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What Your Consulting Firm REALLY Wants from a Referral

Are referrals the primary (or only) source of new clients for your consulting firm?


(I can say this confidently, because virtually every consulting firm derives most of its new clients from referrals.)*

Therefore, it’s worth digging into the whole topic of referrals.

Before we dive in, let’s clear up misdirections that could confuse the conversation.

Business Arriving Via Referrals vs. Likelihood to Receive Referrals

As noted above, it’s quite likely that most new clients are referred or introduced to your consulting firm by current and past clients.*

However, this does not mean that most of your current and past clients make introductions and referrals.

In fact, it’s likely you can trace the majority of your incoming clients back to very few people; sometimes a single promoter who consistently and frequently recommends your firm to others.

Referrals from Current Clients vs. Likelihood to Receive Referrals

Similarly, the fact that you consistently receive referrals does not equate to widespread, consistent introductions from your clients.

In fact, it’s frustratingly likely that most of your clients—even the clients you’ve done the very best work for—don’t refer you to others.

Alas, it turns out that there are too many nuances, critical elements and lessons about referrals to be neatly captured in one, short article. Therefore, we’re covering referrals in three parts.

Referrals Part 1:
What Your Consulting Firm Really Wants from a Referral

a.k.a. The Tantalizing Tales of Priscilla Prospecto and Kyle Kliént

The six tales below reveal different moments of opportunity for referrals, with increasing levels of impact for your consulting firm. (Each tale is independent of the others; one does not lead to the next.)

The Tale of Priscilla Prospecto and Kyle the ENDORSER

Priscilla Prospecto stumbles upon your consulting firm’s marvelous marketing, then reaches out for your help.

Before she engages your firm, however, she wants to speak to a few references.

You point her to Kyle Kliént, who speaks favorably of you. Priscilla signs the contract and you consult happily ever after.

The Tale of Priscilla Prospecto and Kyle the SUPPORTER

Priscilla reveals her biggest, unsolved challenge to her monthly mastermind group, then asks the group to recommend consulting firms that could help her.

Your client Kyle recommends your consulting firm to Priscilla. She follows up, you hit it off, and you transform her world into unicorns and rainbows.

The Tale of Priscilla Prospecto and Kyle the ADVOCATE

Priscilla tearfully relates her tale of woe to her long-time business friend and peer, Kyle. Suddenly remembering the good work your consulting firm performed for him when he suffered under similar circumstances, Kyle suggests Priscilla give you a call.

She does, you win the contract, and Priscilla becomes your consulting firm’s best client ever.

The Tale of Priscilla Prospecto and Kyle the CHAMPION

Kyle speaks up at his monthly mastermind meeting: “I’m not sure this will help anyone or not,” he starts, “but I’ve been working with this great consulting firm…” He then enthusiastically describes your work together.

Intrigued by Kyle’s impromptu speech, Priscilla reaches out to you and, in a veritable blink of an eye, becomes your newest client.

The Tale of Priscilla Prospecto and Kyle the ENTHUSIAST

“Priscilla!” Kyle breathlessly exclaims over the phone. “I just had to call you. I’ve been working with a consulting firm the past few months and it’s been so amazing and rewarding that I needed to share. Hey, can I be a guest speaker at your mastermind group? They might be interested in my experience too.”

Priscilla is so moved by Kyle’s enthusiasm, she calls you and insists your consulting firm work with her. Who are you to disagree?

The Tale of Priscilla Prospecto and Kyle the BROADCASTER

Priscilla is scanning her LinkedIn feed when she notices a post from Kyle Kliént—a contact she doesn’t know well, but respects nonetheless. In his post, Kyle strongly recommends working with your consulting firm.

Two days later, Priscilla sees another post from Kyle lauding your firm.

Intrigued, Priscilla reaches out to your consulting firm. You reach back. After plenty or reaching on both sides, you ride off into the sunset together.

Most consulting firms rely on the first moment of opportunity (Endorsement) and hope that higher impact moments of opportunity will pop up on occasion.

You can do better.

Your consulting firm really wants more Champions, Enthusiasts and Broadcasters.

So, ask for it.

Seriously. Ask your clients to be Enthusiasts or Broadcasters on your behalf.

Your clients love your work, you run a business, and asking them to toot a horn for you is a fair request.

Offer your clients a sample email, LinkedIn announcement or tweet they can post—the business equivalent of a home contractor’s yard sign.

Skip the salesy language. A simple message like, “Chocolate Consulting Group has helped me a ton–I recommend you check them out too” works magic.

Does any of your business come from referrals?

  1. Terry "Doc" Dockery, Ph.D.
    January 18, 2023 at 7:10 am Reply

    Hi David,
    As I’ve been pondering my marketing focus for this year, I re-realized that the vast majoriy of my work has come from referrals over the past 30 years. This makes sense to me since our work requires such a trusting relationship with our clients (I also realized that I’m not fully tapping this resource by nurturing my referral network as well as I could). Recently a new client found me through a google search and bought my book for his whole leadership team before he contacted me, but that’s an anomaly that I can’t count on for new clients. Wishing you all the best!

    • David A. Fields
      January 18, 2023 at 7:56 am Reply

      You story is the norm, Doc. The vast majority of business in the vast majority of small consulting firms (under, say, $25M) comes from word-of-mouth in some way. Knowing that, the question is how you leverage it more.

