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If you're like many professional service providers, you get a lot of business from referrals.

You get them because you're an expert at what you do and you provide excellent service. Nevertheless, it's not as simple as that.

If you think about how you get referrals, you'll realize that several events need to happen first.

The referrer must:


  1. Know someone who needs a service you provide
  2. Recognize that the individual would benefit from that service
  3. Be motivated to make the referral
  4. Be aware of your existence
  5. Know that you can provide the service the prospect needs
  6. Think of you when the time comes
  7. Think highly of your services
  8. Believe you provide good value
  9. Find it easy to refer you

In fact, the referral process parallels the buying process that prospects use to make purchase decisions. And, just as you can accelerate the buying process, you can accelerate referrals by anticipating what your referrers will need at each stage and arming them in advance.

This article describes actions you can take to help referrers move through each of the following nine steps quickly—clearing the way for referrals to your business.

1. Identify your best referral sources

Your best referral sources are those that are likely to hear about or witness a need for your services. So start by thinking about who is likely to encounter someone experiencing a problem you can solve.

Your current clients are often good referral sources. Many have peers who have the same needs they do. They understand the benefits you provide and are motivated to make a match because they have a deep relationship with you, and often with the peer that has the need.

Other likely referrers are professional service providers that also serve your audience—since they may be the first to hear about needs as they arise. For example, accountants often get referrals from lawyers who are assisting entrepreneurs to start or sell a company, and vice versa. Marketers such as strategists, public relations (PR) experts, copywriters, and graphic designers also naturally refer business to one another.

Meet prospective referrers through professional trade associations and through colleagues. Then get to know them and build relationships with them to lay the foundation for cross-referrals.

2. Help referrers recognize which individuals or businesses are good candidates for your services

Just because someone knows you or has done business with you doesn't necessarily mean that person will recognize a need for your services. Help such people refer business to you by describing the problems you address and the organizations that are likely to experience them.

Also, describe the events that trigger a need for your services. For ideas, look to changes in the economy, regulation, competitive environment, and technology.

Rising energy costs drive demand for energy brokers and consultants. Changes in healthcare reimbursement create a need for expert advice and perhaps a technician who can modify billing software. A competitive announcement drives a need for marketing consultants, PR agencies, and service providers who can help the company match competitors' offers.

Tell stories to help prospective referrers get a deeper sense of who you can help. Be sure to describe the businesses you helped, the circumstances that prompted a need for your service, and—of equal importance—how and how much their fortunes improved as a result of working with you.

Finally, help referrers discover a need for your services before the prospect begins actively searching for a solution. Train them to listen for key phrases that often accompany a need for your services.

Provide them with questions they can ask to uncover needs that would otherwise not come up in conversation. In addition to focusing on areas of change that might drive demand, suggest that they ask about the company's satisfaction with its current professional services provider—and whether that company or person provides a particular service that your clients have found helpful.

3. Motivate referrers

Some people are natural connectors and are always looking for opportunities to make referrals, but not everyone understands that good referrals benefit everyone.

You may need to help prospective referrers see how referring you will directly help them. That is easiest with other professional service providers who cater to the same clientele you do, especially those whose reputation depends on work performed by someone with your expertise.

One way to demonstrate your value by is by providing a few examples of how you've contributed to the success of others in the referrer's position. Better yet, capture attention by making the first referral.

If you end up working together on the project, he or she will also get a chance to experience the quality of your services firsthand. In any case, just making the referral will give you the opportunity to point to the benefits that everyone gets from a good referral: The prospective client gets outstanding service; the referred professional service provider gets a new client; and the referrer elevates his or her brand in the eyes of both parties by making a valuable match.

Nevertheless, not all referral relationships can be bidirectional. In those cases, you may need to find other ways to motivate them.

A finder's fee is just one option. One of my colleagues offers a free "brand audit" to anyone who refers business to her—and most professional service providers follow up with a thank-you note or a gift that acknowledges the referrer's thoughtfulness.

