The Steps You Should Take If You Want to Build Business Off Referrals

Move past the mentality of "wanting referrals and wanting them now" by considering the strength of your relationships.

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By Ivan Misner

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So, you want referrals and you want them now? Well, you can't have them. Unless, you've built meaningful relationships with your referral partners first. I'm often asked, "How long does it take for people to receive referrals from their network and how do we speed this process up?"

Building a referral-based business is all about building a powerful, personal network. If your network is a mile wide and an inch deep, you will never get the kind of referrals that will make a difference for your business. This means that you have to go deep in building a number of strong relationships.

Related: 8 Ways to Use Emotional Intelligence and Make Lasting Connections

From my experience, strong referral relationships are a lot like building close personal friendships. Facebook has redefined what a "friend" is, but I'm talking about truly close friendships with people. In a study published in 2018 by the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, it was found that it takes about 50 hours of interaction to move from being an acquaintance to becoming a "casual friend." It takes a total of 90 hours to be become "real friends," and a total of 200 hours to become "close friends." According to the study, "friendship status was examined as a function of hours together, shared activities and everyday talk."

So, how long does it take for people to build a close relationship where they trust you enough to give you regular referrals? Well, somewhere between 90 and 200 hours sounds about right to me.

I know that sounds like a lot but that matches up almost perfectly with what I've seen in BNI, a referral marketing organization I founded in 1985. When BNI members hit the 90-hour mark of participation they almost always begin receiving more and more referrals. Based on an independent study published in 2012 for BNI, when those same individuals cross the 200-hour mark, they generate an average of over five times the number of referrals they did in their first year! Yes, you read that right: more than 500% more referrals when they have built strong friendships with their referral partners.

Related: 25 Ways to Ask for a Referral Without Looking Desperate

The best way to speed up the process is to actually spend time in the process of developing relationships with the people you are networking with. Networking truly is more about farming than it is about hunting. It is about building relationships and friendships with other business professionals.

It's important to note that there's a confidence curve you have to negotiate before trying to do business with someone. If you take that curve too fast, you'll flip your reputation and end up in a very awkward position.

When it comes to getting referrals from your network, confidence is a vital component -- not your confidence, but the confidence your fellow network members have in you. None of them wants to risk their personal reputation by referring business, information or contacts to a stranger. Even though you may have known many of your fellow networkers for some time, until they've gained a certain level of confidence that referring contacts to you will not harm their reputation with their clients, associates, friends or family, you're still a referral stranger.

What exactly is this level of confidence? The time-confidence curve shown here (from my book, Networking Like a Pro) illustrates the dynamics of the process. Your success in getting referrals depends partly on your competence, of course, but also on how far up the confidence curve the referrer's confidence in you has progressed. If you are at point A in the relationship, you're just starting. If you're at point B in the relationship, you've known each other for a while, but you still haven't quite achieved the necessary confidence level with this person to get a referral from her. When you reach point C, she'll feel comfortable recommending you to friends.

Networking like a Pro
Image credit: Entrepreneur Press

Related: 5 Ways to Build Killer Relationships With Customers

It's not always easy to know how far you've progressed up your confidence curve. Many networkers spend a lot of time and effort trying to build others' confidence in them, then on the brink of success, grow discouraged and stop attending meetings. How would you feel if someone found you a terrific referral about two weeks after you dropped out of sight?

Here's what you can do to gain perspective on your efforts and the results they are producing. Ask yourself the following four questions, and keep asking them over and over until you have attained success and the answers become obvious.

1. Am I being realistic about the time it will take, in my profession, to gain the critical level of confidence?

2. Am I regularly making stimulating, educational presentations to my fellow networkers about the value I provide to my clients?

3. Am I doing business with others in my network so I can give them dynamic testimonials and steer business to them in hopes they will return the favor?

4. Am I meeting regularly with my networking colleagues to learn about their businesses so I can confidently refer my contacts to them?

If you're following these simple tactics, then you are well along the road to getting all the referrals from others' networks that you deserve.

Remember, it takes time to build friendships, unless you're in kindergarten, then you can do it in about five minutes.

Ivan Misner

Entrepreneur Leadership Network VIP

Bestselling Author

Dr. Ivan Misner is a 'NY Times' bestselling author and co-author of the bestselling book, 'Networking Like a Pro' (Entrepreneur Press 2017). He is also the Founder & Chief Visionary Officer of BNI (, the world's largest referral marketing and networking organization.

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