      Congrats on your book leading to a client, by the way!

  2. William J. Ryan
    January 18, 2023 at 7:48 am Reply

    With 1 exception, all my work over the last 71/2 years has been through referrals. Something I’ve added is reaching out to past clients to see how they’re doing and, in the conversation, I ask what needs they have that people in my network might be able to help them and that I can refer them to. I don’t push “me” but try to be the resource for them and stay “top of mind”.

    • David A. Fields
      January 18, 2023 at 7:57 am Reply

      Good on you for staying in touch with your network, Bill. As I noted to Doc (above), your experience is very typical. Many other readers could learn from your example of reaching out to past clients. Thank you for sharing that!

    • Greg MacDonald
      January 18, 2023 at 12:50 pm Reply

      I like this approach, thanks for sharing.

      • David A. Fields
        January 19, 2023 at 8:39 am Reply

        Staying in touch with past clients should definitely be part of your SOP, Greg. Firms that bake this into their processes receive substantially more referral business.
        (Bonus points for you, by the way, for reading through the comments and picking up tips from other consultants!)

  3. Jonathan Gilbert
    January 18, 2023 at 10:37 am Reply

    David – thank you very much. This was extremely helpful. Although most of our business comes from referrals, I never really thought about the details of it in this way. Moving forward I have some ideas on how to get better engagement from our supporters.

    • David A. Fields
      January 18, 2023 at 11:12 am Reply

      Perfect, Jon! I look forward to hearing how the new approaches play out with you and your practice. Keep me apprised, please!

  4. Jonathan Becker
    January 18, 2023 at 11:03 am Reply

    Of all the topics we’ve discussed, this most sits at the intersection of important and difficult … for me at least. And timely: I’m having lunch with a client today (whom I met through a referral!) and it would be a great time to ask for a referral. The “transfer of interest” approach has always been a little tough: it feels indirect when everyone knows that we’re really talking about. If the roles were reversed, I would imagine myself saying: “You’ve been great. If you want a referral, just say so, I’d be happy to.” The email you mention at the end seems a little more up natural: I like the structure of: they’ve been helpful, I recommend you check them out.

    • David A. Fields
      January 18, 2023 at 11:19 am Reply

      Good on you for bringing that up, Jonathan. We’re talking about two different, related, ideas here:
      Asking for introductions so that you can expand your network; vs.
      Asking for referrals (endorsements, broadcasts, etc.) specifically to generate inbound inquiries.

      Those seem like the same thing, but they’re not, and when they are conflated, problems emerge. The Transfer of Interest is an approach geared toward expanding your network. It works extremely well unless you think you’re secretly trying to find clients. “Everyone knows what we’re really talking about” is a dead giveaway that you think you’re asking for business. That’s why you’ve struggled with the approach.

      Setting that aside, encouraging clients and contacts to recommend you to others (vs. introduce you) is, as you said, important. Two more articles to come that will give you more help in this area. We’re going to explore why people make recommendations and why, ironically, clients who have not started working with you may be more likely to give recommendations than clients who have experienced your work.

      Thanks for setting up a soapbox for me to stand on, Jonathan!

      • Jason
        January 23, 2023 at 2:01 pm Reply

        Interesting point Jonathan. Thanks for clearing it up David, and for teasing your future articles! We’re trying to get more disciplined about asking for referrals every time (and in a timely manner), but for right now we have some cleanup to do from the past few years. I have combed through the best sponsors of the past few years, but before we run out to all of them and ask for a referral, I’m stuck wondering if it’s best to ask them A) Would you put out a broadcast message that you enjoyed working with us/value we provided…B)Ask them if they have anyone in their network that they can think of to recommend us to…C)Target someone specifically in their network and ask for an introduction to that person.
        Love the conversation. Thanks so much.

        • David A. Fields
          January 23, 2023 at 5:19 pm

          Good, rubber-meets-the-road question, Jason. Your three choices aren’t mutually exclusive, of course. If you know someone in their network has an urgent need for your services, then ask for the introduction. Otherwise, ask for a broadcast message and ask for introductions to their favorite people in their network.
          Do NOT ask if there is anyone in their network whom they think might need your services. That’s the classic, upside-down, failure-prone message. Use the “transfer of interest” to ask for introductions.
          Thanks for your smart follow up question, Jason!

  5. Thomas Gay
    January 23, 2023 at 5:23 pm Reply

    Thanks David for this nice depiction of the different styles of introductions/referral types. Your article was sent over to me by a client today. Referrals are the key, and it’s easy when you build highly engaged relationships and then teach your clients and potential referrers exactly how to give you a referral. The right way means “the red carpet” has been rolled out to receive you when you call on the person introduced to you. Engagement in this case means being in-touch once every 2-3 weeks with a potential referrer and making the conversation about them and their interests… not business. “Build and “give into” the relationship and the desire to give back blooms. Teach them how to give back and they’ll reciprocate!. Keep up the great work, David!

    • David A. Fields
      January 24, 2023 at 7:26 am Reply

      As you point out, Tom, the combination of solid relationships and the right messaging can make it easy to win solicited introductions. Interestingly, though, that approach (which I support) is only modestly effective at generating the unsolicited introductions/referrals described above. You may generate more Supporters, but frustratingly few Enthusiasts and Broadcasters.

      Generating those high-level referrers requires a different approach. (More on that coming soon.)

      Thanks for joining the conversation, Tom!

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