How to Make the Most from a Referral

When someone agrees to refer you for a potential job, a sales opportunity, or a romantic relationship, you have a responsibility to pursue it gracefully. Here are Get-It-Done Guy's tips on making the most of a referral.

Stever Robbins
5-minute read
Episode #310

I recently spent some time talking with Joanne Black, author of Pick Up the Damn Phone, a book on relationship-based selling.

It got me thinking. In high school, everything got done via the gossip network. Nicole told Ron who told Rebecca who told Claudia who told E.J. who told Reggie who told Steph who told Cristina who told John who told Mark who told Pat who told Michael who told me. Joanne (not Joanne from my high school, Joanne the sales expert) pointed out that the same thing is true in the so-called grown-up world, only it's not gossip, it's referrals..


Once you're past college, most things happen by referral. You'll be using referrals to get informational interviews when job hunting, to find interviews for specific jobs, to find customers for your products, donors for your non-profit, and even a new schmoopie when the old one dumps you for an up-and-coming Italian fashion designer.

Referrals are delicate. You must handle them properly, or you can accidentally burn bridges! When you're being referred, it's usually by a friend, maybe Boris, maybe Natasha. For convenience, we'll just call your friend "The Russian." The Russian has agreed to provide an introduction to Incredible Person.

Before You Make Contact

Do your research! Google Incredible Person and find out everything you can. You'll be asking a lot of questions. You may be surprised to learn that in a referral situation, it's not about you, at all. No one wants to hear about you and how amazing you are; we want to talk about us, and how amazing we are. So you'll need to know about Incredible Person so you can ask good questions that will go deep, fast.

Ask The Russian for information about Incredible Person. How should you approach Incredible Person? Are there any topics that Incredible Person likes to talk about (e.g. their children), or that are off-limits (e.g. clowns)?

Behave Well

Joanne Black points out that you represent The Russian. You must behave as well as or better than the Russian.

BCC The Russian on your introductory email, so they can see the style you're using and if you're doing something wrong, quickly give you corrective hints or have you eliminated.

Use proper grammar. Write and speak in complete sentences. Spell check. Capitalize. Say "Please" and "Thank You," and call Incredible Person by their title, "Mr. or Ms. Person," not by their first name, "Incredible." Why? Because if they're formal, you'll be doing everything right. And if they're informal, they'll either tell you or you'll figure it out when they show up wearing a skintight leopard-skin leotard.

Referrals are all about relationship-building. Get off email, Twitter, LinkedIn, Tumblr, Facebook, Snapchat, Grindr, or Tinder as quickly as possible. Then Pick Up the Damn Phone! Use technology to set up a phone or face-to-face meeting. Relationships are build through direct contact, not through text.

The Informational Interview

For an informational interview, ask for information. Don't send along a resume unless asked. Sending a resume suggests that you expect Incredible Person to just give you a job. They don't have one, so it's a waste of both your time.

Show up and ask them about their experience. Ask their opinions about the industry. Ask them how they got started in or transitioned through the business. Then and only then, ask them if they could help you figure out how to get a job. They'll probably give you names of more people to contact.


About the Author

Stever Robbins

Stever Robbins was the host of the podcast Get-it-Done Guy from 2007 to 2019. He is a graduate of W. Edward Deming’s Total Quality Management training program and a Certified Master Trainer Elite of NLP. He holds an MBA from the Harvard Business School and a BS in Computer Sciences from MIT.