April 9, 2004
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Referrals are the life-blood of anyone working in high-tech, whether a
freelance consultant and coach, like myself, or an IT staffer working
inside a large corporation. Word of mouth is one of the strongest methods
for developing new clients or finding the next job up the corporate ladder.
As with most career issues, referrals can be a double-edged sword. Friendships,
family and business can suffer when referrals become a contentious issue
instead of simply one person, or business, helping another.
Works for me
I won’t pretend to have all the answers. History has proven too
often that I don’t. That said, I will tell you how I handle referrals
and what I see as the issues involved, both good and bad. For myself,
handling referrals in an informal, and frankly, unbusiness-like fashion
seems to have served me best over the years.
First, I do not refer someone to a friend or colleague (or both) expecting
some form of “quid pro quo”, which is Latin for “something
for something.” I refer someone because I believe that they can
be better served by this person, not because I am going to make a “finder’s
fee,” or other referral payment. Nor do I expect others to pay me
In fact, I have found that referral fees of any sort tend to stir the
waters of discontent more than they help the flow of business. Clients
might wonder if I am referring them to the best person for the job or
just trying to make a few extra bucks on the side. Colleagues might feel
slighted, or taken advantage of, if I refer more people to one than another.
Finally, true or not, they might think that I am expecting some form of
quid pro quo and feel alternately guilty or angry that they are not living
up to some unspoken deal.
I handle all referrals in this simple fashion. I refer clients to my friends
and colleagues. They refer people to me. No money changes hands. There
are no expectations as to reciprocity and everyone is happy.
Whose client is it?
Even without referral payments, there can be one other bone of contention
when you are making and receiving referrals. Sometimes you might begin
to wonder, “whose client is it?” The truth is, no one “owns”
a client. If someone refers a client to me, I consider them my client
until such a time that I refer them to someone else, or the client decides
to hire someone else, perhaps even the original consultant.
If I want to continue working for a client, it is up to me to do the best
work possible. If a client wants to hire someone else, that is their decision
and I must respect it. Even more, I consider it essential to know when
my clients might be better served by another. If someone where to come
to me asking for programming or web design, I wouldn’t attempt to
take on this work only to maintain my relationship with the client. I
would refer them to the best person I know for the job. Rather than losing
a client, this can often be the secret to retaining them. They may go
elsewhere for specific tasks, but they will return to you for your specialties,
or perhaps even hire you to oversee other consultants involved in a larger
Who do you trust?
It is very important to only recommend those people you truly trust to
serve your clients. A bad referral reflects on you as much as the person
you referred. If they fail to do a good job, or antagonize the client
in other ways, you will suffer as well. Make sure that you understand
someone, and their work habits i.e. Do they show up on time or do they
chronically lay their lateness off on traffic, etc., before you refer
your first client. Honestly, I have a very small cadre of people I use
for referrals. I must know someone very well before I am willing to trust
my clients to their care. Just like your relationship with your clients,
your work and your referrals are all based on trust. Violate this trust
and everyone in the relationship will suffer.
Referrals aren’t about making extra money from someone else’s
labor, nor about a formal system of quid pro quo. Referrals are about
knowing yourself and your colleagues and understanding that everyone benefits
when referrals are given openly and freely, without ulterior motives.
Find and develop people from whom you both send and receive referrals
and your high-tech career is sure to benefit.
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