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14 Rules of Business Referral Etiquette
by David & Lorrie Goldsmith

One of the key roles of management is to build business through relationships. A common way to build relationships is through referrals: with, for and through banks, attorneys, employees, peers, and anyone else who has something that someone else wants or needs. The better you are at managing the referral, the better off you and those in your organization will be. Unfortunately, even though most referrals start with good intentions, they're conducted haphazardly and don't yield the results people expect. It's often the reason that referrals are not offered. Who wants to be burned? The tips in this article should help you control the outcomes and get what you want.

Everyone has been embarrassed by their association with another person at one time or another. How about that cousin you wouldn't want anyone to know about? But what happens when the embarrassment happens in a business situation: more specifically, when you refer one person to another and one of those parties is unprofessional or just plain screws up? Making a bad connection could cost you money or something more valuable and much harder to recoup-your reputation.

We once stepped into an awkward situation when we referred a business peer, seeking a specific product, to one of our clients, who just so happened to offer that very product. We thought we were doing a good thing, a win-win-win thing…until we received a phone call from our client explaining that the referred person made a vulgar offer to a woman on the client's staff when she said she couldn't go any lower on her price. We were shocked. Our client ended the conversation with, "I'm not sure what to do, but what he [the business peer] did was disrespectful to my staff and to you. I'm going to let you handle this." The outcome was hardly the one we were shooting for. All we could do was apologize and hope our reputation didn't take too big a hit.

The referral is part of Business 101, and it's a valuable way to extend your business connections. Typical referrals involve three parties: the person who wants something, the person who has something to give, and the person who connects the two. Sounds simple and clean…but as our bad experience shows, sometimes things get messy. So what can you do to facilitate successful referrals? That depends on which of the three roles you're playing. Here they are.

The person who wants something. If someone connects you to another party, remember to:
  1. …respect relationships that others have developed. Consider it your way of saying "thanks" to the person who made the connection.
  2. …stay professional and avoid being too casual or friendly. A referral ONLY opens a door of opportunity. You're still responsible for building your own relationship.
  3. …conduct yourself in a way that honors the "referrer." Your actions represent yourself AND the person who gave you the referral.
  4. …leave foul language at the door. Everyone has a different tolerance point.
  5. …keep ethics above board. To do so will net you a double win. To fail will curse you with a double loss at the very least. Good news travels; bad news travels faster.
  6. …check the ego. Don't believe that your credentials, awards, accomplishments and the referral impress everyone so much that you can leave your manners at the door.
The person who has something to give. If someone sends business your way, make sure you:
  1. deliver what you promise, and promise only what you KNOW you can deliver. If you find that you can't help out, be honest about it and say thank you.
  2. make good on any mistakes that occur. People understand that errors happen. Keep both of the other two parties' interests in mind when taking responsibility for those errors.
  3. if you want to keep the referral business pouring in, make sure you meet or exceed the expectations of the person doing the referring. Hint: they're expecting you to make them look good.
  4. never "bad mouth" the person who referred the business or the one providing the service. What you say will almost surely get back to them.
The person who connects the two. Before you connect one person to another, make sure you:
  1. know whom you're dealing with. Only connect people who will show you in a good light…that goes for the person who wants something as well as the one who has something to give.
  2. aren't connecting people for the soul purpose of getting reciprocal referrals. A client in Boston complained about giving out referrals but rarely getting them in return. Instead of expecting referrals, he learned that the real value came back to him in the form of strengthened business relationships with others.
  3. kick off the transaction in a professional fashion. Whether by telephone, email, or in person, set a tone of respect by introducing each person as a respected professional.
  4. butt out when you see the relationship blossom. Chalk up the connection as another success and move on.
Referral etiquette is basically pretty simple. Behave yourself, respect others, and do the right thing. Then make sure you deal only with those who do the same. The combination is a winning formula for building new business relationships and strengthening old ones.

Copyright David and Lorrie Goldsmith. All Rights Reserved.

David and Lorrie Goldsmith are managing partners of their own consulting group. Their firm offers consulting and speaking services internationally. David was named by Successful Meetings Magazine as one of the "26 Hottest Speakers in the Industry." Jeff Gitomer say’s "David Goldsmith is unique in that he can see a 30,000 feet view of business and then delivers the hand-to-hand tools for combat."

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