Sister Act

“Would you fix me up with your sister?”

I could be wrong, but I think that’s about the most frightening, anxiety-producing phrase in the English language. (Other than maybe, “Mr. Trump will be your roommate here at the spa.”)

It’s presumptuous, it’s imposing, it’s awkward. It’s even a little bit creepy.

And, most importantly, it doesn’t work all that well. I know you and I know her, and if I thought it was a good match, I would have made it already. Simply asking me to make an introduction – without her also expressing an interest – doesn’t open the door.

Now, before I go too far with this, I should probably point out that I don’t even have a sister.

But I do have clients. And in just the last 48 hours, two of them (coincidentally) asked me if I thought they should ask their clients for referrals.

That’s when I trotted out the sister analogy. Because it seems to me that hitting up your own clients for leads amounts to about the same thing. It’s presumptuous, it’s imposing, it’s awkward. And yes, it’s even a little bit creepy.

And yet, this tactic is very much a staple of the “Professional Services Marketing, Conventional Wisdom Handbook.” Whether you personally engage in it or not, we professional servicers all talk about this practice as if it were a good idea (I admit to having mentioned it as a viable tactic myself, during a brief bout of marketing hysteria a few weeks ago).

But I think it’s a bad idea for a number of reasons:

  1. It ignores the motivation (or lack thereof) of the targeted prospect.

    I understand why you may want to sell your services to a particular person or company. But that’s not the important part of the equation. Looking for demand where there is none is a shot in the dark.

    What you want instead, is for the person on the other end to already be looking for whatever it is you offer.

    Think about your favorite, most trusted professionals – the ones you already do business with. Do you need prompting to tell friends about them? Not me; it’s a natural result of being a happy customer.

    Need a small business attorney?… call Marijo McCarthy. Need a financial planner?… call Tim Withers. Need a business coach?… call Phoenix. Need a doctor?… call Jonathan Snider.

    These are all people I know and trust and happily recommend. But if you don’t need an attorney, financial planner, coach or doctor today, you don’t really care.

  1. It makes you look desperate.

    Marketing a professional service is mostly about giving prospective clients a sense of comfort that we’re really as good as we say we are. That’s why we write books, give speeches, publish newsletters, wear ties.

    It feels risky to hire us (because it is). The financial costs are significant, the “product” and provider are inextricably bound together, and the decision to commit requires jumping in with both feet (you can’t try “a little bit” of a vasectomy and then decide if you like the doctor).

    If, on the other hand, you knock on the door of a stranger and say (essentially), “Dave sent me, I’m wondering if you need any lawyering today,” you break the spell. You no longer feel like the busy, capable expert I want you to be if I’m going to take the risky leap to hire you.

  1. It hurts your relationship with your clients.

    Even if your clients agree to hand over a few names, you’re putting them in a difficult position. Like I said before, if they already love you, they do it anyway (not because they want to help you, but because they want to help their friends).

    And if they don’t feel that way about you, well, now they’ve got to figure out how to “handle the situation”… without hurting your feelings and without imposing on their friends. It’s extra work and it’s awkward, two things I have no interest in passing on to my clients.

Here’s the bottom line. The way to “work your relationships” is not to put your treasured clients in the uncomfortable position of having to do your marketing for you.

Instead, work on impressing them, day after day and to such a degree, that when anyone they know mentions a need that you can satisfy, they jump at the chance to pass your name along. They’ll be happy to do it and you’ll grow your business. My fictitious sister thanks you.

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