In the third post of a three-part series on referrals, Head of Knowledge Labs® Professional Development Michael Futterman explains how to make “popping the question” less anxiety-inducing through research, preparation and practice.

I’m willing to bet that most people who make marriage proposals do some practicing before they actually ask. I know I did. I thought about when to do it, where I was going to ask and, probably most importantly, what was I going to say.

Being so well prepared should have put me at ease. Couple that with the fact that I had been actively courting my partner for years, and the proposal should have been a slam dunk, a sure thing, a no-brainer. And frankly, it was: My partner, thrilled and mildly surprised, said yes, and we lived happily ever after.

If it was such a sure thing, why did I spend so much time planning the timing, the setting, the words I wanted to say and how I wanted them to come out?

I spent that time because I had never done this before. I wanted to have some “guardrails” in place so that I wouldn’t just blabber on, and I wanted some level of predictability of what was going to happen.

We Are Wired to Avoid Anxiety and Uncertainty

Neuroscience shows that our brains operate as “prediction machines.” Using past experiences, our brains create models or “predictions” for interpreting our current experience or situation. That’s why when we’re doing something we’ve never done before we often feel anxious: Our brain has no past experiences on which to base expectations.

Anxiety is something humans are wired to avoid. After all, asking for something from someone else, as in the case of referrals, carries the inherent risk that they will say “no,” which for most people is uncomfortable. This anxiety about the possibility of rejection – coupled with a lack of process and script to guide us – very often results in inaction or procrastination.

I’ve found that these principles apply just as well to requesting referrals as they do to marriage proposals, in that a well-researched and rehearsed process goes a long way toward easing the butterflies in the stomach and helping fulfill a desired outcome. Surprisingly, most advisors don’t have the research or rehearsal steps included in their process when asking for referrals – if they ask at all.

The experience I typically have when coaching advisors about referrals follows a predictable sequence:

  1. The advisor wants to generate referrals and knows it is a great way to grow his or her business.
  2. The advisor claims to have a process for referrals but acknowledges it’s not working as well as planned.
  3. This “process” often turns out to be passive or near-passive – a line on the advisor’s business card that says, “We welcome your referrals” or a passing comment in review meetings along the lines of, “We always appreciate you introducing us to others who might want to work with us.” (This is an example of anxiety avoidance behavior.)
  4. The advisor admits that asking for referrals feels icky so they don’t do it as often as they should or as deliberately and clearly as shown below.

If you’ve followed part one and part two of this process, you have taken positive action toward reducing the uncertainty of asking for referrals by segmenting your clients to identify those that are warm, generous and grateful. You’ve “primed the pump” by activating them through WOW experiences designed to foster goodwill and advocacy.

But still, that anxiety and uncertainty may remain. What if they say no? What if I look foolish? What if, what if, what if. Without a prediction model to work from, how can we take action while minimizing anxiety and the threat of rejection, effectively overcoming eons of neurological programming?

There are two parts to solving this puzzle: The Ask and the Next Steps.

The Ask

The Ask is where you make crystal clear what you want AND offer the client the opportunity to say no without fear of uncomfortable consequences. This is best done when the client has expressed gratitude for what you provide or you have just delivered something of deep value to them. Your (pre-planned, rehearsed) script might go something like this:

“Mrs. Client, I’m not sure if you know this, but almost 100% of my business comes from my clients introducing me to people they know. Some of my clients really like doing this and others think it’s uncomfortable. What I’d like to know is, would you be comfortable or even enjoy doing this? I want you to know that either way, our relationship is not going to change.”

I’m guessing that for some of you, this script sounds good but isn’t quite your language. For others, maybe it’s perfect. And for a portion of the readers, it makes them want to throw up. Whatever your reaction is, ask yourself, “What would I need to do to put this concept into practice so that it sounds like my words?” The key to this is not the words themselves; it’s being direct and specific while offering the client a chance to say “no.”

The Next Steps

Have you ever been asked, “Where’s a good place to eat around here?” You probably responded with something like, “Lots of places. What are you in the mood for?” By asking for that clarification, you were likely better able to help the person make a suitable selection.

The next steps of the referral process are similar: We have to tell the client – in clear terms based on their specified preferences – where we want to go next. This conversation must cover the following three things:

  1. Who the client has in mind to refer. Provide guidelines to help the client bring suitable individuals to mind. For example, “I work with corporate executives with philanthropic interests,” or “I work with couples who have dual income but no kids” or “I work with left-handed, three handicap golfers who wear plaid.” The point is, be specific: Get the client thinking of a specific set of people instead of “those with a pulse and some money to invest.”
  2. How you want to initiate the referral. Tell the client how you would like to be introduced. This can be as simple as: “Jenny, I want to introduce you to Noah. I have been working with him for two years and cannot emphasize how good he is at providing advice. Spend an hour with him and you won’t be sorry.” Even better, ask your client to describe how you have assisted with a specific challenge or goal.
  3. What is going to happen when you meet with the referral. Here’s where your creativity and sales skills come into play. Explain to your client, in detail, what you intend to cover during this meeting. Will you conduct a financial analysis? Do you have a set of questions you will ask about them personally that you can share? Do you have stories you can tell about how you truly understand the needs of those left-handed plaid enthusiasts? A guiding question you might use to help map this initial referral meeting out is, “What is the maximum I am prepared to give away before I have to start charging for my services?”

I’m sure for many of you, just reading this post and thinking about going through the steps will be a source of anxiety. Rest assured, that’s a good sign you’re human. But also bear in mind that none of this will happen unless you plan to at least give it a try. So challenge yourself: Create new prediction models for your brain and practice, practice, practice. Doing so will help quell those butterflies in your stomach. It will also help make the outcome more certain – and likely more successful.

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