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Best Place to Find New Clients? Ask the Current Ones

Piotr Powietrzynski | Photographer's Choice | Getty Images

Almost everyone dreads it, at least at first: Asking clients for prospect referrals.

We dread the “ask” because we know it will make our clients uncomfortable. Giving you the names of colleagues and friends is a big risk for your clients. What if you shift your focus to new clients and forget about them? What if you do a terrible job and the client they referred you to blames them? Or, what if you accidentally share confidential information with the referral?

A few years into growing my first business I decided I was done bugging my clients for halfhearted referrals. I came up with a new type of referral request that proved to be the best method for expanding my client base. I say the “best” because we didn’t just achieve results fast, we also managed to land ideal clients that fit our requirements and shared our core values, or as I refer to them, Immutable Laws.

Rather than attract random people and companies tossed our way, we found the clients who were the right fit for us in every way because we were referred to the top of the crop at every stage of the process.

This method, which I call “Tapping the Vendor Well,” is easy to execute, and has the added benefit of wowing your clients immediately. Here’s the process:

1. Ask your top clients for referrals to vendors they really like. They’ll look at you funny at first because you’re probably the first person to ask them this question. That’s your cue to say, “I want to provide you with the best possible service (or product). I’d like to meet with other key vendors to determine how we can work together to make that happen.”

2. When your clients give you their lists, ask, “Which vendor do you depend on the most?”

3. Call up your client’s preferred vendors in order of importance. Ask them if they would be willing to meet with you to discuss how you can better serve your mutual client.

4. When you meet with vendors, ask, “How can I make your job easier?” When you lead with this, it puts vendors at ease. (They’ll probably look at you funny, too, because again, you’ll probably be the first person to ask them that question. But they’ll love you for it.)

5. Promise to get back to each vendor with ideas about how you can work together. Implement those ideas as soon as possible. Be helpful. Then be even more helpful. Make the other vendors look good to your mutual client. Once you’ve done that, you can go for the big ask.

6. Call up your very satisfied vendor partner. Say, “I’d love to build on our working relationship with other clients. Would you refer me to your clients who may need my services (or products)?”

7. Rinse. Repeat.

Using this “vendor well” method, I was able to add 75 new quality, “right fit” clients to my roster in 18 months, all while keeping my original top clients as happy as can be and making other, noncompetitive vendors look good in the process. Win. Win. Win.

When you genuinely care about doing a fantastic job for your clients, and help out their other key vendors in earnest, you build strong relationships with people who trust you enough to keep those referrals coming. It’s a referral system that everyone can feel great about every step of the way, which enables you to grow your business quickly, by leaps and bounds.

Mike Michalowicz is an entrepreneurial expert and the author of "The Pumpkin Plan" (Penguin Books, July 2012). His website, MikeMichalowicz.com, is full of the latest tips and strategies for entrepreneurs.

Email us at SmallBiz@cnbc.com and follow us on Twitter @SmallBizCNBC.

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