As a thoracic surgeon, Aaron was used to working on hearts and lungs. He’s a gifted practitioner with a wonderful bedside manner, impeccable skills and true caring for his patients’ lives and families. But the truth was, his case volume was down, and so was his income.

What to do? Aaron was surprised to realize that he had a sales problem.

In the medical community that deals with America’s epidemic of heart disease, the cardiologist is king. When surgery is indicated, the cardiologist recommends a surgeon; most patients, firmly bonded to their cardiologists, accept those recommendations. Aaron needed better relationships with cardiologists who could appreciate his skills and special talents. He came up with a program of targeting specific cardiologists and systematically and methodically building relationships with them. His income dramatically improved.

You may not cut open people’s chests for a living, but if you’re a professional providing a product or service and you rely on referrals, do you think you might benefit from a sales approach like Aaron’s? Here are ten tips to help you increase referrals without damaging your professional image:

Know who you’d like to have sending business your way. A prospect list is not a list of organizations; it’s a list of human beings who could be sending clients to you but are not currently doing so. Do you have such a list? Writing up a list of those with whom you would like to do business, and reading the list daily, will increase the likelihood that you will actually establish those relationships.

1. Work your prospect list. Don’t let a single week go by without completing a minimum of two activities related to your prospect list. Sometimes you can attend a meeting likely to put you face-to-face with targeted prospects. Failing that, you might send an article of interest and suggest an in-person meeting to discuss matters of mutual concern. Aaron would suggest taking a coffee break with those cardiologists he encountered while doing his rounds at the hospital.

2. When you speak with your prospects, use the word “you” often, and the word “I” (or “we”) seldom. Making the conversation more about your prospect and less about you will make conversations longer—perhaps long enough for trust to develop.

3. Begin every conversation with a prospect by adopting a “clean heart position,” that is, a sincere desire to see your prospects get what they want, whether or not they get it from you. Try to understand their practices or businesses and what they’re trying to accomplish; ask questions about that, rather than turning the discussion to your desire to have them refer people to you. Once you feel you understand their needs, restate their objectives, and be sure that your prospects agree that you understand. If they do agree, then you can introduce the notion that you may be able to assist them in achieving those objectives, if you legitimately feel that you can.

4. At all stages of the process of cultivating referrals, make sure to focus on the prospect, rather than on your message or your agenda. The way to make meaningful connections is to understand what your prospect is trying to achieve, and the extent to which he or she experiences pain that you may be able to alleviate. For example, if you sell insurance and are seeking referrals from attorneys, you would want to focus on an attorney sharing with you that she has just had a bad experience referring one of her valued clients to an insurance broker who failed to return phone calls, thus angering the attorney’s client. If that’s the pain, then talk about that: “Oh no, the broker you referred your client to didn’t even bother to return your client’s calls? Gee, that can’t reflect well on you. That’s really disappointing.” Let the prospect know that you heard, and that you understand how this behavior works against what she’s trying to achieve, rather than talking about yourself and saying something like, “Well, I always return my calls before sundown.” Of course, if you are asked your own protocol for returning calls, answer the question.

5. To build rapport, keep your voice at the same volume level and speak at the same pace as your prospect does. Research from Dr. Genie Laborde suggests that these may be the most powerful things you can do to help others to like you quickly.

6. Express continued interest in your prospect. Brian Tracy said, “Listen as if the person could speak for the next eight years, and you would still be here.” Listen attentively rather than waiting to make your point.

7. When speaking with prospects, avoid using words that are rooted in the word “no,” such as not, won’t, can’t, don’t or aren’t. There’s evidence that these negatives will drive prospects away from you.

8. If the conversation gets to the possibility of your working together, express genuine enthusiasm for that, without going overboard or losing your professional demeanor.

9. Remember the people who are currently sending you referrals. In addition to conveying your thanks after every referral, have a regular program for touching base with them, and put it into your scheduling program so you’re reminded when to make the calls: monthly, quarterly, or, at a minimum, twice a year. And be sure to send business to them whenever you can. The best referral relationships are two-way.

It is possible to develop relationships with those who can give you referrals, but it requires thinking about whom you’d like to target as referral sources—and taking action to cultivate these relationships. Follow these principles, and develop the referral sources that will support your organization’s growth for years to come.

LENANN McGOOKEY GARDNER is an internationally known sales
consultant and author of
Got Sales? The Complete Guide to
Today’s Proven Methods for Selling Services. A Harvard MBA,
Lenann is a winner of the American Marketing Association’s
Professional Services “Marketer of the Year” award.