Ouch, that smarts! The agonizing tale of a referral ball dropped and lessons learned.

by Bluewater Advisory

November 18, 2021

Here is the situation: I gave a high-octane referral to a colleague about two months ago. Picture yourself giving a referral to someone in your network, someone you trust and admire.  The person to whom I gave the referral (we’ll call her Jennifer) is a client in rather urgent need of professional advice outside of our scope of expertise, so I referred Jennifer to a professional I have known for several years and who has helped some of our other clients.

First warning sign: my colleague (receiver of the referral – we’ll call him John) did not follow up in a timely manner (one week passed, which Jennifer reported) so I left a voice mail and email for John.  “Hey John, this is an important referral.  Jennifer really needs some timely help.  Here is Jennifer’s information once again.  Please call, email or text her ASAP.”

Fast-forward a month: John missed the mark.  I ran into Jennifer at our local running store and was shocked to hear that while John finally got in touch with Jennifer a few weeks after my initial referral, from Jennifer’s perspective, John shared no sense of urgency and was rather lackadaisical.   Jennifer was frustrated, was required to pivot to another professional services firm, and was now 5-6 weeks late in beginning to solve her business dilemma.

And I, as the referring source, had just lost political capital – and worse, trust – with my client.

The questions beg – as the role of connector in this case:

  1. How do I approach Dropped-ball-John?
  2. How do I repair any client damage from the referral-gone-sideways?
  3. What can I do differently in the future to increase chances of a successful handoff? After all, I own this quandary.

So I jumped into action and called one of the best networkers and connectors I know.  We’ll call him JR.

JR returned my call within 15 minutes, was gracious as he listened to my situation’s post mortem, and shared solid ideas for each of my questions above:

  1. Regarding Dropped-ball-John:  be honest and forthright. Tell John that while I could have done a better job with the handoff (see #3 below), I am disappointed the situation turned out as it did, and I will be reluctant to share referrals in the future.
  1. Regarding client damage repair:  be honest and forthright. Meet with Jennifer in person, apologize for the dropped ball and take responsibility.  Mended fences are often stronger.
  1. Future referrals:  add structure, group involvement, clarity, and commitment. Just after making the initial connection, schedule a 20-30 minute 3-way Zoom meeting to introduce Jennifer and John.  In this meeting, I will briefly lay out my general understanding of the situation and share how I know each of the other parties.  I’ll then ask Jennifer to give a 5–10 minute overview of her situation while John and I simply listen.  Then I’ll ask John to spend 5-10 minutes a) sharing his understanding of the situation b) to commit if he and his firm have the expertise AND capacity to help Jennifer in her time frame, and c) what type of fees Jennifer should expect.  We’ll then conclude by asking both Jennifer and John if they wish to proceed.  Assuming they do, I’ll then share that I will be stepping out of the going-forward dialogue between the two, and before we leave the meeting, we’ll identify specific next steps for Jennifer and John.

Like so many things in life, it comes down to communication. I certainly will approach referral handoffs and receipts differently in the future.  I’ve already mended the fence with Jennifer and had an adult conversation with John.  And I’ll remain grateful for people in my network like JR, who believe iron sharpens iron, and are ready to provide sound colleague advice and share their wisdom in short order.

Mark Debinski