Building Partnerships that Generate Referrals

Referral Network


As I’ve been planning my wedding, I’ve been so impressed by the wedding industry’s savvy at giving and receiving referrals.

Planning the wedding has been very stressful.  (Shocking, I know.)  Fortunately, one of the simpler parts has been finding reputable vendors.  Even though we will end up using about a dozen different vendors, I’m confident we’ll have great ones.

Once we started talking to venues, the venue representatives were quick to offer suggestions for other vendors, like caterers, DJ’s, and photographers.  When we spoke with the photographer, he referred us to a hair & make-up person and a videographer.

Moreover, they didn’t just give us a name, they handed us a brochure and showed us a book of pictures of the proposed vendor’s work.  Sometimes they’d even call and make an inquiry on our behalf.  By the time we spoke with the referred vendor, we already had a good deal of faith in them.  So it was pretty easy for them to close the sale.

Quality referrals are a win-win.  For me as a customer, I love the peace of mind knowing that they’ll do quality work.  And the vendors find that giving more referrals inevitably results in their receiving more referrals.  I also appreciate the vendor for helping me find what I need, and I am more likely to recommend them.

Building Your Own Referral Network

There are several groups of people who tend to be excellent referral sources.  Depending on your industry, some of these may be stronger than others.

People who have already sent you business

Make a list of the clients who were referred to you over the past two years.  These people are a great place to start, since they have proven an ability and desire to send you customers.

Past clients

Do you have current or former clients who rave about you?  Who love to sing your praises?  They may know other people like them who could use your help.


If you ever work on client projects with other providers, these collaborators can be excellent referral partners.  For example, one of my clients, a copywriting firm, often collaborates (and passes referrals) with a web developer, a branding agency, and an SEO firm.

Upstream and downstream providers

In some industries, clients’ needs evolve over time.  For example, several of my clients in the construction business take advantage of this, since the client typically needs a real estate broker, then an architect, then a contractor, and then an interior decorator.  Referrals flow both upstream and downstream, depending on whom the client happens to know or contact first.

Unrelated businesses who work with similar client types

Who else works with your same type of customer?  Even unrelated businesses can pass great referrals.  For example, my clients often ask me to recommend vendors, so I’ll give referrals to everything from web developers to payroll companies.

Networking groups

Some networking groups focus on building relationships and passing referrals among members.  A great example of this is BNI, which has chapters around the world.

Action Plan

Using the ideas above, make a list of 20 potential referral partners.  I suggest starting with 15 people you know already.  Then add five people or professions you don’t yet know, but whom you think could be great referral sources.

Turning this list into a constant stream of new business is like cultivating a garden.  It requires ongoing maintenance, or your plants will wither.  To make best use of your time, sort your top 20 into Tier A (top 10) and Tier B (second 10).  You should connect with Tier A once a month, whether it’s a phone call, a lunch, or inviting them to join you at an event.  For Tier B, once a quarter is a good schedule.

Each time you speak with your referral partners, arm them with what they need to know to recommend you: talking points, success stories, etc.  And don’t forget to ask them what they are looking for and how you can help them!

Share Your Thoughts

What have you found successful for cultivating referrals?  Share your tips and questions below!

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