated by its content. It never dawned on me that being busy with clients could be such a two-edged sword.

“When you give the impression you’re overwhelmed with work, your contacts will stop referring to you.” I’ve been telling my clients that to explain why I might be late with their resumes, which I think is a good thing; but they in turn will stop thinking of me, which is not such a good think.

Guess I’d better stop shooting myself in the foot…

Jack, I’m glad you found this helpful. Yes, it’s easy to make this mistake when you’re so focused on serving your current clients. A better approach than thinking about your delivery of resumes as being “late” because you are behind and overwhelmed is to recognize that you are a talented expert and therefore in demand! Let your clients know that because your business is so popular, your turnaround time for resumes is XYZ, building in that busyness ahead of time. If they get it earlier, they will be pleasantly surprised. Meanwhile they will feel honored to get the attention of a guy who is so much in demand, and of course they will refer others to you.

The hardest time to prospect is when you are busy taking care of clients. Unfortunately, clients retire, die, move, fire you or you fire them. You can go from a full schedule to cash flow problems quickly. The remedy is to consistently prospect. Your ideas for keeping highly visible are great. Not surprisingly having the plan to keep visible and executing the plan are both not easy.

Wow, 2 great ones in a row I picked at random!

This is my Achilles Heel.

As soon as things go alright and I have a full plate I forget that if I do not hunt and fish or grow veggies or pick berries I will soon enough be hungry again and yet again get that horrible feeling that comes from being “Behind The Eight Ball” and so now desperate I end up taking cuts and painting myself into a corner until hopefully I can get back on top again.

I can’t emphasize it enough: ABCDEFGH

Always Be Campaigning Don’t Ever Forget Good Habits!

Yep, it’s awfully easy to forget this, even for experienced business owners. I love your ABCDEFGH acronym!