What to Do When an Introduction Goes Wrong

Introductions and referrals are the life blood of most entrepreneurs’ success, but they don’t always go as planned. Instead of leading to a new client, botched introductions can backfire and jeopardize your relationship with your existing client.

I found that out the hard way when Peter, a client I had worked with for years, suggested I talk to one of his company’s vendors who needed planning help. Peter said he’d already ‘pre-sold’ me and my services, and set up a phone call with, Zack, the CEO of the tech consulting firm.

It looked like all the referrals I had made to Peter over the years were about to pay off.

But when I got on the phone with the Zack—things went very wrong.

A great opportunity turns into a problem

Zack was not a ‘social handshake’ kind of guy. His opening line was a surprisingly gruff, “Why would I work with you?” Fair question, but the abruptness threw me.

I tried to quickly recalibrate and answer the question as best I could. But Zack didn’t let me get very far. He was busy. No time for this. “Send me your CV,” he said. And the call was over.

I sent him examples of work I’d done with other similar clients, but I never heard back.

The opportunity was blown.

And worse than that, the next time I heard from Peter he was not happy. It was obvious he’d heard from Zack and what he heard wasn’t good. And that reflected badly not just on me, but on Peter. In trying to help me, he’d put his own reputation and relationship with Zack on the line. And I’d made him look bad.

I needed to make things right fast or risk losing a client and a long-time relationship.

Three steps to recover from a mishandled introduction

When I looked back on what had happened with Zack I realized there were three important lessons I could learn, not just about doing damage control when introductions blow up, but about managing client relationships even when referrals go great.

1. Even if you feel embarrassed about blowing the introduction, make sure to call or meet with your client to thank them. Clients like to feel helpful and you can reinforce their good intentions with a simple thanks. Not only will it help keep the relationship together but it increases the odds that they will refer you again.

2. Don’t bad mouth the client you were introduced to. Although I wasn’t thrilled with Zack’s approach I knew that, no matter how badly it went or how much it was their fault, criticizing the other party will only reflect badly on me. Plus, carping about someone your client has chosen to have a relationship with insinuates your client has poor judgment.

3. Do discuss with your client what your ideal client looks like. In my case, Peter had introduced me into a business that probably could have used my services. But that’s often only part of the introduction equation. For me, it’s also important that we have compatible styles and expectations. You may also have other considerations like company size, market, location or industry.

Making things right

The next day I called Peter and asked him to let me take him to dinner. Over some great seafood I took the time to thank him for being thoughtful enough to put me and Zack together. I avoided blaming Zack for what happened and instead talked about other similar experiences I’d had and the importance of compatibility. We spent a little time exploring, not just the type of client I’d like to be introduced to, but also Peter’s ideal client. And before the check came I’d sent an email to a marketing consultant I often worked with to suggest he and Peter get together.

And going forward I’ve tried to keep those three principles for managing introductions in mind and apply them to every new situation—whether the referral goes poorly or turns out great. And since then I’ve had no problems with my existing clients. In fact, I get more referrals  than ever because my clients are very aware of who I’m looking to meet and feel secure that no matter what happens I won’t make them look bad.

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