Every business owner faces the constant challenge of keeping the company profitable. Marketing campaigns, lead generation, and the like are tactics designed to attract new prospects to fill your client roster.

But getting the right introductions from trusted third-party sources is a much more powerful and sustainable way to land sales than savvy marketing techniques alone. With a few strategic referral requests from select individuals in your network, you can grow your business exponentially.

Let’s say you work with 10 clients. Each one provides you with enough referrals that you gain 10 new clients in a given year. Those first referrals generate 40 new clients, which lead to 160 new second-level clients and 640 third-level clients.

Businesses live and die on steady revenue streams and cash flows, so knowing when and how to solicit referrals will make all the difference in your company’s sustainability.

The Art of Asking for Referrals

You should always be tactful when asking for a favor, especially when you’re addressing a paying customer. But you also need to build a solid foundation of trust, position the request as mutually beneficial, and ask at an appropriate time.

When it comes to referrals, I like to think of the Aladdin principle: If you don’t ask, you don’t get. But, of course, asking the same person too often can backfire.

To navigate these sticky referral requests, start with these six steps:

1. Prep clients from the start. Let the client know that referrals are the lifeblood of your business up-front. Make it clear that you intend to ask him for one in the future, and explain why: You want others to benefit from your service in the same way he does. This will make him more alert when a suitable referral for you comes his way.

2. Reinforce the triple-win effect. Sure, referrals keep you in business, but they also boost the referrer’s credibility and give the person receiving the recommendation a valuable new resource: you. When you consistently point out the value to everyone involved (your referral source included), it creates a triple-win effect.

3. Ask for introductions. Once a project is underway and the client is pleased with your work, ask if he knows anyone who might be interested in the value you deliver. If he does, ask for introductions to those contacts. Make sure you’re getting introduced to the right people, though. If the contact isn’t a decision maker, it’ll likely be a waste of time.

4. Make it easy. Satisfied clients are usually eager to connect you with prospects, but they have other priorities, too. Suggest a recommended time frame for making an email introduction, or ask if you can use the client’s name when reaching out to a prospect you both know. This takes the burden off of the client.

5. Follow up at the end of the project. Suggest a few candidates your client knows who might also find value in your services, and ask if he’d be willing to introduce you.

6. Show your gratitude. Thank your referrers for their help, and keep them updated on how the new relationship is going. The referral system is built on strong relationships and shared value.

If you delight clients with your service, they’ll be happy to recommend you to others, especially when they stand to benefit in the process. Remind them how referrals have enhanced their own career development to reinforce the pay-it-forward mindset and inspire them to help you out.

When you put this referral system in place, you can steadily grow your client list with minimal effort and stress. As long as you manage expectations, make well-timed and consistent requests, maintain high-value relationships, and follow up, you can create an army of advocates spreading the word for you, which could be a real game changer in your overall success.

by Kelli Richards

Originally published 1/19/2015