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What is the Definition of a Referral?
An open door to discuss your business.

A BNI member recently asked me to define a legitimate referral.  It’s been a long time since I wrote about this, so I thought I’d share it with everyone in this month’s column.

What is a referral?  It’s not as simple as it’s sometimes made out to be.  We leave college and go into business knowing little about referrals, because referral marketing is rarely part of the curriculum.  We know what a great thing it is to get a referral, because it generally means lucrative business with a reliable client.

We understand that referrals are the best kind of business.  What we don’t fully understand is how to make them happen.

In the BNI Member Success Program training we state that a referral is the opportunity to do business with someone who is in the market to buy your product or service. It’s not a guaranteed sale, but an open door to discuss your business.

The whole process of giving referrals can be somewhat subjective.  Our goal is to make a “subjective” process as “objective” as possible.  Here are six points to generally follow when giving a referral***:

  1. Listen for a need from someone you’ve met. A good networker has two ears and one mouth and uses them proportionately.

  2. Tell the individual that you know someone who can provide that service.

  3. If you’ve done business with the member, share your experience.

  4. Give out the business card of the person you are referring and ask for the individual’s card.

  5. Ask if it’s okay to have the member call.

  6. If the answer is yes, fill out a referral slip and give it to the chapter member at the next meeting.

So, a referral is a referral right?  Once a referral source has given you the name of a person to call, it’s up to you to do the rest.  A referral is better than a cold call, because you have the name of the prospect. And if you’re fortunate, you can use the name of the referral source to open the door.  What more could you hope for?

Grade-A Referrals
Actually, there’s quite a bit more you can expect from referrals that have been properly developed by their sources.

Referrals come in many different grades.   On one end of the spectrum they may go from simply a name and number of someone who’s expecting your call all the way to an in-person introduction that follows a serious commitment of time and energy from your referral partner.

Both may be legitimate referrals.  However, the latter is much more likely to lead to closed business.  The further along the referral spectrum that you can follow in your referral giving – the more likely you are giving truly high quality referrals to your networking partners.

*** Please note – some professions have different ethical guidelines about referrals (for example medical practitioners, counselors, and attorneys).  Formal professional standards for any profession supersede the information outlined above.

Called the "father of modern networking" by CNN, Dr. Ivan Misner is a New York Times bestselling author.  He is the Founder and Chairman of BNI, the world's largest business networking organization and the Sr. Partner for the Referral Institute.  His newest book, Networking Like a Pro, can be viewed at

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16 Responses to “What is the Definition of a Referral?”

  1. Ian Morris Says:

    This is very timely as I have volunteered to do the education slot at Premiere BNI in Rickmansworth UK tomorrow.
    My reason ‘lead or referral’? We have a few new members & some of the referrals being given are not challenged because they have been given in good faith but are really just leads. ie ‘I know someone who MAY need your services in the future’.
    My intention is to improve the quality of genuine referrals & hope the members appreciate the difference leading to more business for us all.
    Ian Morris

  2. Sydney Metrick Says:

    While listening for a need is certainly a great opening to a referral conversation, it’s also possible to sometimes initiate a conversation. One way that works is to be talking with someone where you have the opportunity to brag about the work done by a particular company or individual. I’ve been able to get referrals to a plumber and massage therapist with that method. Another is to let friends and neighbors simply know that you’re connected to a great group of professionals in a wide range of businesses, so think of you rather than the yellow pages (who uses that anymore anyway?)or Yelp if looking for someone to help with something.

  3. Virginia Muzquiz Says:

    Thank you, Dr. Misner, for reminding folks what it means to refer taking into account the needs and guidelines that each individual may have. Building a successful referral marketing platform upon which one can develop a lucrative referral stream takesa a willingness on the referring party’s part to ask the right questions and insure that the referral is appropriate for the recipient. And it behooves the potential recipient of that referral to educate the referral partner on the expectations and limitations they may have when accepting referrals. If that conversation precedes giving a referral, we can be assured that we are giving our very best to our referral partners and the people we refer.

