How to Tap Friends, Colleagues and Clients for Leads and Referrals

Summary: In this episode, networking and referral expert Patti DeNucci shows us how to improve the number, quality and consistency of referrals we get, and how to feel more comfortable asking for them.

network of contacts

Make referrals a consistently bigger part of your business

Referrals are one of the best ways to grow your solo business profitably — especially when they come from friends or colleagues you trust.

Unfortunately, many of us don't get as many referrals as we'd like. Which begs the question: Is there a way to get more and better referrals from your network? And is there a way to systematize the process to make referrals a consistently bigger part of your business?

In this week's episode, networking and referral expert Patti DeNucci shows us how to improve the number, quality and consistency of referrals we get, and how to feel more comfortable asking for them.

Patti has studied and taught "intentional networking" and the art of attracting strategic referrals, for more than twenty-five years. She is the author of The Intentional Networker: Attracting Powerful Relationships, Referrals and Results in Business, and the founder of DeNucci and Company LLC, a boutique referral firm.

Patti has been quoted, interviewed, profiled, and published in numerous media outlets, including Fox, Southwest Airlines, Spirit Magazine, Working Mother, Austin Woman Magazine, Austin Business Journal, Austin American Statesman. You can learn more about her on website,www.intentionalnetworker.com.

What follows is a condensed transcript of my conversation with Patti. If you prefer to listen to the full audio (57 minutes), you can listen to it (or download it) here:

(Download MP3 Audio)

Ed Gandia: Welcome, Patti. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself? You used to be a freelancer, correct?

Patti Denucci: Yes. I have a marketing communications background. I spent a bit of time in the corporate world, which I didn't like much, and a bit of time in the agency world, which I liked a lot. In 1989, I wanted to become a mom, so I needed more flexibility and freedom in my work. I became a freelance copywriter, business writer and PR marketing communications consultant.

Ed Gandia: Let's talk about referrals. Why do you think freelancers hesitate to approach the people they know for referrals?

Patti Denucci: Sometimes we're hesitant to let the people closest to us know what we do. You have to wonder, why is that? Is it because we aren't sure of what we're doing? Or is it a confidence issue? Sometimes we have that little voice in our head that says, "Oh they won't be interested. They can't help me." There's a lot of negative internal talk.

Ed Gandia: I've definitely felt that before. I think it's partly self-confidence and partly, "I don't know if I should be asking them."

Patti Denucci: We've all had those experiences where your brother-in-law is selling some product, and he hits you up at the family Christmas dinner. It's awkward and uncomfortable.

I will say, people in our lives want to support us. There are good ways to let people know, "Here's what I'm doing. I'm good at it. If you or someone you know could use this service, let me know. I'll be considerate and won't make you look bad."

Ed Gandia: Most of family and friends still have no idea what I do for a living. How do I get people to help me if they can't understand what I do? How do you explain it without getting the "deer in the headlights" look?

Patti Denucci: I know what you mean. We have to break down what we do to a simple level. And we have to explain what we don't do. When I was a writer, people automatically thought I wrote articles for magazines. I had to get really clear: "I do copywriting for business clients. I do advertising copy." Put it in terms people can apply to their world. That's important.

If what you do is complex, get some ideas from your colleagues. "How can I explain this to my grandmother or dad or sister?"

Take the time to help them understand what you do, and what kinds of clients you work with. It doesn't have to be a long, memorized soliloquy. Get clear with yourself. Let people ask questions. And if they don't get it, take more time to explain it.

I've shifted my business a few times, and I've had to un-brand myself as much as brand myself. When I moved from writing to referring, I had to steer people and say, "I'm not writing so much anymore; now I'm referring people." Of course, now that I'm an author, I can say, "I'm an author," and people get that immediately. I'm an author and a speaker, and I train and coach. People understand that, but I'm also better at explaining it.

Ed Gandia: That's a good point. If you do different things, you don't have to give everyone your full bio. For example, I have freelance clients, but I also run the International Freelancers Academy. If I tried to explain all that to someone, I'd lose him. You have to think about whom you're talking to and adjust your bio accordingly.

Patti Denucci: I run into a lot of people where it's like, "I sell aromatherapy oils and do website programming and sell jewelry." People are all over the place. It's too much. It doesn't make an impact.

Whereas if you say, "I do a lot of different things, but I'm really trying to beef up my jewelry making business. I'm looking for boutiques in the central Texas area to carry my jewelry. I design my jewelry for teenagers and college kids." That's very specific. A person can wrap their arms around that.

