How to Get Referrals and Fuel Your Success

Whether you're looking to grow clients or get promoted at work, a referral can be your most powerful path to success. But how do you get people motivated to refer you? Here's your simple roadmap to building a referral network that works for you.

Rachel Cooke
5-minute read
Episode #618
The Quick And Dirty

Building a network of referrers takes time and dedication, but commit to these five steps and you'll find success knocking at your door.

  • Have one extraordinary thing you do and know how to talk about it
  • Encourage referrals through storytelling
  • Use triggers to drive referrals
  • Reciprocate referrals
  • Nurture referrals with gratitude

Whether you run your own business, work for a company, or in the midst of a job search, you know your network is critical to your success. Sometimes it’s a question of who you know. Are there people in your circle who’d be willing to make an introduction when you ask for one?

But other times, it’s about whether the people you know are willing to go above and beyond without you prompting them. These people constitute not just your network, but your network of referrers. These are the people who recognize an opportunity to say, on your behalf, "Hey, I know just the person you need to talk to about that—let me set it up."

Sometimes, it’s about whether the people you know are willing to go above and beyond to refer you without you prompting them.

A referral network can take time to build. But it’s worth the investment of your attention. Today we’ll talk about how you can begin to lay that groundwork and prep your supporters to create opportunities for you.

Have one extraordinary thing you do

Chances are, there’s plenty you do well. Success relies on a collective of skills. But being referrable begins with clarity around what you want to be known and referred for. 

In my business, I do a wide variety of work. I speak, I design organizations, I coach, and I deliver learning. But what's my one thing, my own bit of extraordinary? When a leader needs to align and activate their team behind an important outcome, be it leading change or building a powerful employee experience, I design and facilitate those conversations.

The more specific your 'extraordinary,' the more targeted your referrers can be.

I do that work uniquely, and with extraordinary results.

It’s really specific. But that’s important. The more specific your 'extraordinary,' the more targeted your referrers can be.

So what’s your version of this? Whether you’re seeking new clients for your business or a new opportunity within your company, what’s your one thing?

You may be great at project management or executing campaigns. But likely so are a lot of people.

When an opportunity arises for someone to head up a new marketing council, a referral like "You should choose Kay; she's a great project manager" carries some weight. But if the people searching for that new council head hear "When Kay leads a project, she's amazing at driving stakeholder alignment and buy-in," that specific example makes a more compelling case.

Do everything well. But choose a spot in which you’re extraordinary. And let that be the thing for which you’re referred. 

Encourage referrals through storytelling

Doing the extraordinary is a big first step. But ensuring others recognize and remember it comes next.

Enter the power of storytelling.

When someone asks what you do, you’re welcome to answer with the typical “I’m an accountant.” This may be factually accurate. But it won’t spark a referral opportunity.

Try offering an answer that provides a bit of intrigue. Something like “I help leaders make better financial decisions in their business,” or “I lead teams through strategic acquisitions for our company.”

Saying “I’m an accountant” tends to shut down a conversation. But more intriguing and robust responses lead to curiosity. If someone asks you to say more—and they often will—you now have a chance to tell a story about what you do.

You want to tell stories because stories create a memory, and you want to be memorable. According to Harvard Business Publishing, Organizational Psychologist Peg Neuhauser found that learning derived from a story is recalled more accurately and for longer than when we’re given facts and figures.

I don’t tell stories that feature me looking shiny and bold. My stories are about my client companies, the challenges they faced, and the specific solutions we co-created.

And someone can only refer you when they remember you and what you do.

Early in my business, I told people I was a consultant. And the next time you’re looking to shut down a conversation in 10-seconds flat, you too should try this response!

Now when someone asks what I do, I say “I help leaders facilitate important conversations that deliver actionable outcomes with their teams.”

Does the average person understand that? Frankly, not at all. But often they’ll ask me to expand, and then I get to tell stories. I don’t tell stories that feature me looking shiny and bold. My stories are about my client companies, the challenges they faced, and the specific solutions we co-created.

Now this person has a sense of what I do—what problems I solve with what type of clients—and they’ve experienced my energy around it through my storytelling.

Your stories should be light and brief. You’re not looking to overwhelm or steal the show, but simply to create a memory or two around what you do.

So now it’s your turn. What do you do? Are you a marketer, or do you help your company achieve revenue targets through actionable campaigns? Are you a realtor, or do you help clients imagine and find their dream home?

Leave an impression that feels specific and real.

Use triggers to drive referrals

In his bestselling book, Contagious: Why Things Catch On, Wharton Marketing Professor Jonah Berger explains the power of triggers. “Triggers,” he writes, “are stimuli that prompt people to think about related things.”

Your stories create memories, but your triggers help your network recall them in the right moments.

“Top of mind means tip of tongue” Berger writes.

Well-designed triggers, he says, are all about timing. You’ll want to trigger either frequently, or at just the right moments.

Well-designed triggers are all about timing.

In my business, I lean on frequency. I publish a bi-weekly newsletter which is designed not to sell or market, but to maintain a connection with clients, friends, and colleagues. Its intent is to offer tools and insights that deliver value, and that value is associated with me. This keeps me and my firm in the minds of my readers.

Other types of businesses may rely on well-timed triggers. A financial advisor in the United States, for example, may rely on touchpoints just before the April tax season. Swim instructors may do outreach as we head into summertime.

Whatever you do, whatever your referral goal, how will you leverage frequency or relevant timing to keep yourself top of mind in the moments that matter?

Reciprocate referrals

Another simple way to grow your referrals is to set the example.

Wondering why people aren’t referring you already? They may not realize how much the practice means for you. So, go ahead and set the example.

Who in your network could use an introduction to someone else? Is someone you know job-hunting? Client-seeking? Promotion-hungry? Who do you know with a need, and who do you know who might meet that need?

Establish the practice of referrals that others might just follow.

Nurture referrals with gratitude

And finally, express gratitude for referrals received. And be specific. When you let the referrer know exactly what you appreciate and why, they'll be motivated to do it again.

Helping others feels great. So why not offer the gift of your gratitude?

And here’s why. When we help someone else, according to Thrive Global, our brains produce endorphins, which in turn produce what’s sometimes called the “helper's high.”

Helping others feels great. So why not offer the gift of your gratitude? It will serve you both.

And there you have a plan to start making referrals work for you. Go forth and good luck!

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About the Author

Rachel Cooke

Rachel Cooke is a leadership and workplace expert who holds her M.A. in Organizational Psychology from Columbia University. Founder of Lead Above Noise, she has been named a top 100 Leadership Speaker by Inc. Magazine and has been featured in Fast Company, The Huffington Post, and many more.