  4. Becky Eaton Says:

    I am so glad you took the time to further define a “referral”. I am new to BNI and I really feel the pressure to refer my co-members – “self inflicted pressure”. My co-members have been very supportive, welcoming and informative. I am very excited with this chapter and their acceptance of me. know this process does not happen over night and relationships must be developed between me, my company and my co-members. I truly believe in the purpose and value of BNI and very much look forward to developing those relationships through building confidence, sharing personal information and experiences, as well as, the quality work and professionalism we offer. I just have to learn to be more patient and allow the process to happen. Thank you for your example and inspiration.


    Becky Eaton
    Brownsboro Chapter
    Louisville, KY

  5. Ken Webster; Geneva, IL Says:

    I like this definition and the clarity that it brings. However, this article doesn’t address the tension that typically brings about the question which needs addressing. The matter that needs clarifying is: If I pass a referral slip to another member of my chapter but have not secured permission for my fellow member to contact the person whom could potentially benefit from their services, is that a referral? What if I have gone to great lengths to endorse my fellow member? What if the potential customer asked for my fellow member’s card but wishes to contact them on their own terms? If none of the above scenarios create “an open door to discuss your business” as described in the article, then why do the referral slips have an optional check box for “told them you would call” which could be checked or left unchecked?

    Perhaps the answer to the question is whom are we referring to whom? When we pass referrals are we referring our chapter member to a potential customer or are we referring a potential customer to a fellow chapter member? If it is the latter, perhaps instead of passing referral slips, we should be passing “key” slips; that is permission to open doors.

  6. Valerie Childs Says:

    As a life and health coach, I am finding it much easier to give referrals than vice versa. I believe it is due to percieved idea that coaching is councelling therefore too personal to refer. I have offered free coaching sessions to BNI members for them to better understand that coaching is for successful people who want more success. My weekly 1 min talk also revolves around educating the group. Is there something else I could be doing? Thank you and I really enjoy the group and I know its early days…Blessings

  7. Sean Barkes Says:

    I concur with Ian Morris above. There are frequent leads given in our chapter that really are just leads. In a way, I think this is an inevitable outcome from the pressure each member feels to provide referrals for other chapter members. However, if MCs were trained to reject referral slips that are clearly leads rather than referrals, it would do a lot to mitigate the problem.

  8. Chris Williams Says:

    Valerie, I’m a relative newcomer to BNI (about a year)and a very new newcomer to the self employed approach to work. Our chapter just accepted a new member who is a Personal/Business Coach similar to your line of work. His 30 second commercials are amazing! Stunning! What may be happening is that people are very busy absorbing the extensive content of your message, and processing it. When that’s accomplished, and you talk about some of your successes, much of that hesitancy that you are sensing will disappear. It’s worked for me that way…but I never gave such great commercials!
    Best of luck.

  9. Dave Boyd Says:

    Thanks Dr. Misner, for reminding members why referrals are so important and why leads are not referrals. This is always a strong point of training in the MSP classes, and we strive to make sure the members understand the differences.
    I also impress on members that they don’t need to just “…listen for a need…”, but that they should proactively search out possible clients for their fellow members by using their databases and contacts – especially if they want the same level of referrals from others.
    And I stress that if the referral is “hot” that they should call the member right away and urge them to follow-up on the referral immediately – before the prospective client “grows cold”. Then they can turn in the referral slip at the next meeting as “already in progress”.

  10. John de Ridder Says:

    Excellent definition of a referral. I believe that a lot of people think by getting names on bits of paper will increase their chances of getting more business “givers gain”. However, this type of strategy is detrimental to the credibility of the referrer. I’m reminded of the 3 part process V C P Visibility Credibility Profitability. Good referrals will help build the credibility of any person.

