06/08/2014 08:01 BST | Updated 05/10/2014 06:59 BST

Three Reasons Why Your Clients Won't Refer You

A good friend of mine recently told me how frustrated she was that she wasn't getting referrals from clients.

"We even have a clause in our contracts that they will refer us if they are happy with our service", she told me, completely baffled about the lack of success.

"Put yourself in your clients' shoes", I suggested. Do you think that they are going back to review the terms of the contract and suddenly feel guilty that they haven't referred you?

"Will they set aside a special Board Meeting to discuss the referrals they should be passing?

"How effective do you really think that clause is?"

Most businesses seek referrals from their clients more frequently than from any other group. In fact, most don't even seek those referrals, they expect them. And more often than not they find themselves disappointed at the return.

The first reason why clients don't refer is that we remain passive in the process. The common belief that if you do a good job your clients will refer you is misplaced. People are far more likely to share bad news than good. Do a good job and you are delivering on expectations. That doesn't give people a story. Dip below expectations and they will want to tell everyone, to warn them off.

The simple fact is that your clients have other things to focus on than referrals for you. Just like my friend's clients, they are not setting aside time in their agenda to pick up their phone and make introductions for you. If you really want referrals from your clients you need to ask.

And when I say ask, I don't mean a vague request for 'anyone else who might benefit from my services'. A clause in a contract or an afterthought at the end of a meeting will be ignored. The only way to ensure referrals from clients is to make a specific request for an introduction to someone you know they know and whom they would be happy to introduce you to.

In fact, this is the only time I ask my clients for referrals. I don't do so as a matter of course but if I recognise a relevant introduction they could pass and feel comfortable that they would be happy to do so, then I'll ask.

But I don't ask as a matter of course because the second reason clients don't refer is that it's not necessarily appropriate for us to expect those referrals. My relationship with my clients is one of servitude; my job is to serve them. Yet I hear so many people talk as if the responsibility to serve lies in the other direction. They expect their clients to serve and support their business, rather than the other way around.

You can earn referrals from clients but you certainly shouldn't expect them. Unless you have offered a discounted price or additional services in a commercial exchange for referrals, then where does this attitude that clients owe you referrals come from?

Every conversation I have with my clients should be focused on the service I am delivering to them and ensuring that it is as effective as it can possibly be or deepening my relationship with them. Yes, I do get referrals from happy clients and yes, I do ask for them occasionally (as outlined above) but I don't expect them.

One reason I don't expect them is the third reason many clients don't seek to refer and that is because it's not in their interests to do so. Our clients' natural interest is in us being busy enough to continue trading but not so in demand that we either focus less on them, delegate that focus to less qualified people or raise our prices due to heavy demand.

Of course the counter argument to this is that nobody understands the quality of your work and its impact better than your clients. Yet we ignore so many people who, while they may not have experienced our services in the same way, have a stronger interest in supporting us. It's fascinating to see how much time and energy is spent on asking clients for referrals when to do so may damage their interests, yet so little effort is put into asking suppliers for referrals. Our suppliers thrive when we thrive and our need for their services increases when we become more busy.

Ask your clients for referrals if it's appropriate and the relationship is strong enough, for sure. But be specific and do so in a natural, not automated way.

While you do so, however, don't be blinded to the wealth of referrals available from other sources such as suppliers, colleagues, former colleagues, friends, family, social contacts, networking contacts and many more.