Ed Gandia: People are overwhelmed, aren't they? You have less and less time to explain something.

Patti Denucci: You've probably met people at networking events, where first they're selling herbs, then the next time they're doing hospital marketing. It's really hard to keep up. Expressing yourself in a consistent and clear way really helps.

Ed Gandia: I've seen people use analogies. "I'm like the jeweler for entrepreneurs." That's a bad example, but you know what I'm talking about. Some of the best analogies I've heard are, "I am like this, for these type of people." That gets attention. Then you can throw in a couple sentences that tie to that.

Patti Denucci: Yes, and don't be too vague or tricky. I once met a woman who said, "I help people make dramatic changes in their lives." I couldn't get her to tell me what she did. Eventually, I figured out she's a business consultant who works with entrepreneurs who are through significant change. It ticked me off she was so vague and ethereal.

It's okay to be intriguing. But you have to be mindful of the reactions you're getting. If it doesn't look good, you've got to tweak it.

Ed Gandia: If I'm talking to a friend or relative who's not in the business, I will start by saying, "I work with software companies. The software companies I work for have to produce written materials to sell their systems. I write those materials for them because they don't have the in-house staff to do it." It's very plain and easy to understand.

Patti Denucci: You gave them the "why." "Software companies have to produce written materials to get people to buy their software." That's really good.

Ed Gandia: What about when you're talking with people, and they're willing to help you. They might know someone. What's your advice for getting specific about ideal prospects?

Attracting Perfect Customers: The Power of Strategic Synchronicity

Attracting Perfect Customers: The Power of Strategic Synchronicity

Patti Denucci: Start by getting clear on your ideal customer. There's a terrific book called "Attracting Perfect Customers" by Stacey Hall and Jan Brogniez. It leads you through exercises to figure out who you are, what you do, what you do best, and who is the type of client you want to deal with.

In networking situations, people are often very generous. But sometimes they're not very discerning. It pays to have a quick phone conversation or sit down and say, "Hey, let's just chat for ten minutes about this possibility." Find out if this lead is a good fit.

I've had a lot of opportunities sent my way that wasted my time. That's the process of learning how to be an intentional and thoughtful networker. A thoughtful networker knows not everything sent your way is going to be right for you.

Ed Gandia: So, you're saying that you should try and get more information to make sure you don't waste anybody's time, including your own.

Patti Denucci: Definitely. People are so generous, and they get so excited. What if they hand you a name, and you call, and the person is on the phone says, "No, we already have a writer. We don't need that." It's embarrassing. It's awkward.

I want to educate people on the proper way to give referrals, which is mindfully and thoughtfully. And how to attract referrals, which is being clear about what is a fit and what's not.

Ed Gandia: Like we talked about earlier, it's hard for people to absorb everything and make the determination on their own. How can you keep your friends and colleagues from sending you poor quality referrals?

Patti Denucci: To attract really good referrals, you have to set your intentions on what you want. Ask yourself: "What are the characteristics of a really good client for me?" It's not just what type or size of company or what type of work. If you're a writer, what kind of writing are you trying to do? Email marketing? Copywriting? Tech writing? Know what it is you want and have some goals and criteria. Then exude the brand and image that goes with it. Communicate very clearly what you want and say no, graciously.

If I'm writing funky ads with catchy slogans and someone sends me a lead to write a software manual, I have to gently and graciously say, "Thank you for thinking of me, but that's not the kind of work I do." As an extra bonus, "I have a friend who does that. Let's get you two hooked up."

Ed Gandia: Having a network of people is key. You don't just say, "Thanks, but no thanks." You say, "I know someone who could probably help you."

Patti Denucci: People talk about the win-win. That's not enough. You can have a quadruple win if you're good at the whole referral thing. You win. The person you referred the business to wins. The client wins. If the client is creating a product or delivering a service that's going to make the world a better place, then hundreds and thousands of people win.

It's important freelancers get this right. If you give a bad referral or create awkwardness or noise or discomfort, it's going to tarnish your reputation if you keep doing it.

Likewise, you have to express what you want, and say "no" graciously. You can even go back to the person who sent you the lead and give gracious, kind, honest feedback. You don't have to tick people off in the process or be gruff.

Ed Gandia: When you get the referral, do you recommend your friend or colleague broker an email introduction? Or should you contact them directly? What are the best practices?