  11. Dr. Jill Narlock Says:

    I’ve been a 10 year member of BNI and know that it’s the best out there for referral organizations–it’s been wonderful for my business. I have some comments in response to Ken Webster’s post. He poses the question about passing a member’s card to a potential customer, and that potential customer wanting to be in control of the phone contact. In my opinion it’s not a referral yet, so don’t write up a slip. Let the member know that someone might be calling, and that they should let you know when they do so that you can get credit for a referral. He also brings up a point that BNI headquarters should address–which is there should NOT be the option of “gave them your card” on the referral slips. I’ve brought this up in our region and was told it would be too difficult to change the format of the slips–but recently we’re seeing newly designed referral slips, and this change could have, and should have been made–it’s inconsistent with what is taught in training and in what members want. I know that when I get passed a referral that says “I gave them your card”, I feel the member is getting an unfair referral credit.

  12. Andrea Rappoport Says:

    Dear Dr Misner,
    We met at the last Members’ day when you came to our Fortune Finance Power Team stand.
    Sometimes we personally use the services of fellow members in the Chapter. We need to differentiate between, a referral which is new business and repeat business. So, if I give our fantastic printer my first ever order with him for business cards, this is a referral. When I need more business cards this is clearly repeat business, and therfore no referral to be given. Of course, he will thank me for the business. Sometimes there is a grey area. If I then ask him to print some brochures for me, for example.
    As I am an existing client of the printer, then this is repeat business and not a referral.
    It is very important that this is made clear to our members.
    Thanks for your aritcle.
    All the best
    Andrea Rappoport, FORTUNE chapter, Mill Hill, London NW7

  13. Andrea Nyeboer Says:

    Valerie, I completely understand as I am a personal skills and mindset coach and trainer for businesses. It has taken people a while to get what I do but the 10 minute presentation really connected with a lot of them and they asked some very good questions at the end which allowed me to get very specific. Have you done yours yet? If not, ask to do it asap! I have also been coaching one member on Relationship Building/Sales in return for her providing me with services in her field. We have had great results and she is also a great reference/testimonial. Of course the ‘dances’ give you a great opportunity to give them a ‘ten minute trial’, understanding that anything discussed is confidential but they are free to tell anybody later that they had a breakthrough!
    Good luck
    Andrea Nyeboer, MAINSAIL chapter, Perth Western Australia

  14. Deborah Davis Huberfeld Says:

    I totally agree with Dr. Jill Narlack above. I am fairly new to BNI — just 12 months — and have tried to be very careful to make my referrals “warm” in that I have spoken directly with the prospect and secured permission for my chapter colleague to follow up. I can’t count the number of “gave them your card” referrals I’ve received, with no possibility of follow-up, and have begun to turn those back as non-referrals if the person who passed it can’t help me at least make contact. I do ounderstand the desire for a prospect to control the contact, but do feel as though that member is getting an unfair referral credit.
    All that said, I know my BNI membership is beneficial to my printing business.
    Deborah Davis Huberfeld, Horsham, PA chapter

  15. Lauren Hopper Says:

    While I understand peoples frustration for not getting the opportunity to reach out to the referral and having to wait for the referral to contact you, I want to remind people why we are make money. I’ve always been taught that he who passes more cards wins. Quite frankly, I would rather know that my “sales team” of BNI members are passing out my cards and getting my name out there than not. You have to get through the 100 no’s to get to the yes’s. To me, passing me a referral letting me know that you gave out my card tells me that you were talking about me and working for me so why should that not count. Its not like members are getting paid for passing referrals. It doesn’t hurt our group or our members whether we pass 1 referral or 100, what matters is the Thank you for closed business that is generated from that. So if members are motivated to pass out my card by receiving credit for the referral, then lets do it! Its my job to help educate them on how to help me turn that referral into business so they can get the real credit which is the TYFCB acknowledgement.

  16. Lisa Healey Says:

    Question: A member was looking for a bookkeeper. I gave her a name of a bookkeeper. I sent an email to both of them introducing them to each other. Easier call to make knowing she was going to call. I told her how great this person was. Would this be considered a referral? Some in my chapter say it is not a referral. Agree or disagree?

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