9 Tips and Tactics to Get Consulting Referrals

consulting startup
People exchanging business cards. Referrals are a quick way of getting clients.

Either it has happened to you or it will happen to you!

 You do a great job for a client. They are not just happy, they are ecstatic with the results.

 You go home with the glow of a “Job Well Done!”

 And then you wait for a referral or testimonial. And you wait. And you wait.

 The referral never comes. And it won’t come unless you are proactive and follow these tips and tactics.

Here are nine tips and tactics to help you get referrals,

1. Ask former executives, managers, and business associates for referrals. 

Referrals from your previous employer or previous clients are the single best way to get new clients as a new consultant. But they don’t happen without a little work on your part.

As a new consultant, referrals are a powerful tool for quickly building your consulting business.

Referrals from someone a prospect trusts infer trust in you and your authority. With just a little effort, you can generate a stream of referrals that lead to success no matter what stage you are in building your consulting business.

One very big problem with referrals they tend to dry up. Your best solution is to continually look for referrals and create marketing systems that keep your lead pipeline full. 

 2. Ask satisfied clients from previous work for referrals.

It may help to remind them of your contribution and good results. However, some states in the United States have laws that prohibit former employees from contacting a past employer's clients. Lists of former clients can be considered proprietary information and you may be prohibited from contacting them.

When you contact clients with the intent of asking for a referral or testimonial, make sure you remain professional and provide them with your current contact information so they get back to you.

3. Ask work colleagues you have worked with for referrals with specifics.

Make a list of people in your network. Send a simple message on LinkedIn to your contacts. Remind them of the good work you did together and the results.

4. Listen for when a current client praises you.

That is a perfect time to ask permission if you could ask them later for a short referral. Say something like,

"I appreciate knowing I've helped you. I will do my best on the rest of the project. At the end may I remind you and ask for a referral?"

The reason you ask to come back later is that clients are often uncomfortable giving a referral or testimonial until your work is complete.

5. Ask a satisfied client if you can talk to them on a video call.

Of course, you should let them know you are recording the call so you can review it.

When they get excited or complimentary about results, ask them if you could cut a short 1 or 2-minute snippet and use it as a video testimonial on your website. (Video testimonials are very powerful.)

6. When you finish a project, ask the client if they know anyone who may need your services.

During your After Action Review or Statement of Work review, listen for praise on reaching goals and objectives. Write those down. At the end of the AAR or SOW review, ask,

"You said ... Is there anyone you know who has similar projects you could refer me to?" or "Would it be Ok if I use that as a testimonial? I can write a short sample and forward it to you."

7. Thank people who refer you and reward them.

I'm ethically uncomfortable with financial rewards or discounts for referrals. But recognition and a thank you are always appreciated. This could be as simple as a handwritten note, do not email your thanks. Thank them for the referral and let them know how you appreciate it, and how you are helping the new client.

Stay in touch with your referral sources, and keep them updated on how you are helping the person they referred. This builds further trust and loyalty.

Showing your appreciation and gratitude does not have to be through discounts and money.

Thank You and Thanksgiving Berry Jam

My mom has a small blackberry farm in the Sierra Mountains in California. Although I'm prejudiced, her blackberry jam has to be one of the best in the world. Early in my consulting career, I was often in Seattle working with Microsoft Windows and Excel product managers. One year, a few weeks prior to Thanksgiving I sent jars of mom's fabulous blackberry jam to several product managers.

For years afterward when I walked down the halls at Microsoft someone would stop me and say, "That jam was incredible. Our whole family loved it. Thank you."

8. Build a network inside large clients and look for internal referrals.

Once the word of your good work spreads, managers and execs will start referring you internally.

At one large California client, I did a few free lunch-n-learn sessions and gave my phone number to a couple of their financial analysts if they had questions. Within two months I had been referred to the head of their training division for a long consulting and training project and had a retainer that lasted more than a year.

9. Network at industry events and meet-ups with past and current clients.

Conversations with satisfied clients sometimes turn into referrals. When a satisfied client introduces you to others in a group, the question often turns to, "How did you work together?"

Explain how you worked together using a variation of the Star Wars bar introduction in another blog.

Stay in touch with your referral sources, and keep them updated on the work you are doing that was referred.

Power Multipliers for Referrals

Here are a few hard-won tips that can help you get more impact out of your referrals.

  • Make it easy for people to refer you by providing clear examples and instructions on creating and sending a referral. Make sure you include a few short examples of referrals or testimonials, and your contact information so the person being referred can contact you.
  • Testimonials are like public referrals. A referral is from one person to another. Consider testimonials as though they are referrals to the general public that can be used in a public place like your website, LinkedIn, or other social media page.
  • Always post your best testimonials on your website and social media pages. Shorten them to no more than three sentences so they are quick to read and “punchy.” Testimonials are even more realistic when you include a video or photo of the person.
  • Write and practice a short script to get used to asking for a referral or testimonial. Practice it with a friend until it is fluid. Make sure you do this if you are a new consultant.
  • The most powerful referrals and testimonials are those from people and projects that are the same as the client you want to influence.
  • When you create example referrals or testimonials keep the samples short and simple. Use examples that illustrate your results and where possible, bottom-line impact, for example, cost savings, improved performance, tighter teamwork, etc.
  • Create a consulting profile on LinkedIn using one of the formats we teach in our Consulting Mastery program. Add testimonials you have received to validate your skills and experience.

What If the Client Does Not Want to Give a Referral?

Get feedback at critical points during your project. These critical points of success should be benchmarks in the Statement of Work you wrote with the client stakeholders.

During the project review, or at an After Action Review, when a stakeholder remarks that something was excellent, carefully ask questions like,

  • "Your recommendation would be powerful if we could use it in a testimonial."
  • "Are there other divisions that could use our services? If you can't think of one now, I'd sure appreciate hearing about them later."

If a client hesitates to give you a referral or testimonial, you should ask for more feedback.

If your client has serious hesitation about your work it might be a good time to dig in and find how you failed their expectations. Was there a failure in meeting expectations? Was it a miscommunication on the Statement of Work? Was it a failure of your consulting? 

Ask, “At what point in the project did you feel like we should have done better?” Be prepared for the feedback. Remember to take constructively and build from it.

Actively Search for Referrals

Keep referrals in mind. The minute you go into a review session or someone says, “Nice Job!” Get on your toes and watch for an opportunity to ask for a referral.

Create an action plan, I use American 3” X 5” notecards, and write down how you would ask for a referral. Review the card before going into a meeting where you might get a referral. After doing that a few times you won’t need the note card.

With the right mindset, being ready, and being polite, you will increase your chances of building rapport and getting referrals.

Take the initiative and build your referral network to grow your consulting business!



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