Patti Denucci: It works really well when there's a gracious introduction. You can do it by email. I call it a "virtual introduction." The more you can set the context and give both sides the information they need, the better.

For example, let's say I want to introduce you to a freelancer I know here in Austin. I would copy both of you on an email. I would put, "Allow me the privilege of introducing you…" in the subject line. In the body of the message, I'd give a little background information on you both and why I think you're a good fit for each other. Then I'd say, "You decide if it's worth connecting and if you have time."

It drives me crazy when someone sends me an email and says, "I met so and so at a networking event, and you'd love her. Here's her email. I want you two to get together and have coffee." If that's all there is, there's a good chance I won't follow up. I need more information than that.

Ed Gandia: Would you reply and say, "Can you tell me a little bit more about her?"

Patti Denucci: Sometimes I do that. It's awkward when you get a phone call, and it's like, "Oh, Mary Joe sent me, and she said that we should have coffee." Usually I can decide during a five or ten minute phone call whether it's worth getting together or not.

The key thing to remember is to be mindful, thoughtful, gracious. Don't shove things onto your friends, especially if you haven't done a little research or set the context.

For example, say I'm at a networking event. I meet someone I want to introduce to you. After, I could say, "You know Ed, I met this guy at an event. I only spent five minutes with him but he sounded intriguing. Here's his website. Here's his email address. If you want to do some further exploration with this, I turn it over to you with the disclaimer that I don't know this guy well."

In other words, if you don't have time to do the research, at least explain how well you know the person.

Ed Gandia: And if I'm on the receiving end, it's up to me to say, "This sounds great. Do you know anything more about him?" I should ask a few questions so I can get a better idea.

Patti Denucci: Correct. The due diligence and judgment of the referrer should never replace your own. The referrer views the world through one filter, and you view it through another.

I've passed along some leads where everything looked good, but things still went wrong. There's no such thing as a perfect connection. You just have to do the best you can. It's like dating. Nobody likes to go on a blind date and end with a loser.

you need to do a personal inventory

Be very clear about who you are, what you do, whom you work with and what makes you different.

Ed Gandia: A couple things you said really resonated with me. These are things people tend to skip, but they help avoid problems down the road. Be very clear about who you are, what you do, whom you work with and what makes you different.

You need to do that self-inventory. It's going to help you communicate with friends and colleagues. And you need to have two versions: one for people in the business and one for the layperson, especially if you do something complex. Otherwise, you could do a great job asking for referrals, but they'll send you the wrong leads.

The other thing you said was to be gracious and do your due diligence. You have to know what questions to ask to make sure people aren't wasting their time.

Patti Denucci: Exactly. The first couple chapters in my book aren't even about networking. They're about self-exploration and knowing who you are and what you want. I also write about how what you do should reflect what you want. For example, if you're a writer, and you send out choppy, ill-conceived emails with bad punctuation and grammar, you're not going to look like a stellar writer.

Ed Gandia: Yes. You have some really good questions in these chapters. This is important stuff because you have to get this right before you can move beyond it.

Patti Denucci: Right. It's the foundation upon which you build the entire house.

Ed Gandia: Let's move on to getting referrals from clients, both current and past. What are some strategies or tips to approach clients for referrals?

Patti Denucci: To attract better referrals, the best thing you can do is do a great job with your existing clients. I know a freelancer who's very talented. People love his work. But they hesitate to refer him because he's so high maintenance and full of himself.

So do a great job. Give good customer service. Be effective, prompt, courteous and exceed expectations wherever possible. That's step one.

Then, never waste the opportunity to get a great testimonial. If you've done a great project for a client and they're pleased and excited, hit them up for a testimonial. "I can see you're happy with the work. Would you mind writing a few sentences on what you thought of my work and how I impacted your organization?" The sooner you do that, the better.

If you had ten really great clients last year, and you've done some amazing work, it's a great idea to survey your clients. Send a quick email or even a snail mail survey with simple questions such as, "Why did you hire me? What value did I bring to your organization? What do I do well? What could I have done better?"

If you did a really good job, you're going to get some rich responses. You can parlay that into some wonderful testimonials. Of course, always make sure you get permission to use them.

Also, at the end of your survey, you may put a little disclaimer that says, "If you write something that makes us look good, we'd love your permission to put it on our website. Sign here if you agree to that."

