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Why Your Consulting Firm Doesn’t Receive Enough Referrals (and How to Fix It)

Most of your consulting firm’s business comes from referrals. Sure, inbound leads inspired by your marketing are great; however, leads who have been introduced to your firm by an independent source turn into paying clients faster and more often.

Are you getting as many referrals as you could?

Not by a long shot.

Before diving into how you can increase the number of referrals your consulting firm receives, make sure you’ve read part 1 of this 3-part series: What Your Consulting Firm Really Wants From a Referral.

All referrals and introductions are good. But what you really want are Champions, Enthusiasts, and Broadcasters. People who will, unsolicited, recommend your consulting firm.

Let’s say Priscilla Prospecto meets four peers at a conference:

  • Una Weir has never heard of your consulting firm.
  • George Curious recently learned about your firm and has been exploring your offerings.
  • Vera Loil is a longtime client who views your consulting firm as a solid, reliable service provider.
  • Dee Seipul hired your consulting firm a number of years ago and, while she did not engage you again, your work for her unlocked huge, personal transformations.

Who is most likely to introduce your consulting firm to Priscilla: the current client (Vera), the past client (Dee) or a non-client (Una or George)?  

You’d think your clients, for whom your consulting firm has delivered excellent results, would naturally be proactive referrers. Especially if you strive for “customer delight” and high Net Promoter Scores.

But they’re not.

Here’s a painful twist of irony: as you work with a client, the likelihood the client will proactively introduce or refer your consulting firm to other prospects often decreases.

In fact, the biggest drop in likelihood of a spontaneous introduction may occur before or soon after a client engages your consulting firm.

That feels totally unfair, doesn’t it?

What’s going on, and what can you do about it?

The Referral Catalyst: Emotion

Someone is most likely to spontaneously introduce your consulting firm to others when they associate your firm with a strong positive feeling. Feelings not results, drive spontaneous referrals.

Feelings of achievement, victory, and relief may be the most likely to trigger referrals, but so will joy, safety, pride and other positive emotions

Then why aren’t your clients—the folks who have gained the greatest value from your consulting firm, the most likely to recommend you?

For one thing, most “customer delight” is actually just customer satisfaction, and satisfaction is not a strong emotion. Also, Net Promoter Score is based on a rational assessment, not an emotional one.

Most importantly, though, the feeling of achievement, victory or relief isn’t based on actual value received. In fact, that emotion can run highest before someone even contracts your consulting firm.

Anticipatory achievement is just as exciting and referral-provoking as actual achievement.

If George Curious is totally enchanted by your marketing material, he’s experiencing an anticipatory sense of victory, achievement and/or relief.

Based on that, he’s likely to mention your consulting firm to many others with a caveat, “I’ve never worked with them, but they look really interesting.”

And since George hasn’t experienced any of the little disappointments and setbacks that accompany virtually every consulting engagement, his emotional experience of your firm may be quite powerful.

In contrast, Vera Loil’s emotional experience of your consulting firm may be muted thanks to her numerous, unmemorable interactions with you.

Vera receives solid consulting work from you, but without any endorphin rushes provoked by you, she’s unlikely to proactively recommend your consulting firm.

Dee Seipul would be your best referral source if, and only if, the personal transformation you wrought remained top-of-mind.

Action Steps

Market Emotion

Connect your marketing materials with prospect’s emotional gains. Depict the victory they’ll achieve and the relief they’ll feel when working with your consulting firm.

Dig and Listen

Invest time and energy into understanding your consulting prospects and clients at a deeper level. What truly motivates them? What sparks extraordinary passion from them? With that knowledge, you can deliver value to their hearts as well as their wallets.

Find and Defuse Bombs

Investigate your clients’ stressors. The more anxiety, discomfort, danger, and fear they feel, the more palpable the relief they’ll associate with your consulting firm.

Systemize “Wow”

Retool your client experience to deliver and emphasize emotional wins. For instance, ask, “How has this made a difference to you?” during your project retrospectives.

Leverage Key Moments

Ask current clients for introductions when their positive emotions are running high. For instance, immediately after they sign with you. Also, cement emotional victories by explicitly congratulating your clients and by celebrating their triumphs with them.

What, if any, steps do you take to generate strong, positive emotions in your marketing and consulting work?