4. Increase your visibility

This may go without saying,... but people need to know of your existence before they can refer you. Increase your visibility by attending networking events, speaking and writing, and becoming active on social media.

In each case, tie your actions to your "brand" so that others know when to think of you.

5. Expand others' awareness of your capabilities

How many times has a valued colleague referred someone else to perform a service that you can provide—had that colleague only known you could do so? Especially for professional service providers that provide complex or less-common services, such a situation occurs more often than one might think.

For example, a client may be highly satisfied with the environmental engineering company it hired to remove asbestos—but may never think to recommend that company to a colleague who is complaining about the mold that has accompanied a recent bout of wet weather.

Therefore, ensure that prospective referrers are aware of all the services you provide. That said, don't do it all at once. Many people will absorb only one thing at a time.

A drip campaign, such as a newsletter with case examples, can be a good way to educate your referrers over time. Blog posts and other social media, such as Twitter or Facebook status updates, are another way to communicate such information.

6. Stay top of mind

Just as some colleagues may not be aware of all the services you offer, others may simply neglect to think of you when referral opportunities arise. Sometimes that's because they just spoke with someone else who offers exactly the service that a prospective client requires. More often, it's because it's been awhile since you've communicated your ability to provide that service.

Social media status updates provide a great, nonintrusive way to stay top of mind with colleagues. To remind others of the types of work they do, many of my colleagues post on LinkedIn and Twitter each time they get a new project.

7. Create a reputation for excellent service

Those who have worked with you directly know that you deliver excellent service in your area of expertise. You need to educate everyone else.

The first step is to exude a service orientation in all your interactions with them. Be responsive to their needs and requests. Or, better yet, anticipate and address their needs before they ask. Another is to share stories about satisfied clients' experiences. Even more powerful, however, are testimonials.

Today, LinkedIn makes testimonials commonplace and therefore easy to request. Also, consider including relevant client testimonials on your website, next to each service you offer—preferably over your client's name, title, and employer.

8. Develop a reputation for providing great value

Demonstrating value can be especially challenging for professional service providers because the solutions we provide are intangible. One way to calculate the value of your services is to measure their effect on profitability.

For many professional services, the relationship between the service and profitability is indirect. If you think deeply enough about them, however, most services ultimately contribute to either an increase in revenue or a reduction in costs. At a minimum, they avoid costs that a company might have incurred had it not availed itself of the service.

For example, an organizational consultant helps improve satisfaction, which improves retention and therefore helps avoid the costs associated with recruiting, training, and assembling new employees.

To develop a reputation for delivering value, again turn to your testimonials. Help your clients articulate how and how much they materially benefit from the services that you provide, or hire a strategic marketing consultant to do so. Then ask your clients to include that insight in their testimonials.

9. Make it easy for others to refer business to you

Hopefully, the previous eight suggestions have given you an idea about how to help others refer business to you. You may also want to consider providing eager referrers with written materials or formal training that describes the companies and individuals who are likely to need your services, the challenges and events that trigger the need, key phrases they should listen for, and questions they should ask.

Accelerate Your Referrals

Everyone loves referrals. Most professional service providers want more business. Even those with a full dance card can improve profitability by raising prices or adding staff.

The nice thing about referrals is that they generally close faster than leads from other sources. For one, prospects who contact referred service providers generally already recognize they need the service about which they are inquiring. For another, they are predisposed to believing that the referred company is the one with which to do business.

The only things limiting the number of referrals you get are the nine items listed above. Use the suggestions in this article to overcome them, one by one, to accelerate your referrals now!

Barbara Bix is the managing principal of BB Marketing Plus, is a seasoned B2B marketing consultant, and specializes in helping organizations accelerate revenues. She is also the author of the Top Line blog.

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Barbara Bix is managing principal of BB Marketing Plus, where she helps companies enhance their brands by capturing and enhancing the customer experience.