One of the major aims of business conversation for freelancers is: getting an introduction or a referral to someone who could use our services. Most professionals avoid this conversation entirely, justifying this with a host of rationale that carefully disguises their own fear about a referral conversation. We have previously focussed on two key conversations in business relationships: the review meeting with a client or customer, and the conversation that explores potential for a prolonged contract.

Some of these fears do possess a certain plausibility. The usual excuses range from “good referrals come to me; I shouldn’t have to look for them” to a genuine concern about not being seen to be too “commercial” in a trusted-adviser relationship. Nevertheless, it’s useful to challenge ourselves here: are we acting out of genuine concern on the client’s part, or out of sophisticated procrastination on our part? Do we simply lack the courage to ask?

John Niland - patron of the European Forum of Independent Professionals and recent panellist at National Freelancers Day 2012 - covers the importance of successful conversations in securing future clients.

“My own business often bores me to death, I prefer other people’s” - Oscar Wilde

About us or about them?

As with all conversations in the current economy, once again a referral conversation needs to be focused on the client - and what they find useful - as opposed to conducting a self-centred discussion about future business for ourselves. Therefore, we want to have a conversation about need, as opposed to a conversation about us.

Let’s illustrate by example:

Sue (the consultant): “Peter, out of all the work we have been doing together so far: the analysis of requirements, the decision to focus resources on streamlining workflow, the improvements in customer service and so on… what for you has been most significant?”

Peter (the client, COO): “Mmm… (pause)… well all of the above, plus the fact the dates we are now giving to customers have credibility. We are able to hit our deadlines?”

Sue (the consultant): “Why is that particularly important?”

Peter (the client, COO): “Our efficiencies are not exciting to our customers, but our abilities to be responsive and meet our delivery dates are what count. We are one small part of their supply-chain, and reliability is critical."

Sue (the consultant): “Where else in that supply chain is the need for reliability and responsiveness critical?”

Beware the ego

For Sue, the conversation about introductions can now begin. Is Peter active in any supply-chain discussion where issues of reliability and responsiveness are being discussed? If so, where, and would it be possible for Sue to participate? Can he think of other organisations that have similar needs in this arena?

To hear some people speak about referrals, it’s all about the great job we have done, the nature of our relationship etc. Most of this stems from self-preoccupation and ignores the simple truth that the majority of referrals stem from other people’s needs, not from our performance.

It goes without saying that our performance is still important. But without a need, it will not usually produce an introduction. (Or at least not a compelling one.)

The conversation above is not a conversation about Sue, it’s a conversation about the supply-chain. With a bit of practice, most professionals can do this quite easily and indeed they find that the vast majority of clients welcome this dialogue. Of course, this conversation does not always have to end up in a request for introductions. When I’m coaching consultants and project-managers on this conversation, I recommend they postpone the latter until they are reasonably comfortable with the needs-conversation first.

The Courage to ask

Of course, the day comes when we still have to bite the bullet. The advantage of a needs-conversation is that it teaches us the courage to ask questions like the ones posed by Sue above. In doing so, we access one of the gateways to greater courage: influence and communication skill. There are six others, and whichever gateway we use the objective is to enlarge our courage and hence our capacity for action.

What happens otherwise? Usually a lot of sophisticated procrastination. Many professionals would rather read another book about business-development, or devise another strategy, than crack ahead with the next conversation. Yet it’s in conversation that most business happens.

© John Niland 2012

“The Courage to Ask” by John Niland and Kate Daly is now available on Amazon.

Useful resources

Finding Contracts