Strategic referrals – taking the wishcraft out of getting and giving referrals

Make the most of referrals partnerships with preplanning, deep conversations and a mutual agreement

Ever wondered why your requests for referrals are falling flat? Want to get beyond the vague ‘Let’s have a coffee and catchup’?
In this post, learn how to have meaningful strategy conversations that produce a pool of referral channels delivering prequalified, presold contacts, that will convert into clients and that work for you and the person referring.

You may be used to the adhoc (traditional) approach to referrals:
‘I like this person, they like me, they probably know some people, let’s get some referring done! Easy!

What this ad hoc process fails to include is:

  1. Articulating clearly what you’re offering
  2. Stating who you need to speak to in a business into which you’re being referred
  3. Aligning your offer and the referral party’s need and how, within the referrer’s workflow, an introduction or recommendation can happen.

The best referral funnels work through having deeper, possibly hard conversations that will filter a pool of well qualified and aligned referrals. Strategic referrals are those who will benefit from referring you, who has a process in place for referring, so this step isn’t missed, and who sends clients on a regular basis 

Using this system ensures referrals are pre qualified, you’ve got a clear relationship with the person who is referring you and you’re providing the right work for the ideal client. The best result will be in the filtering – this process filters poor, misaligned referrals that disappoint you, disappoint the client, and can disappoint the referrals. With this process, you’ll create a small pool of referral channels to keep you as busy as you want.

Young business woman handshake with business man. office setting. referral made easu
With this process, you’ll create a small pool of referral channels to keep you as busy as you want

Step 1: Connection

Is the person you are building this relationship with both a cultural and commercial connection?

  1. Is there a cultural connection – this is as simple as, do you want to be in relationship with this person? No matter much a referral connection may make commercial sense, if you don’t know like and trust each other,  you’re never going to give or receive referrals
  2. Commercially are they in the position to give you the leads you want?
    Is the relationship they have with clients a good and strong one? Can they make introductions at the right level? Are they in a good relationship with the CEO, the marketing director or someone who works in IT?  

The connection has to work culturally AND commercially, so don’t waste time if these boxes arent both a tick.

Step 2: Getting to know you

Help the person you’re building a relationship with to know your business and trust your delivery. Take them through the business and how you work with clients. Tell them what you do and what you don’t do. – they get to know you warts and all

Then spend time doing the same with their business. It’s probably best if you make personal visits to each others’ offices if possible, or, at least, schedule time to fully understand each others’ processes. 

What you’re looking for here is the specific step in each other’s work flows where referrals can happen, otherwise you’re reverting to a relationship based on hope: 

  • hope that the question comes up 
  • Hope that the person makes the referral at the right time
  • Hope you’re remembered in their process.

You can’t build a strategy on hope – this process gets beyond hope to where the connection can occur  – why you would have a referral relationship and why not

Once you know each other, understand where the connection can occur for referrals to flow then you talk about why and more importantly why not

3. The Whys and why Nots

I’ve often connected with people for referrals, thinking my ‘why’ is a perfect match with them: I’m great, they’re great, we’ll both be giddy with great clients soon!

And then, nothing happens.…. Crickets

This was because we didn’t have the conversation that includes the very hard topic that’s difficult and essential: the Why NOT?

WHY: To establish a strong foundation for a long lasting referral relationship, be clear on the benefits of referrals: the Why. If there isn’t  a specific benefit, driving referrals your way will be intermittent and ad hoc at best. At worst, crickets.

WHY NOT: clean up any fears and concerns – the WhyNots. What are the concerns that are preventing them referring you and what will prevent you from referring them? Can the fear be overcome? or should you stop the relationship

The Whys and Why Nots fall into the followng general areas:


  • Mutual Referrals
  • Revenue: Commission | Indirect Revenue
  • Status: Loyalty | Reputation | Expertise
  • Protection


  • Trust – it won’t work if the cultural and commercial connection aren’t there
  • Uncertainty
  • Control | Quality | Consistency
  • Time + Effort
  • Don’t Know How


  1. Mutual Referrals: This is, often, where people start, but it’s a risk if your businesses are very different. Refer back to point 1 above: if the culture and connection isn’t there, it may go nowhere, or may create an unworkable one-sided relationship. Trust will be lost.
  2. Revenue: Indirect revenue can be a better way than better than mutual referrals and better than a commission relationship. It may not be worth someone’s time and effort to be managing the admin and bother of referrals for a small fee.
    Instead, sell the benefit of indirect revenue – the benefit of your process, efficiencies and expertise that will have a direct benefit for their client’s revenue.

3. Status boost for the referrer: will referring you add to their clients’ loyalty to them (a feel good factor), with it improve their reputation, and reinforce their expertise?

4. Protection: Will referring you help protect their client from going elsewhere? Are you the missing link in that service delivery that another agency already has, that they need to provide the depth of service for their clients they’re currently missing?

WHY NOT: At the core, if they don’t trust you, are not sure about the quality consistency of your work, they won’t send you clients or change their work flow to send you leads so you need to overcome these ‘Why Nots’

  1. Can they trust you will deliver on referrals? are you culturally and commercially aligned?
  2. Is there some uncertainty on the quality of your work and the value you deliver to clients: have testimonials, and case studies ready to prove your worth
  3. Control: is there an agreement in place that will assure the referrer the client is in good hands, and that your service delivery is high quality and consistent, and will deliver in the way they have assured their client
  4. Is it worth their time and effort?
  5. Don’t know how to refer you: Is there a clear process for how to refer you in? Have you explained how you will onboard clients, how you will report progress back to the referral and assure them that clients needs are being met beyond expectation, closing the loop so they are still a part of the relationship, or at least that you’re catching up regularly (monthly, quarterly) to keep them updated.

Go through this list and make it part of the deep conversation about the benefits you deliver when in a strategic referral relationship. Explain that these are the common reasons for entering an agreement, and these are the common blocks for referrals.

Turning the conversation around overcomes the personal and confrontational and jumps into the specific. You’re essentially ‘3rd partying’ the conversation: “this is the process I follow, here are some of the common reasons and blocks for referral, can we talk about them’.

4: Agreement

Prepare an agreement formalising the parameters.
This should include:

  1. The process of keeping them informed of how the working relationship with the people they’ve referred is going
  2. The regularity of reporting / or ‘catching up’ if you’re on a less formal footing
  3. Scheduling into the discussion, any new fears that have arisen

If it feels right, prepare a document confirming this relationship formally. If a formal agreement isn’t right, outline this in a more informal email. Whatever the agreement and however you agree it, it works best for you, the referrer and the clients to come if you have this in writing.

5. Implement

You’re managing this relationship for the long term. A strong strategic referral partner will bring revenue for both of you and give the client the best support they can get. If referrals are not forthcoming, ask if you can review what you’ve agreed. When referrals come in, thank your partner and let them know the project and how its progressing and that you’ll keep them informed when you are next catching up with them, or if they’d like to discuss sooner, you’re happy to schedule an earlier time.

Have the deeper conversastion, get clear about your why, put fears to bed, have an agreement you keep to and do great work for clients that are referred to you and the benefits of these prequalified referrals will be enormous.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.