You know that old saying: “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.”
Perhaps we could add another clause: “…and keep your references closest of all.”
One of my readers recently asked me “to write an article about work and business references in this age of business closures, people moving on, etc.” The reader mentioned that he had lost a few references lately. One had moved, changing his email address and phone number and couldn’t be found. Another relocated to China. A third one retired and no longer seemed interested in talking about anything that reminded him of life before retirement.
The reader brings up a fairly common and very relevant problem that many of today’s professionals encounter. We are living in a highly mobile time in history in which talented people have unprecedented options and opportunities. Despite all the communication channels at our fingertips, it is still possible to lose touch.
Losing track of references and referral sources can be quite damaging, because more and more prospective clients are seeking and questioning third party references before making buying or business decisions.
Considering the importance of maintaining a healthy list of positive and well-credentialed references and referral givers in today’s hyper-competitive environment, here are a few things to keep in mind:
Expect Some Shrinkage
Let’s acknowledge that despite your best efforts, you will lose touch with some references. Businesses change. Careers change. Lives change. Ultimately, nothing is permanent. Just as an outstanding company knows it will periodically lose clients to forces beyond its control, you must accept that nobody can maintain 100 percent of their relationships over the course of a career.
Businesses anticipate they will lose a certain percentage of clients each year despite their best efforts to retain them. That’s why marketing and sales departments are constantly promoting, prospecting, looking for new business and developing new clients. The same thing applies to references and referral givers. Constantly build strong professional relationships with new people so you always have a large group of credentialed professionals upon whom you can depend.
Remember back in the olden days how hard it was to keep your Microsoft Outlook, address book or Rolodex up to date given all the moves, promotions and relocations of people in your network? Well, if you’re an active LinkedIn member, that difficulty no longer exists. As your professional connections update their profiles on LinkedIn, they are essentially updating your “address book” for you. In order to make this work, make sure you link up with as many of your connections as possible. Remember, it’s best to make those connections now before you need them.
For those references who live in your local area, make an effort at least a couple times a year to sit down with them for coffee, lunch or after-work drinks. If you travel, think about people you know in your destination city. Nothing does more to create enduring professional relationships than periodic meetings where you look each other in the eye.
Find Ways to Give
Many have heard and try to follow the biblical principle, “it is better to give than to receive.” In the relationship-maintenance game, that verse is certainly applicable. Being a “giving” professional makes it easier for people to stay in touch with you. Send cards and handwritten notes. When you see an article that reminds you of another person email the link to him or her. Giving tangible gifts is nice too but spending big dollars is not usually necessary.
Don’t Be Bashful
Even though all our communication technology makes it super easy to track down people, some professionals are hesitant to reach out and make contact with a reference/referral giver who has gone “dormant.” Don’t be bashful. Just because some time may have elapsed since your last contact doesn’t mean the connection doesn’t want to communicate with you. By taking the initiative you might make the person’s day.
Give Them Ownership
Make people feel like they are a key part of your personal success and your organization’s success. Let them know they are important to you and that you see them as “part of your team.”
If you want to keep your references engaged, make them your unofficial deputies. Empower them to recommend you. If they see a business opportunity that would be ideal for you, they should feel comfortable recommending you because they know you would appreciate it. Deputizing them also helps establish a sense of ownership.
You can never have too many good references. Those organizations and individual professionals who have raving fans do more business. A large group of references in your pocket is like having a huge marketing and sales staff without having to pay the salaries and benefits.