Ed Gandia: Go with what feels right to you, but I would probably leave that line out. Depending on the responses, I might follow up with, "Thank you. Would you mind if I use this particular sentence as a testimonial?"

Patti Denucci: It does seem less presumptuous.

Ed Gandia: I don't want to put them on the spot. I want them to open up. Depending on what they say, I'll reply with that question. But that's just me.

Patti Denucci: I like it. If you don't get a response, you might send it again. If you're not getting a response from someone, you can assume one of two things: either they're too busy or you screwed up. A lot of people won't feel comfortable telling you the truth. Keep that in mind.

I'm going to put the survey questions in one of my upcoming blog posts. You can sign up at www.intentionalnetworker.com.

Ed Gandia: We've done a few surveys here at the Academy, and they've been very revealing. It's humbling to see what was done right, what we could improve on.

Patti Denucci: You can use humor to set the stage for the question on what you could do better. In parenthesis, put, "Please, I really want to know because that's how I get better." Sometimes we don't want to hear the bad stuff, but that's the information that helps us grow and improve.

I always say, "You can't read the label when you're stuck inside the jar." Hearing that information can be groundbreaking, even if it's a little uncomfortable.

Ed Gandia: Surveys are a great way to get testimonials. People care about what others say about you. I'm a marketer, and testimonials are the first thing I look for on a website.

Patti Denucci: Absolutely. Although social media has polluted the testimonial water a little bit. There's a lot of, "I'll write a testimonial for you and you write one for me."

Ed Gandia: I love the survey idea. In only four or five questions you can reveal a lot and get great feedback. I'm assuming these are open-ended questions, right?

Patti Denucci: Yes. You can send them an email, and they can respond in line below. Ask why they hired you. Ask what you did well. Ask what value you brought to the organization. And then ask for constructive feedback on how you can serve them better.

That shows humility. People like that. It gives you an opportunity to grow and improve. And the other questions are fertile ground for attracting testimonials.

Ed Gandia: Do you use email or do you use email with a link to an online survey, like Survey Monkey?

Patti Denucci: You can use Survey Monkey, but it's important that people identify themselves. Personally, I would do it by email and make it very personal. If my client's name is Bob, and he works for such and such company, I'd send him an email personally. I might put in something that's personal to our situation. The more personal and customized, the better.

Ed Gandia: You've talked about this a little bit before, but if I'm an introvert, how do I make referral requests confidently? Any tips for introverts?

Patti Denucci: Sure. I'm half introvert and half extrovert, which apparently they now call an omnivert. I understand what that feels like. What I love about introverts is they speak and communicate thoughtfully. An introvert has advantages over the extreme extrovert, who has to tone herself down.

If confidence is an issue, there are a lot of places you can work on that. Get a mastermind partner or put a mastermind group together. Surround yourself with positive energy. Unfortunately, clients sometimes mistake introversion for lack of confidence.

Ed Gandia: I like the idea of building confidence. A big one for me is praise. My clients praise me for submitting quality work on time, every time. I've worked for some clients for years and have never missed a deadline. They're so amazed by that. I take that for granted. To me, that's just the way it's done.

But the fact is that they're used to dealing with the 80% to 90% percent of people who miss deadlines. Not all the time, but a couple times a year. Thinking about something as simple as that makes my day. It boosts my self-confidence and makes me realize, "You know what? I'm a sought-after professional."

negative voice in our head (image)

A lot of us who are good at what we do still have that negative voice in our head.

Patti Denucci: Exactly. A lot of us who are good at what we do still have that negative voice in our head. A mentor of mine called it your "doubter." And some of us have a doubter that works overtime.

I got an email the other day from someone who's on my team who said, "You know Patti, I've never worked with anyone who shows so much gratitude as you do." And I thought, "Wow, doesn't everybody show gratitude to the people who are helping them be successful?" Apparently not. We all have special traits. We just need to discover what they are and remind ourselves.

Ed Gandia: I have a question about turning referrals into a bigger and more predictable source of good leads. How do you go beyond applying this sporadically? How can I systemize referrals into a repeatable process?

Patti Denucci: For me, a big part of that is the Pareto Principle, also known as the 80-20 rule. Often, 20 percent of your clients produce 80 percent of your business results. It might mean 20 percent of your clients produced 80 percent of your income. So figure out which clients are in that 20 percent. For the next year, those are the people you pay the most attention to. That's one way to do it.

