Five-Step Process for Handling Referrals

There’s a simple five-step process that you can use to get more referrals.

By Carole Mahoney

As a business owner myself, referrals are priceless to me because when someone trusts me enough to recommend me to others who trust them, I take that personally.

Maybe it’s the entrepreneurial small-business family I grew up in that drilled into me the importance of word of mouth. Or maybe it’s the closet math nerd in me that knows that even in today’s buyer-controlled information age, referrals cost less, are easier to work with, and have higher payouts.

Regardless, referrals are priceless.

Okay, maybe referrals aren’t exactly priceless because it is pretty easy for me to put a number to them. Even though I have been doing inbound marketing for more than a decade and everyone can find my services online, referrals make up more than 80% of my business.

Perhaps this mathematical truth is why more people are asking, “How do I get more referrals?”

The question I have is: Have you ever thought that maybe the way you’re handling referrals is the reason you’re not getting more of them?

No. 1. You must have a quick response.

If it’s taking you a day or even two days to respond to someone when they send you a referral, the message you are sending is, “I’m too busy to handle any introductions you might make.”

Or you’re showing this is just your standard operating procedure and that’s how you’re going to handle a paying client.

When clients email me, my promise to them is that they’re going to get a response within 24 hours. Typically, it’s within eight hours, because I check my email three times a day.

I do the same thing for referrals by making sure I respond right away to any email introduction. My typical response is to thank the referrer, say hello to the person being introduced, and follow it up with a simple question that’s not about me, about them.

I ask things such as “How would you like to take it from here?” or “When should we set up a time to have a conversation?”

After that, I drop the person who referred me from the email because nobody wants their inbox overloaded, and if they call me then I try to call them back right away.

No. 2. Give the person who was referred the royal treatment.

In the back of my mind, when someone sends me a referral, this is really double dipping. Not only is my aim to make this referral a stark raving fan, but I also want them to go back to the person who referred them and tell them how happy they are and how much value they got from the conversation. And I let them know that.

Sometimes when you have to push back on buyers, I’ll say things like, “Because so and so referred you to me, they are trusting me to do what is in your best interests. I know that if I don’t, you won’t be happy, and they will hear about it.” That opens the door for me to be able to ask some tougher questions.

Alright, so number one: remember, quick response. Number two: the royal treatment. But number three is where things typically begin to fall apart for most people who get referrals—reporting back what happened.

Closing a loop is important because it lets the person who referred you know what happened and is also your opportunity to give them a better understanding of how you help.

No. 3. Report back to them.

As someone who gives referrals, I’m often left wondering, “What happened? Did they connect? Was it a good match? Are they working together? How’s it going? Are they happy with each other?”

That’s why I report back to the person who referred me throughout the process. It may be something like, “Thanks again for the introduction. They seem like really smart people who are struggling with how to motivate their teams and coach them. We talked about X, Y, and Z on Wednesday, and next we’re going to do A, B, and C.”

If those people end up working with me, I let the referrer know what we’re doing. As the engagement continues, I continue to update them on milestones and how things are progressing.

Closing a loop is important because it lets the person who referred you know what happened and is also your opportunity to give them a better understanding of how you help, who you help, and therefore, what some additional referrals for you might look like.

If it wasn’t a good fit, then also let them know. It’s okay to say something like, “You know what? I don’t really help people with the career mapping side of things, but thanks for thinking of me. If you come up with anyone else who’s looking for help to coach their teams, I’m your person.”

No. 4. You have to give in order to get.

This is key if you want to build a referral network where you’re referring work back and forth to someone. I believe if you want to get more referrals you have to give more referrals, and because I personally focus on specific things in my coaching practice, I often am finding ancillary issues that are contributing causes to things I encounter.

When that happens, I default to mentioning the person who referred me as the go-to for that particular issue. I want to make them look good, and I want to give them work back, but I also want to encounter prospects who maybe don’t need my help but do need that person who’s referred me their help.

So, referring back is a key way for you to get more referrals, but I’ve also found it helps to build trust—both with those who refer you and those who are referred.

If you turn down jobs where you’re not a good fit, it helps the person who’s referred you to know you’re not going to just say yes to everything.

I’ve actually had it happen to me. I turned down a five-figure engagement because I knew I wasn’t the right fit and later on that person who I turned down said, “Hey, I want to introduce you to so and so because this is where I know you specialize.” Sometimes by saying no you get more yeses.

No. 5. Reflect gratitude.

This is where a little bit of controversy comes into play. Some people show gratitude by sending handwritten notes or special gifts, which is great. I also send referral fees. If someone takes the time to put their trust in me by sending me to someone who they care about, I want to make sure I’m reflecting gratitude. And nothing says thank you like cash.

Think about it: If you treat your referral network like your sales force, wouldn’t you be paying them a commission?

On top of that, if they don’t want the referral fee, ask what their favorite charity is and donate to it in their name. I still send them thank you gifts, but then I also want to make that a regular part of my practice in reflecting gratitude.


The five-step process works, and the steps may seem easy when they are viewed one by one. But there is one final thing to remember: All of these things are only going to work if you do them consistently.

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Carole Mahoney, as the founder of Unbound Growth, has coached Harvard Business School Entrepreneurial MBA students on sales and been featured as a top sales coach by Ambition and Sales Hacker. You can contact her directly at