5 Tips for Giving Professional Referrals

Giving referrals to get referrals is a cornerstone in the foundation of business networking. There are different kinds of referrals but all are low-cost ways of plugging into new business. The great strategies for getting referrals from current clients shouldn’t be ignored. But those are not the topic of today’s post.

Today’s post is about giving referrals, because you can’t do everything that comes in the door, and you usually have to give referrals to receive referrals. Giving is really a misunderstood concept. Most people confuse “giving” with “bartering”—especially in the referral context.

If you “give” because you want to “get” referrals, you are really just “bartering.”  To give, you must act without the expectation of recognition or reciprocity. Of course you can hope for reciprocal referrals and recognition, but the gift of the referrals must be made with no mercenary intent for it to really resonate. The paradox of intention in referrals is always amazing to me. Also, recognize that these tips apply to all referrals you make—not just those to other attorneys, but also to accountants, design studios, marketing firms—anyone.

Tips for giving referrals:

1. Keep the client’s best interest in mind.

One would think this should go without saying, but I’ve experienced way too many instances of people being given my name as a referral for services I don’t offer. Granted, I’m happy to receive the referral because it shows people were thinking of me, but they should have been thinking of their client. So should you.

You probably know several people in any given category of services. This abundance allows you to carefully consider the client’s personality when deciding which referrals to share.  For instance, client A might be a great match for referral A because of their personalities even though referral A might charge more than referral B. Client B might do just as good of a job for less money but be a bit harder to work with personally. Carefully consider the client’s personality, and then go to tip 2.

2. Give at least 2 recommendations in any given situation.

Always give at least 2 recommendations whenever you can, except when someone you know is the perfect person to solve the client’s problem. Giving 2 or 3 options shows that you are well networked. This practice will earn “referral kudos” from the all the people contacted based upon your referral. Granted, our motivation shouldn’t be those referral kudos, but hey, we’re human and it’s not bad to get credit for the referrals as long as we’re not motivated by that credit.

Giving multiple referral recommendations also removes you from any reasonable perception of responsibility for the client’s choice. I’m not saying you’ll get into a legal problems if your referrals don’t hit it off with the client, but the emotional fall-out of recommending the perfect match that’s really NOT the perfect match can be ugly.  It’s better to give at least a couple names for the client to contact, then let them make the decision on their own.  You get the credit if the relationship is wonderful and you don’t take the blame if something goes wrong.

3. Give a little of your time to do the introduction.

Find the time to do a quick email introduction between your client and each of the referral options. Don’t just send one email with all of the referrals in the same address line. Believe it or not, I’ve seen that happen. Yes, from lawyers. It’s the equivalent of throwing a piece of raw meat into the lion’s den and as you know, few people like being treated like meat.

Sending individual emails will do wonders for getting the client to act on your referral (remember it’s about the client), and also guarantees that your referral will recognize the source of the potential client.

4. Refer to your other clients whenever possible.

Duh! If you can send referral business from clients to clients they’ll see you as a revenue generator instead of an expense. Jackpot! It’s always better to be perceived as a money-maker rather than an expense.

5.  Don’t refer crazy people to anyone, especially your friends.

Finally, when those crazy people call you or actually make it into your office for a consult start asking for referrals after you politely tell them that they can’t pay you enough to take their case, don’t give them any names. Politely say something like “you have a really unique problem and I’m not sure who can help you. So I can’t comfortably recommend anyone.” At most give the crazy potential client a list of Google search terms to help them narrow their search. You don’t want to be associated with the whack-jobs by either friend or enemy.

How do you handle client referrals?

When I started practice, a criminal law practicioner in town told me the “code” for crazy clients was to quote them a fee (extremely high so they wouldn’t hire you) ending in the numeral 4. That way, when they didn’t hire you and went to a colleague and said “Can you believe Mike said this would cost me $754/hour!?” the colleague will know the potential client is a nut.  That doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, and I’ve not used it or experienced it as a technique, but I’m wondering if anyone else has heard of this practice or something similar.  I’m chalking it up to a local urban myth, but maybe I’m missing something fun…

Add your ideas, tips, and legends below.



