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Consulting Referral Program: How to Get Client Referrals By Asking

Liston Witherill
Liston Witherill
8 min read

Bring client referrals into your consulting business with a consulting referral program.

Better leads. Better projects. Better clients. Better get a consulting referral program.

Lower cost and faster sales.

Do you want that?

Of course you do! The best leads are those that come as a result of referrals (aka word of mouth). In fact, 84% of B2B buyers start their buying cycle with a referral, and about 80% of salespeople agree that referrals are the best source of leads. It’s the fastest way to get more client projects.

The only problem with referrals is that you don’t have as much control over them as other sources of leads. But here’s a question: how proactive have you been with your referrals?

The good news is that there are some steps you can take to increase the number and speed of referrals you get. All you have to do is create a consulting referral program. In the following sections, I’m giving you 3 levels: beginner, intermediate, and advanced.

It all begins with a process and your clients.

(NOTE: referrals can come from marketing partnerships, colleagues, clients, competitors, and even from websites that list qualified experts like you. For the purpose of this article, I’ll focus on referrals from clients.)

Beginner Consulting Referral Program

To start your Referral Program, you’ll need just two things: a process, and a client. That’s it.

It may sound obvious, but start here and you’ll quickly move on to an Intermediate and Advanced Referral Program before you know it.

Have a Process to Get Client Referrals

Getting more referrals all starts with a process. This ensures that you’ll know when and from whom to ask for referrals. It also reduces the likelihood that you’ll forget to have a referral conversation with a client.

That may seem exceedingly obvious, but I find that the biggest reason people don’t get more client referrals is that they don’t have a process and forget to ask.

A client referral process has four main parts:

  1. Who you ask: the larger your client or more complex your service, the more likely you are to work with multiple people at a company. Know exactly who is best positioned to offer referrals and why.
  2. When you ask: there should be a consistent point in time when you ask for a referral so you always remember to do it. The most obvious is after delivery of your initial project, but if your projects are longer than a few months you may want to ask prior to delivery. As with any habit, having a specific trigger makes it more likely to stick.
  3. What you say: whenever you ask for a referral, you should have a way of asking that’s set rather than on-the-fly. Know what to say and the whole thing becomes much, much easier. A question that may help you get started is a simple one: “Do you know anyone who I should know?” You can do better than that (as I detail in the next section), but asking anything is far better than not asking at all.
  4. A solid tracking mechanism: yes, you have to track this so you can stay honest and reinforce your referral tracking habit. Your tracking mechanism could be as simple as a spreadsheet, but I recommend having a CRM with a custom field that allows you to track whether you’ve asked for referrals, and when.

This process gives you a clear way to ask for referrals, which you should be doing if you’re not already. Of course, you’d be an annoyance if you asked for referrals too often, so you’ll ask at least once, but probably not more often than every 12 to 24 months per client.

Now let’s talk about the cognitive load of asking for referrals.

Get Clear On Your Ideal Client

Imagine: you have a friend who runs a generalist IT consultancy. She asks you for referrals, to which you ask who she’d like to meet.

“Well, we’ve worked for government, non-profit, Fortune 100, and mid-market companies. We’ve also worked across finance, travel, medical, and retail industries, too. We typically work with anyone in C-suite, or VP-level marketing, IT, or finance people.”

You’ve heard an answer like this before. If your friend asked you for referrals, who would you refer? Your thought process would work something like this:

  • Who do I know in government?
  • Who do I know in non-profit?
  • Who do I know at Fortune 100 medical companies?
  • Who do I know at mid-market retail companies?
  • Who do I…never mind, I give up.

Do you see the problem? Your friend has effectively given you 34 “perfect client” types (go ahead and run the numbers yourself). Yes, this is as ridiculous as it sounds. The cognitive load imposed on you is immense when client referral requests aren’t targeted. The most likely response is to take no action.

Compare that scenario to this statement I got from a recent coaching client:

“I work with Executive Directors of local transportation non-profits to help them tell stories by visualizing data sets.”

I know exactly who to refer! Getting this specific helps your referrer know who to refer to you and why.

It’s also the polite thing to do. Instead of transferring the cognitive load to your referrer, know exactly who your perfect client is and you’re more likely to get referrals.

Intermediate Consulting Referral Program

The Intermediate Referral Program is the next step beyond your initial set up. Now that you have an established way for people to give referrals, you can move on to something more robust and frequent.

Ask For Specific Referrals on LinkedIn

Now it’s time to go further than defining your perfect client.

There are two ways this can work:

  1. Before you have a referral conversation with a client, go to their LinkedIn account and browse their connections. Find 3 to 5 people you’d like to meet, grab their names and LinkedIn URLs, and come to the conversation prepared with specific connections you’d like to meet.
  2. If you prospect on LinkedIn and discover a prospect who’s connected to your client, grab that person’s info and ask for an introduction.

The big advantage: minimal thinking for your client! They only need to say yes or no to each person you propose. Your list also illustrates who and why you’d like to be referred, which makes your ideal client type much more obvious.