The other way is to look at your best clients. Who are the ones you enjoy working with the most? Add something to your survey such as, "Do you have other friends and colleagues who could use my services? If so, I'd love to have an introduction." Don't be shy. People who ask are the ones who receive.

I have a friend who studied businesses for years. She worked in HR, then accounting, and she connected people to salary. She discovered that the people who earned more money are the people who asked. It's true. If you don't ask, people don't know what to do for you.

Ed Gandia: I want to ask about your book and where listeners can pick up a copy. From what I've read so far, it has really solid information.

Patti Denucci: You can get the book off my website which is www.intentionalnetworker.com. If you order from there, you can put in a special request to have me sign the book for you, or for a friend or colleague. It makes a great gift.

You can also get it on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, any of the major book outlets. There's a print and an ebook version. I would love to have more reviews. Anytime I'm not feeling confident, I read the reviews on Amazon. It warms my heart.

Ed Gandia: From what I've read so far, you're big on being yourself. This isn't about technique. It's not about gimmicks. You're not going to have to go to a network event and do things you wouldn't normally do and not be yourself. This is about taking who you are and defining it better, communicating it better and networking more effectively in a way that's true to you. I love that.

Patti Denucci: I was tired of reading all the "technique" books. Networking should be more natural and easier and so much more pleasant than that. We have to be "us." Otherwise, we come across as somebody else, a fake.

Ed Gandia: Do you recommend forming a referral club or group with fellow freelancers you trust? How do you make that work?

Patti Denucci: You can certainly do that. "Know" and "trust" are the most important part. I've heard of people forming alliances and even collaborations where they team up and do projects together. Make sure there's an agreement you all sign. It should be a non-exclusive agreement that spells out how it works, and who's responsible for what, and if there's going to be a percentage you pay in return for getting a lead.

Make sure you really know and trust the people in your circle. I've seen things go terribly awry. Use your judgment and intuition and spell things out in writing, wherever you can.

Ed Gandia: I've gone into a paid, finder's fee type arrangement with select group of people, as opposed to a reciprocal arrangement. What tends to happen in a reciprocal arrangement is you send someone a lead, and they thank you. Then you send another lead three months later. Now, they feel obligated to reciprocate. So, they'll send you the first thing that comes their way, even if it's not a good fit. I don't want that. I only want good stuff. I'd rather get compensated.

Patti Denucci: We're in parallel universes. That's what happened when I started with my freelance business. I had no problem attracting good clients. And I was sending the overflow out to people I knew and trusted. A friend of mine nudged me and said, "You know, you're throwing away some income here."

We literally mapped out my referral network and how it worked on a cocktail napkin one night. Things became much more equitable. It's not that you give to receive, but there should be some equity. Quid pro quo can work, but it can also be a disaster. Having a fee clears all that up.

Ed Gandia: Patti, thank you once again. This has been fantastic.

Patti Denucci: Thank you. I'd love to hear from people. If they have questions, I'm happy to give them answers.


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  • Using targeted bio and work experience/portfolio sheets is great advice. That's helped me land jobs, especially when I was rebranding myself years back.

    • edgandia

      Thanks for the feedback, Kathy. Good to know this idea is working out there. I haven't seen many people use it (I certainly haven't; maybe I should!).

  • AmandahBlackwell

    Hi Ed and Patti,

    Thank you for this comprehensive post about how to get referrals and for the book recommendation, "Attracting Perfect Customers." I'll check it out.

    I agree that you must become clear about who your perfect client is and what you offer them. When I began freelance writing in 2008, I was all over the place. Luckily, I've grown wiser and have narrowed down my writing services and who my ideal client is. For example, my current client is my ideal/dream client. She's already paid me in full and understands the deadline dates I've outlined in the proposal. She's easy going and positive, knows what she wants, and understands business. Most importantly, she understands that the project will end and that it's my job to complete it. Side note: I had a client that I had to walk away from because it became clear I was involved in the never ending project. However, it was my fault because I signed a contract that did not have deadline dates. That was a huge lesson. Since that time I have taken control and submit a quote, followed by a proposal when the quote is accepted, and submit a contract once the proposal is accepted.

    I've stumbled along the way since 2008, but luckily I'm a fast learner.

    • edgandia

      Thanks for your comment, Amandah. The great thing about landing clients like yours is that they can basically be the definition of one of our ideal client profiles. I landed a client 4 years ago that redefined one of mine. They couldn't have been more perfect.