Career Opportunities
A weekly ComputorEdge Column by Douglas E. Welch


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 for referrals.

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 project.

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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