Establish an Official Referral Program

An official referral program can work many different ways, but it usually includes some sort of mutually beneficial relationship between you and your referrers.

Don’t overthink this or make it too complicated, because something is better than nothing. At a minimum, you should have:

  • Documentation explaining how your referral program works; a simple page on your website is sufficient
  • A clear process for people to make referrals to you
  • Example text that your referrers can copy and paste when making a referral to you
  • (Optional) A financial or barter incentive for people to give referrals to you

I prefer to make this as easy as possible for my referrers, so I ask for a simple email introduction.

If your services are expansive or difficult to explain, you might consider having a PDF that you can pass along to referrers in case they have a conversation that requires it. I prefer to maintain control of the conversation, so I ask for introductions that lead to a phone call as quickly as possible.

Give Gifts for Referrals

When’s the last time you received something in the mail? Other than Amazon and bills, I don’t get much in the way of physical mail. That’s why I like to send out hand-written cards and gifts as much as possible.

Whenever you get a referral, you should consider sending a gift in the mail to your referrer. It doesn’t have to be much. Even if your clients are worth $100k, any gift you send would be memorable.

The reason I know is that I frequently give referrals to others. I’m always amazed at how often the person doesn’t even thank me, let alone acknowledge that they received the referral. That’s common.

Try this, too: send a thank you card and gift even if you don’t land the client. I promise it’s just about the cheapest marketing you can do. A $50 Amazon or Visa card does the trick nicely, along with a nice hand-written card.

It sends the message that you’re grateful and are in contact with the person referred to you. From the perspective of the referrer, they’ve spent valuable social capital to give you a referral. Let them know you’re grateful, and taking good care of the person they referred.

Give Referrals

Giving referrals may be the best way to really boost your consulting referral program in the long run. You might be thinking, “but how do I know people will reciprocate?” The truth is that you don’t, but you’ll just have to trust the universe (and human nature) on this one.

In Influence by Robert Cialdini, he posits that reciprocity is one of five elements of persuasion. In other words, if you give a referral, it’s human nature for someone to give one back to you. The psychology is that giving a referral creates a social obligation that many people will want to repay.

But there’s a simpler explanation: if you want referrals from others, you should give them regularly, too.

Advanced Consulting Referral Program

What you’ll notice in the Advanced Referral Program is that it’s critical to stay in touchwith clients. Rather than continually asking “do you have a referral for me?,” you can stay in touch different (and selfless) ways.

Being in touch frequently may also create the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon. It goes like this: have you ever bought a new car, and suddenly see the car everywhere you go? Referrals can work that way, too: the more you’re in touch, the more opportunities people may see to refer you.

Make Introductions

If you think giving referrals is too far removed from receiving referrals, you’re really not going to like this: make introductions.

It’s closely related to referrals, but let’s just assume that occasionally you know two people who should meet even though business may not directly come from it.

Introductions position you as a connector, which will get other people thinking about who they can introduce you to. Making introductions is a great way to expand your network, help two other people, and remain top-of-mind when clients encounter someone who should meet you.

Ask for Testimonials

A testimonial is an ideal way to let clients brag on your behalf. Testimonials do a few other important things, too:

  • They remind your clients how they feel about you and the impact you had
  • A testimonial commemorates those feelings on your website in the form of text or a video
  • It’s yet another touch point to deepen your relationship with your client
  • They’re doing you favor, and we only do favors for people we like (which drives up likability)
  • It gives you a chance to ask your client what you can do for them (i.e. make introductions, give referrals, create content, etc.)

Again, this won’t directly result in referrals necessarily, but it deepens your relationship with your client and makes it more likely that they’ll give a referral the next time they see an opportunity.

Stay In Touch With Content

Creating content is time-consuming. Of course it is. I spent over 5 hours writing and editing this article.

But writing content is the best way to show your point of view, continually give to the people who like and trust you, and stay in their minds (and inboxes).

You don’t have to write a daily or even weekly article. But creating content gives you a reason to stay in touch with people, and that’s an important aspect of any referral program. Here are a few content ideas you can use:

  • Email newsletter
  • LinkedIn status updates
  • Blog posts
  • Podcast episodes
  • Videos
  • White papers
  • Case studies
  • Industry trends and reports
  • Webinars
  • Live events

The kinds of content you create really depends on 1) what your ideal clients want, 2) the flavors of content that give you a distinct advantage, and 3) what you’re likely to do on a regular basis.

What to Do Next for Your Client Referral Program

There are many, many different things you can do to encourage referrals.

Notice that everything covered here is proactive. With repeated effort, you’ll definitely receive more referrals and deepen your client relationships, which is a good thing on its own. Referrals are really the bonus.

Here’s the top 5 of what you should do next:

  1. Define a process for requesting and receiving referrals
  2. Define your ideal client to make it easier for your clients to give you referrals
  3. Write down how you want to give and get referrals (to make #1 more concrete)
  4. Give referrals to others whenever it’s appropriate
  5. And finally, contact your existing clients to ask for referrals if you haven’t already!
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