Recently I have had some online conversations with people I’ve only just met. These conversations have gone very badly. All because of one small thing. They without knowing me at all asked me for a referral. Although to be fair, they probably didn’t realise they were doing this. Something which Ivan Misner calls premature solicitation. In this article I will explain exactly what this is, and how to have a first conversation with a potential introducer which will then go and lead onto work, i.e. referrals.

Referrals: What was the problem?

Three times recently this has happened to me. Twice it was a soft ask, but once it was an all out request for work. So what do I mean by this? It is when you connect with someone on LinkedIn: Or perhaps you meet them in person. Basically you have literally just moved to a level 2 relationship. You barely know them. Then in their very first conversation with you they ask you for work. Either in a very direct way, e.g.

Just send me some trial jobs and we can get started

Or in a more soft way, e.g.

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Why is this type of approach a problem?

Well firstly, it makes you look incredibly desperate. And I really mean desperate. That is not the sort of image you want to cultivate with someone new into your network!

The second problem is that is not how referrals work. They don’t flow just because you ask a random stranger to recommend you. It’s far too soon into the relationship. If you hardly know someone they are extremely unlikely to recommend you just because you have asked.

Most people, like me, will only recommend someone when they REALLY, REALLY know and trust them to deliver.

How do referrals actually happen?

I’ve recently made quite a few referrals. Even for me. But each time they have been to a trusted member of my network. They all follow a similar pattern. Firstly, a situation happens. These were the situations which caused me to make a referrals:

  • 2 trusted members of my network recently found themselves without a job.
  • An important client to me and good friend was asking for recommendations to female speakers/trainers who were authorities and experts on emotional intelligence.
  • A client asked for a recommendation to a good web designer.
  • A client mentioned they were too busy and stuck in the day job to get on and grow their firm.
  • My local bike shop mentioned they were frustrated that their accountant had taken them off Xero and put them on Sage Desktop.
  • A supplier of mine was using an outdated billing system which got us talking about their accountancy needs.
  • A colleague of mine was talking about the company he is an NED for starting to get their business onto the cloud and xero.

As you can see, all 7 of these examples had a trigger point. From the out-and-out recommendation through to the more subtle conversation about their business challenges. The key point here is that in order for a referral to happen there needs to be an opportunity for something to be fixed.

In each of these 6 occasions I firstly thought about who came to mind immediately. These were inevitably the people close to me or the people I’d recently had some sort of interaction with recently. If you are going to be the person someone thinks about for a referral you need to make sure they have heard from your recently. This could be a phone call, meeting in person, like on social media, or just regularly posting up on the platforms your introducers and network use.

But I didn’t recommend the first person I thought about. I recommended the person who was the best fit for the opportunity. This is all about credibility. If you are not a good fit for the opportunity OR can’t be trusted to deliver, you wouldn’t get the referrals.

And then finally, for every referral I gave I had strong and personal reasons for wanting to help out the person I gave the referral to. There has to be good will present.

This is why the approach on social media to “recommend me if you see any of these types of opportunities” to a person you hardly know is never going to work. It’s also going to leave a very bad taste in the mouth.

So next time you start a dialogue on social media with a potential client or prospect don’t jump in with a cold or even soft sell. If your LinkedIn profile is written well they should easily be able to see what you do and who you do it for. Use that first or second or third dialogue to get to know them and build the relationship. Only then have you earned the right to make an ask of them.