  1. Avatar Jay says:

    Interesting topic. What do you do when you send several referrals to a relationship (whether attorney, CPA, banker, etc) and never receive any referrals back? Do you continue your blind eye referral method even though it is not producing any goodwill back to you? I find this concept a bit odd considering that most of the professional buiness world provides its referrals to those who reciprocate the referral. Its a given that the person you refer must be top notch and competent, but anyone should be able to find several top quality referral options for any vendor needs of a client.

  2. @Jay One thing that Kevin did not explicitly mention in his otherwise great post is that lawyers in most jurisdictions are prohibited from requiring reciprocal referrals as a condition of giving the referral because lawyers can not give “anything of value” to another person for recommending a lawyer’s services. I think you’re correct that most lawyers have several referral options for the particular needs of a client and a lawyer might fairly steer clients elsewhere if over a long period of time the lawyer found there were no referrals coming back to the lawyer. But anything that starts to look like a quid pro quo could present problems for a lawyer down the road. This is one way that lawyers are required to be different from the rest of the professional business world.

  3. Avatar Jay says:

    I never suggested (at least I did not intend to suggest) that there be an actual requirement for reciprocal referrals. However, I’m less apt to send business to someone who, after sending them a couple of nice referrals did not even have the decency to call me up or meet me for lunch to discuss whether they had any client that could be referred to me.

  4. Kevin Houchin Kevin H. says:

    Good question. It’s only human nature that we pay attention to reciprocity (as a favor, not a requirement) from the people to whom we send potential business.

    If after a while I don’t get any referrals from someone, and I have other people to start sending referrals to, I’ll make a switch – unless someone is just absolutely the right match even though they don’t reciprocate.

    The other element I try to remember is that most of my professional referrals go out to people who really aren’t that great of marketers. So I don’t know how many opportunities they really create to GIVE referrals to clients. I know they’re good at what they do, but I don’t know if they make it a point to become a trusted advisor in their client’s lives for things other than the “billable” work. (Sometimes I really wish we COULD accept referral fees because I send a lot of business to other lawyers…)

    My flat-fee model sets up an opportunity to have more well-rounded advisor relationships with my clients, so I end up giving referrals to design studios, copywriters, accountants, insurance agents, investment advisors, and other legal specialists all the time. So, I have never expected 1:1 referrals.

    My key referral sources tend to send me reciprocal referrals often enough for me to know that they reciprocate when they get an opportunity. So, as I process this as I’m writing, I guess the issue is binary. If I get SOME reciprocal referrals, I keep people on the list. If I get NONE, and have a replacement, I make the switch. – Which sounds a bit hypocritical based on the giving intention expressed which is the post. So, how to rationalize that…? :-)

    First, I’ve given my referrals without expecting a 1:1 reciprocity. I’m happy that my referral sources treat the clients well. Sending business back is truly a bonus.

    Second, if people don’t send anyone back to me, then they either haven’t had an opportunity or don’t respect my work. So, I should call them and find out what’s up… what I can do to help earn referrals if they actually get asked for referrals?

    Third, if people don’t send anyone back to me, then maybe they aren’t giving good service or response to the people I send their way in the first place. Again, I should follow up with both parties.

    Now I’m just rambling…. So, I’ll shut up.

  5. Avatar Jay says:

    I’m on the same page with you now. As a business attorney I make every effort possible to become my client’s go to advisor on every legal and business issue they are involved with, even if its not something I can directly solve for them (perhaps a good topic for a future post?) This, in turn, means that I typically help my client’s make decisions on all their professional vendor needs, CPA, Banker, Realtors, Appraisers, other attorneys, etc. I understand that many professionals do not develop these relationships with their clients (though I’m not sure why). As such, I understand some professional, bankers seeming to move more in this direction, simply do not have the ability to refer work back to me on the same basis I send it to them. But, I need to know that at least are keeping their ears open for me. Also, I too have some go to advisors that are top notch in their field and very techologically advance, but who are not great at developing those personal relationships. I’ll alwasy use a top skilled professional over a slug, even if said slug would be more apt to send me work.

    Of course, here in Michigan fee sharing is permitted, within certain guidelines.

  6. Avatar Andrew Cabasso says:

    Kevin – Really great article. There’s a ton of content about getting referrals, but few focusing on actually giving them.

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