I recently received requests for referrals from two unrelated sources looking to drum up business. In each case, the request was very specific, asking me to make a fairly lengthy, personal and testimonial-based introduction to my network, advocating use of the requester for the service they provide. Each request included a virtually identical email template:

Hi (Referral’s Name)-

I want to introduce you to (Requester’s Name)
He/she’s an expert in (area of practice)
But most of all (Requester) has a huge heart and loves helping people. He/She is the real deal.
I thought of you because (specific personal reason for making the referral)
He/She is quite booked, but offered to give you a free (consultation/session).
If you’re interested in (value proposition), then I recommend giving (Requester) a call.
His/her website is …and his/her phone number is…
I also copied him/her on this email so you can respond this way as well.
I recommend you give (Requester) a call right away, because his/her schedule fills up fast.
Let me know if you have any questions.

One request came from a service provider I’d visited via a gift certificate. While the experience was pleasant and positive, I hardly consider myself a “client,” much less one who can speak to a shared “struggle with similar issues” that I am presumed to “know” my contact is experiencing.  The other request was from a business consultant who evidently decided “to take my entire (list of qualifications) and focus it toward helping (target market) solve their (issues) so they can get on with growing their business.” I met this individual once at an orientation for a new community development volunteer initiative and new nothing about any other life or work activities.

I must admit that I was taken aback by both requests. Don’t get me wrong–I am a big fan of sharing resources and networking. Both topics are so crucial for career success that they come up in nearly every client conversation. But these recent requests in the guise of an “opportunity” for me to help them help my contacts seem blatantly self-serving. While some proponent of “push marketing” is clearly advocating this tactic, it is counter to the advice we share with clients searching for new jobs and entrepreneurs seeking new customers for their business venture. Here are our Rules of Engagement for networking:

  1. Networking only works when it’s relationship-based. While the traditional “6 degrees of separation” have been decreased to a couple of clicks via social media, an email marketing campaign doesn’t begin to qualify as “personal.” I regularly refer people to my relator, my favourite indie coffee shop and any number of tradespeople, many of whom were referred to me. For client referrals, LinkedIn has been a godsend, as I don’t have to rack my brain “remembering” who I know in Corporate Development or Digital Marketing–an advanced search usually produces so many hits that we have to keep narrowing parameters to get down to a reasonable number!  But I’ve never made a personal or business referral because someone provided me with a “convenient” email template to use to blast my contacts.
  2. Networking puts reputations on the line. If I trust the individual making the referral as well as their personal knowledge of the product/service/provider they are recommending, I tend to act or file the information away for use when the need arises. Likewise, when I “discover” some great new restaurant/chiropractor/website/dog kennel, I share the resource with all and sundry–mostly when asked and almost always by good old word-of-mouth. My network knows they can count on any referral I make because I am a satisfied customer, not an unpaid sales agent. The same goes for client networking referrals; I make sure any client I refer to one of my contacts is very well-prepared for the informational interview because my reputation is on the line.
  3. Networking is reciprocal, not transactional. I don’t refer friends to my relator because he gives me an apple pie every Thanksgiving or signs off his monthly newsletter with “I’m never too busy for your referrals.” While the former is a lovely touch and a reminder of his thoughtfulness and the latter makes good business sense, the reason for the referral is that he “got” exactly what we were looking for in a house and delivered on all the promises he made. I know any friend, family member or business acquaintance will be in good hands with him. On the business side, I’ve never paid for referrals nor offered payment, as that feels like a conflict of interest. I want to make sure any referrals I get or give are open-hearted, not open-handed!
  4. Networking is purposeful but not one-dimensional. Once I make a referral, it’s time for me to get out of the way. Even though I may anticipate the usefulness of a contact for a client, the real magic comes when those two people discover commonalities I couldn’t have imagined, much less predicted. For instance, a connection I set up between two clients to help one get insights form the other on a company they both were targeting led to a joint project leveraging their two very different skill sets and a published article!

So call me old-fashioned, but I will not be acting on either of the requests I received nor can you expect to get such a request from me. If we’ve worked together and you think I could be of assistance to someone you know, I’d be happy to speak with them to discover how I might help. But the closest thing to a “request” you’ll get from me is the following “pull marketing” message I use at the close of my “Congratulations on your new job!” emails: “If anyone you know is experiencing a challenge in career planning, job search or career management, please feel free to have them contact me for an initial no cost/no obligation consultation.”

I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts about this marketing approach, so please weigh in. From where I sit, good work gets acknowledged/talked about and what goes around comes around just fine without needing a push. And that to me is the real “real deal.”