Creating a referral network is an important aspect of many professional service providers’ marketing plans. At a recent networking breakfast, I was reminded of an important—yet little discussed—aspect of referral etiquette, a concept that warrants further discussion.
Let’s call the person who makes the referral to you the initiating party, or IP. Suppose you receive a call from a prospective client who says that the IP referred him or her to you because the IP thought you could help. For some reason, you feel you’re not the right person, but you know someone who is. Because you want to be helpful, you then refer the prospective client to the person you consider a better match.
While our instincts as professionals may initially drive us to refer the prospective client to a better-suited colleague, we need to consider the IP. When it comes to referral etiquette, it’s important that the IP retain control of the referral. You may not be the right person to help out, but if you refer the prospective client to someone you know, then the IP has lost control of the referral. For instance, the person who called you could be the IP’s client and, by sending that person to another professional, you may have inadvertently referred him or her to someone the IP may not know. The IP may know other professionals in your line of work and would appreciate the opportunity to make another referral to one of them. By referring a prospective client to you, the IP has demonstrated confidence in you while also garnering your favor. If the IP can make another referral, then that is even better for both of you. In addition, by your referring the prospective client to someone else, the IP has lost a potential opportunity to look good to that individual, particularly if the IP can connect the client to the right person for the job.
The way to handle this situation is to tell the prospect that you’re not the right person for the job, but that you will talk with the IP about who may be a better fit. Then, check with the IP to see if this is the case, or if it is OK for you refer the prospect to someone else. The IP may not know anyone else in your field and would appreciate your referring the client to someone else, or he or she may know the same person you have in mind and would prefer to contact that person directly. By taking this course of action, you’ve shown respect for the IP, from whom you’d like to receive more referrals.
Of course, other important aspects of referral etiquette are to let the IP know that the prospect has called you and whether or not you can handle the work, among other details. And, no matter the situation’s outcome, it is critical to extend the IP a sincere thank-you.