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What to do when a client says "no" to providing referrals

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Let’s start with the truth. Not all clients like to give referrals. For some of your clients, you could run into a burning building and save their children, and they still wouldn’t offer up a referral. And you know what? This has nothing to do with you. It’s their fear, or guardedness, or past bad experience that keeps them from playing the referral game. It is not a reflection on you and your relationship with them.

What does “no” mean?

When a prospect or client says no to you (in all the forms that no can take) what do you think it means? The thing that gets a lot of advisors in trouble is that they attribute too much to that little word. They make no mean too much and then do everything they can to avoid the words. All I can say is, “Get over it.” No one likes to hear no, we just have to move on quickly.

Look, you have a choice. You can live your life and their career afraid of rejection or you can make a decision to not let it run you; to feel the sting and move off it as quickly as possible. Here’s what I do. Whenever I get rejected — me, my idea, whatever — I say to myself “Ouch. I didn’t like that.” Then I move on with my life. If I find myself dwelling on the rejection, I snap out of it. I change my pattern of thinking or I change my “state” by exercising, listening to some upbeat music, etc.

So, first and foremost, you have to stop taking no so personally. Sometimes a client may be rejecting you, but in most cases they are really just rejecting the idea of giving referrals. I know from years of experience that you can ask almost every one of your client for referrals. Some will give them to you right on the spot on your terms. Some will not give them to you then, but will give you referrals later on their terms. And some will never give you referrals at all. Not ever. If they say no, you simply back off, plant a seed, and move on. The good news is that you will never lose a relationship asking for referrals in the right way.

See also: When not to ask for referrals

When to back off

The secret to asking for referrals more frequently is not just in knowing how to ask for referrals, it’s knowing how and when to back out of the conversation in a confident and dignified manner.We’ve found that when people know when and how to back off from their referral request, they have the confidence and courage to ask more often. Knowing how to back off in a professional manner will not only keep the relationship on good terms, it will often make the relationship a little bit stronger.

Let me ask you this: Have you ever been on an appointment and asked for referrals, gotten a negative response from the client and ended the meeting on an awkward note? Not a good feeling is it? Do that a few times and you’ll definitely stop asking for referrals.Knowing when and how to back off can make all the difference in the world for you (not to mention your clients).

Here’s my simple rule of thumb. You ask for referrals. If you get a little resistance or concern on the part of your client, your instinct should guide you to explore their perspective. Be genuinely curious by what they really mean by their uncertainty. Sometimes you will learn that their perspective contains unfounded fears that you can alleviate. But you must hear them out first, before you share your perspective. If at any point in this conversation you hear a second objection, they repeat their first objection, or their body language or tone changes is, it’s time to back off. You can’t push them for referrals. If you do, then you run the risk of hurting the relationship or, at least, hurting the chances for referrals later. So, two pieces of concern or resistance and you’re out of there!

How to back off from a request for referrals

I believe that you want to back out of your referral conversations in a way that maintains your feeling of confidence. Do you remember the deodorant commercials that used to say Never let them see you sweat? That same concept applies here. You go into the referral conversation with confidence. You explore their concern with confidence. And, when necessary, you back off with confidence. When you maintain your confidence, your clients will feel much better. When you get uneasy or nervous, that’s when they really start to feel uncomfortable.

The best way to illustrate this concept is with a sample conversation.

YOU:  “I was hoping we could brainstorm for a couple of minutes to see if we can identify some people who should know about the important work I do.  Could we try that for a minute?”

CLIENT: “I don’t give referrals.”

YOU:  “I understand. I know that some folks don’t like to give referrals.  Can I ask you a quick question about that?”

CLIENT: “Well, I guess so.”

YOU:  “A few clients have told me they don’t like to give referrals. It seems there are usually two main reasons. Either they’ve had a bad experience and they don’t want anything like that to ever happen again, or they’re not sure how their friends or colleagues might react to their name being given out. I’m curious, what’s true for you?”

CLIENT:  “Well, actually, I’ve had a couple of bad experiences with referrals.”

YOU:  “Sorry to hear that.  What happened?”

CLIENT:  “I gave my best friend’s name to a car salesman. This guy bugged my friend for two months. My buddy, to this day, won’t let me forget it. I’ve sworn to not give out another referral again.”

YOU:  “I can appreciate your reluctance. I’m wondering if you might indulge me for a second. I’d like to explain how I make contact with the referrals I receive. If you feel comfortable with that, we can go on. If not, no big deal. Okay?”

CLIENT:  “I appreciate your efforts here, but I’m just not comfortable with this.”

YOU:  “I understand. We certainly don’t have to do this. I just wanted you to be aware of the fact that I’m never too busy to see if I can help other people you care about with the important work I do. Fair enough?”

CLIENT:  “That sounds fine. I appreciate that.”

Keeping clients in control

Many people see the referral process as something they are pushing onto their clients. If you view referrals as a push, I can understand why you might not feel comfortable doing it very often.

I don’t see the referral request as a push at all. I see it as a series of questions and suggestions. At no time is the client going to feel out of control in this conversation. First, we see if they have seen the value in our work, process, and/or relationship. If they do, we ask for permission to brainstorm. They can say yes or no. Either response if OK. If they say yes then we suggest a few places to explore. If it goes nowhere, we back off. And at no time do we push our clients into anything they don’t want to do. In fact, we even pay attention to their non-verbal communication to see if they are beginning to feel uncomfortable but not able or willing to tell us yet.

When you know how to get into the conversation with confidence, explore with confidence, and back off with confidence, you’ll ask for referrals more often and you’ll never hurt a relationship.

For more from Bill Cates, see: