Help Me Help You: Asking for Referrals

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When I headed off to college, my mom told me that one of the things I was going to gain while there was a robust network of people that I could resource throughout my life.

I was horrified. I had no such base motives. I was going to college for the education.

Mom was right. Today, with two ventures going, I do a lot of networking. Sales and business development are key parts of my role. I've now spent years building connections (a project that I started, alas, well after I left college).

My network is one of my most valuable resources.

And I don't just use my connections for sales, although they are my best source of new business. I use my network for recommendations on vendors, advice on business issues, backstories on potential new hires, laughs and commiseration, inside information, and so much more than I can’t even begin to list it all. People in my network have become friends as much as contacts.

My network makes my life richer.

Because I'm relatively well connected, people regularly contact me for access to my network. They want ideas on how they can build their own network, if I might know potential clients, and if I can help them find a job. And more. I'm happy to help when I can.

Sometimes I can't help because my network is weak in their requested area. Quite often, though, I can't help because the request is vague. And when I ask for specifics to help me better understand what they're seeking, I get these types of responses:

  • "Oh, I'm open to anything."

  • "Really, companies of all sizes."

  • "I want to talk to someone about [insert general subject matter here]." "What about consulting are you hoping to learn?" [Inserted example.] "Just, you know, anything. I'm interested in it."

  • "I'm open to meeting anyone you think I should meet in whatever role or industry. I like meeting new people."

  • "I could do lots of different stuff."

I need someone to be as specific as possible for me to target a handful of people for him or her. Otherwise, the field is too wide open. Sure, I could spend time analyzing the person's background and his business to narrow down the field, but I've got too much going on for that—he’s got to meet me halfway.

Help me help you.

On top of that, the lack of focus worries me. I'm not sure if he knows what he wants or what he's doing, and that makes me nervous about introducing him to people. My contacts are precious resources. I don't want to waste their time. Just as I appreciate it when they don't waste mine.

Here's a better way to go about asking for referrals:

  • Prior to our meeting or your request, do a little research. My profile is loud and proud on LinkedIn. If you're not connected with me there, request a connection. Try to understand who I might know and what industries I'm best connected in. If your request is more general than needing me to connect you to a specific person, try to at least figure out how I can help you. (And if you want me to connect you to a specific person, be able to explain why.)

  • Give me specific examples of the types of companies you’re trying to reach. I recently had a networking session with someone who asked if I knew anyone in a marketing role at Weatherford, Sysco, and Shell. Not only did his request give me specific starting points, it triggered me to think of people in similar roles at parallel organizations.

  • Even though you or your company may be able to do "everything"—although I doubt that's true—tell me specifically what industry you're targeting right now. A recent connection asked me if I knew anyone in a CTO or CIO role at technology companies that had at least fifty employees. She also asked me where that type of person would be networking.

  • If you're stymied on the above, give me examples of projects you've done and the companies for which you've done them. Pick companies and projects that are in your sweet spot. Examples will give me little threads to pull that could possibly get me to ideas for recommendations for you.

Other ideas? How do you ask for referrals? How do you wish you got asked?