Last Updated Jun 14, 2011 1:55 PM EDT
Here are five good ways to ask:
1. Ask upfront. One of the best ways to avoid any surprise or discomfort is to let your client know early on - even in your initial proposal - that if he feels good about the work you've done together, you'd like to ask if there are other friends or colleagues he thinks you should meet. Almost no one will say no, because it's a hypothetical at that point (and one that presumably incentivizes you to do good work). Once you've delivered, he'll be more likely to respond favorably when you come back to follow up - after all, he made a commitment.
2. Frame it as a favor. Social psychology researchers like Robert Cialdini have shown that one of the best ways to get people on your side - unexpectedly - is to ask them to do you a favor. Your request makes them feel powerful - and once they've agreed, they're invested in you and your success. So next time, you could say, "Frank, let me ask you a favor. The way I grow my business is through referrals, and I'd really appreciate it if you'd be willing to suggest other companies you think could benefit from my services. What do you think?" You're likely to get a yes.
3. Use a soft touch. You don't have to go high-pressure. You can simply plant the seed with low-key phrasing. ("If there's anyone you know with a similar situation, I'd really appreciate it if you'd mention our company.") Sometimes a gentle reminder is all people need - and you don't have to wait for your next in-person meeting. The important thing is making the ask, so feel free to get started by sending an email or bringing it up during a phone chat.
4. Ask for a specific introduction. Often it can seem less intimidating to ask for an introduction to one person, rather than referrals in general. If you know your customer serves on a board with an executive you've been dying to meet, or they use a vendor you'd love to break into, why not ask them to broker a connection?
5. Don't forget to say thanks. Even if you haven't gotten a contract or a job out of it, you should send a note (and maybe even a small token). Let them know the status of the referral and whether or not you end up working with the new customer. The more connected they feel to your progress, the more referrals they'll send your way in the future.
How have you asked for referrals without seeming entitled, aggressive, desperate or otherwise jerky? Share your best techniques!
Dorie Clark is a strategy consultant who has worked with clients including Google, Yale University, and the National Park Service. Listen to her podcasts or follow her on Twitter.