10 Comments
  1. William J. Ryan
    June 21, 2023 at 7:22 am Reply

    Interesting “aha”, I’m currently going back to prior clients seeking connections/introductions/referrals, etc. so this has me thinking. Seems my timing has been off (inside voice saying, and what makes this day any different?) 🙂

    • David A. Fields
      June 21, 2023 at 7:28 am Reply

      Bill, it’s totally okay to ask prior clients (and new clients) for an introduction. That’s a solicited referral, and your timing is fine. The quiet voice in your head meant to ask you, “How can we create a strong, positive emotional connection through our marketing and our client experience?” That way you’ll increase the number of unsolicited referrals.

      I appreciate your comment, which gave me a chance to clarify a distinction that wasn’t well articulated in the article, Bill.

      • William J. Ryan
        June 21, 2023 at 7:36 am Reply

        Glad to help! Perhaps you extend this thought along the premise that being “top of mind” as a way to keep favorable thoughts about “you” and the work done followed by the connection to another as a need arises.

        To be transparent, does something like a monthly newsletter with small info items along with a little plug (like a link to a blog or vlog you create) help in the referral process or should your time be better spent elsewhere?

        • David A. Fields
          June 21, 2023 at 7:49 am

          Good question, Bill. Remember, there are three types of referrers who are reactive, and you want referrers from them too. Being top of mind definitely helps and offering value on a regular basis is a good idea.

          Hence, your newsletter is a good ideas as long as it 1) doesn’t take undue time to create, 2) creates value, and 3) is appreciated by the recipients.

  2. Jay Arthur
    June 21, 2023 at 8:02 am Reply

    I like the phrase: “Word of mouse.”
    We ask every customer for a testimonial a few days after they purchase.
    Testimonials help us sell to new prospects as well as give us insight into what the customer loves about our products and services.
    We use reviews.io.

    • David A. Fields
      June 21, 2023 at 9:18 am Reply

      That’s a funny, evocative phrase, Jay. Asking for testimonials is an excellent practice, Jay. In addition to giving you insights, the process of giving the testimonial cements in a client’s mind (and, ideally, their heart) the amazing impact your consulting had on their lives.

      I’m glad you added that dimension to the discussion, Jay!

  3. Dave Mangot
    June 21, 2023 at 6:21 pm Reply

    1. I wonder if the Gartner hype cycle curve is closer to the real curve than what is represented here.

    2. Dee Seipul would be who I want to recommend me, not someone who is excited about my marketing material. I think the CRM lifecycle of regular touch points could be a way to keep your shared wins top-of-mind.

    • David A. Fields
      June 22, 2023 at 12:00 pm Reply

      You may very well be right about the curve, Dave. Mine was drawn unscientifically (to say the least) and was more for effect than careful analysis.

      Regarding Dee vs. George recommendations, I’d suggest you want both. There’s nothing wrong with receiving an inquiry from someone who says, “I heard about you from George, who sent me your marketing materials.” And there are a lot more Georges than Dees if your marketing campaigns are firing on all cylinders.

      Your addition to the conversation is great, Dave–thanks for jumping in!

  4. Susan Moore
    June 22, 2023 at 10:48 am Reply

    Being from a quality improvement background in health care and using it fully in my business, we conduct a satisfaction survey within a few weeks after clients’ successful accreditation survey that we partnered with them and guided them through. That timing is when it’s fresh on their minds and they have the highest level of appreciation. At that time with the standard questions, we ask for testimonials for our website and potential referrals. We’re a little behind on the timing right now with a glut of potential clients, onboarding an Ops Director, hiring a new virtual assistant, and hiring a new consultant. But we’re making progress on catching up. We use the results that are on the scale of 1 – 10 for our marketing: 100% of our clients score us at 9 or 10s and 100% of our clients score on their survey 98 – 100%. I also use it for consultant feedback and self-adjustment for the future and for being cognizant of client satisfiers. Better to have the client say it than me. Since we have metrics over time, it’s great to see trends – which is sustained high performance. Those that have the highest appreciation are those that are on the Epic Fail path that we bring them through with flying colors and provide even more glowing testimonials. Others who read that type of testimonial say, If they can do it for them, we should be easy peasy. ” Isn’t necessarily so, but OK to think that.
    Thanks for your thoughtful and relatable blogs every week. I enjoy your stick figures and the cute names you posted for this one.

    • David A. Fields
      June 22, 2023 at 12:03 pm Reply

      Wow, Susan, you’ve offered an outstanding illustration of the concepts in action. Also, congratulations on the exceptional scores from your clients. The ultimate testament to your firm’s great work.

      Your observation that the highest appreciation is from those who changed trajectory from Epic Fail to Flying Colors is exactly in line with where this article was heading. Big, emotional wins create huge appreciation and multiple referrals. Very impressive, Susan!

      Thank you for sharing the incredibly valuable case study.

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