Written by Eloise Barbier

The dreaded ask: how to get referrals

3rd July, 2024   •   4 mins

We all know how important referrals are. They are a key way to generate new business – both in terms of quantity and quality of new leads.

We also know that they facilitate conversion of opportunities: people are much more likely to accept a recommendation from a colleague, friend or family member. McKinsey’s research indicates that trust, often established through referrals, can shorten the sales cycle by up to 25%.

And yet we’re not asking for them enough.

Only 11% of us ask for referrals from our clients, even though 91% of clients say that they would give a referral.(Saleslion, 2023).

So how can we ask for more referrals and save valuable time in our business development activity? It is useful to first understand what we should not be doing.

Mistakes we make when asking for referrals

  • Not asking for them in the first place!!
  • Not doing it regularly enough and having it as part of our business development/project management/client relationship management strategy 
  • Asking it as a throwaway comment at the end of the meeting – “by the way…”, “just on the off chance…
  • Being extremely vague about the ask “I don’t suppose you happen to know anybody..
  • Not following up with your client after they have offered to introduce you to someone
  • Not making it easy for your clients to think of someone they could refer you to

So how can we ask for referrals more effectively? Fundamentally, it is about creating better habits around referrals and defining who, when, and how to ask for them.

  1. WHO should we be asking for referrals?

    A large part of improving our skill in asking for referrals and converting opportunities is developing an opportunities mindset, approaching conversations with curiosity and intent. 

    This involves being intentional about who we are asking referrals from. Are there opportunities in our network and client base that we have not been capitalising on?

    Do regular audits of your client base (at least quarterly):
  • When did you last speak to these clients?
  • Have you built a strong relationship with them, do they trust you? Have you provided good service to them in the past?
  • Have you previously asked them for a referral?
  • Could you ask any of them for a referral?

    2. WHEN should we be asking for referrals?Just asking for referrals isn’t enough, we also want to be considering how we can get the most value out of the ask – timing is key. We can think of the timing of asking for referrals in two ways: having both systematic approaches and trigger points.

Systematic approaches

  • Have you integrated asking for referrals into your business development/project management/client relationship management plans?
  • How regularly do you review these plans? We recommend at least quarterly

The main objective with creating a systematic approach is that it is embedded within your working rhythm, and holds you accountable. By doing this, you are regularly nudging yourself to ask for referrals and keeping them front of mind. 

Trigger points in the conversation

As the name suggests, trigger points are opportunities in the conversation which lend themselves well to opening up a discussion around referrals.

Two trigger points/times to ask:

1. After someone has thanked you for your service. This is the perfect time to bring up referrals, as they will be looking for a way to repay you for your hard work. You can even create this moment by asking deliberately for feedback on the service you have provided.

2. During a business update in the client meeting. This is your opportunity to share a little bit about what’s going on in your world, anything that would be helpful for them to know about your business, and to ask about referrals as part of this. Including this in your meeting agenda will hold you accountable to have this conversation.

E.g. we have been focusing on ESG recently and have recently brought a new sustainable product to market. As you are involved in ABC charity we thought you might have some other individuals on the board who might be interested in hearing more about what we are doing in that space...

  1. HOW can we best ask for referrals?

In short, it’s about being specific with the ask and making it easy for your client to think about who they have in their network that might be interested in understanding the service you could offer them.


  • Do some research beforehand and be specific with your ask: who do they know that they can introduce you to?

    If you know a name (maybe through looking at their LinkedIn connections), you can ask directly.
    E.g. I have seen that you are connected with Tom Smiley on LinkedIn, would you be happy to introduce me?

    If you don’t have specific names, specify the type of client or industry that you would like to get a referral for:
    One of the areas we are supporting at the moment are small business owners..is there anybody within your network that has a small business who you think we could help?

  • Use stories to frame your ask

    “We are, as a species, addicted to story.”

— Jonathan Gottschall, The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human

love stories, and you can use them to justify why you are asking for a referral.

For example, when you are asking somebody to refer you to someone in their network who owns a small business, you could add, The reason I’m asking is that as a company we are really trying to demonstrate how committed we are to looking after small business owners in this area. We really see this as the space we can help in, and sometimes people don’t realise that we work with these kinds of clients.’

Adding a narrative and giving examples of others you work with shows intention in why you are asking for a referral, and can help get your clients’ buy-in more easily.

By showing your client the part they would be playing by giving you a referral, you also make them more likely to want to help.

In summary

1. Be aware of mistakes that you might be making around referrals (asking as a throwaway comment, not asking regularly, not following up)

2. Regularly review your network and client base to identify who you could ask referrals from, and when would be the best time to ask

3. Plan how you will ask: be specific and make it as easy for them as possible to refer someone