Good referrals are the lifeblood of any business.
We work hard to earn referrals from those we trust and are usually grateful when we receive them. Despite their best intentions, friends, colleagues, and clients (your advocates) sometimes refer us people we either aren't suited to help, or simply don't like.
At holiday time, when people are spending more time socializing, either within or outside their social and business circles, they are more likely to meet people they would like to refer to others. I get more referrals after the holiday season, which I appreciate -- about 90 per cent of the time. The remaining 10 per cent just weren't meant to be, which is a fact of doing business.
How to avoid receiving unwanted referrals
Before tackling the uncomfortable task of declining to work with someone who has been referred to you, let 's look at ways you can avoid receiving bad referrals while keeping your advocates and other referral sources feeling appreciated, active, and valuable.
- Be very clear about your business goals and the sort of people you want to work with. Also be 100% certain that you have the skills necessary to fulfil your promises. By letting your advocates know exactly what you do, the value you bring, and the type of client you are seeking, they will be less likely to waste their time cultivating people who don't fit your perfect client profile. (You can let them know by creative use of social media that doesn't blatantly promote your business but rather focuses on information of interest to them.) Three qualified referrals monthly are better than 10 mediocre ones weekly. "Quality, not quantity" was never more appropriate than when getting referrals.
- Encourage your advocates to discuss a potential referral with you before going ahead and arranging an introduction. This means politely discouraging what I call the "email referral double-dip." Your advocate sends the same email of introduction to you and your potential client out of the blue. It's intended to save everyone time but it's better to check with you, first.
- Target your networking activities carefully. It's true that a great referral can come from any source as you "put it out there" and engage as many people as possible. However, you'll stand a better chance of winning qualified referrals from people who mirror your client base than from those who are in unrelated industries with little interest in, or understanding of, yours.
- Explain to your advocates the difference between referrals and leads. (Referrals typically require more time on their part and that they know the person they are referring. Leads are really ideas about potential sources of new business that can come from news articles or casual conversation with others they don't know well -- or have just met.)
How to diplomatically tell someone you don't want to work with them
You've done your best to encourage only good or qualified referrals. (A qualified referral is someone who is in the market for your product or services and will be receptive to an initial conversation about doing business with you.) Yet, you are having a first conversation with someone who is not as described by your advocate. It's not working and you leave the conversation feeling you can't work with this person, or group.
To avoid bridge burning and awkwardness, consider the following strategies:
- Even if you decide the referral is a poor one, take time to reflect on the meeting and, unless the personality conflict is obvious to both of you, thank the prospect for their time and say you will follow up in a day, or two.
- Then, let your advocate know that while you appreciate their efforts, you will not be able to assist this potential client. If you know your advocate well, be clear about the poor chemistry, conflicting values or bad gut instinct that triggered warning bells. If you don't know your advocate well, suggest that the fit wasn't there and that your expertise did not square with the prospect's needs. Thank them again for the referral.
- Your advocate may choose to contact the declined prospect and break the news on your behalf, but it's usually better that you follow up with them.
- Diplomatically (but clearly) offer your reasons for choosing not to proceed. Try to keep them on a business level, without diminishing your professionalism or skills. If the rebuffed referral digs deeper and challenges you by asking whether personality differences drove your decision to back away, suggest that shared values are important to you and that he or she would be better suited working with another professional who better mirrored their approach.
- If you feel comfortable, say you will talk to a colleague who may better reflect their needs and may be back in touch with their name.
Remember that whatever course you take, you need to be honest and keep your promises. Your business and reputation are at stake and objective professionalism trumps expediency every time.
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