Making a Referral By Transferring Trust

I provide a lot of referrals to clients and colleagues and have built my own business development and executive coaching business through referrals from others to me. What makes those referrals so powerful?

Here’s an example of a referral I made. A few years ago, in my in-house legal role, I had a working relationship with a lawyer I liked and trusted. I introduced that lawyer to a colleague in another company who I thought could benefit from working with this lawyer as well. As a result of my introduction, the colleague retained the lawyer, and that relationship is still going strong after several years.

The Trust Transfer Process

Referring someone we know to another person we know happens all the time. On the personal side, think blind dates or babysitters or doctors. It’s part of the networking process. What makes it work? Something I call “Transferred Trust.” The Trust Equation gives us the formula to enhance our own trustworthiness. But what happens when we make or receive a referral? How do we transfer that trust to another, and if we’re on the receiving end, for what do we look or listen?

Here are the steps from my example, simplified:

  1. I trust a lawyer.
  2. I have a colleague who trusts me.
  3. My colleague needs a lawyer.
  4. I describe the lawyer I trust to my colleague, and shared why I trusted him and made the referral.
  5. My colleague trusts the lawyer I trust, enough to engage him based on my introduction.

Trust Transfer and the Trust Equation

Let’s dissect this referral in terms of the Trust Equation (from The Trusted Advisor by Charles H. Green, David H. Maister, and Robert M. Galford, Free Press, 2000):

Trustworthiness = Credibility + Reliability + Intimacy

The quality and degree of trust transferred will directly depend on:

  • The depth of the referrer’s trustworthiness
  • The trustworthiness factors shared with the person receiving the referral

If I shared that the lawyer always got back to me quickly, I transferred reliability. If I gave an example of how the lawyer showed that he cared more about doing the right thing for me as his client than getting more work for himself, I transferred that he had low self orientation. If I described something the lawyer did that helped my company save money and time, I transferred credibility.

And while it’s up to the referrer to transfer trustworthiness, it’s up to the person referred to retain that trustworthiness through his/her own interactions.

How Transparency Works with Referrals

Be careful. You put your own trustworthiness on the line when you transfer trust. How often do we get referrals with transferred trust and are disappointed? If you think there is a good match, but you don’t know much about the person you are referring, be sure to be transparent. It’s ok to say “I know this person to be honest and forthright, and she’s really smart but I’ve never worked with her, so you’ll probably want to talk to her yourself.”

This models transparency, together with low self-orientation, while transferring some intimacy (safety) and some general credibility.

Try this out yourself in a business or social setting. Think of how you refer doctors or contractors, business colleagues and professionals. Pay attention to both referrals shared with you, and to those you give. And practice transferring trust.

2 replies
  1. Tim Baran
    Tim Baran says:

    Resonates. I vet thoroughly before making referrals, and then sometimes don’t. Even of my friends. Goes to credibility and trust. So loved "transparency" which can serve to temper that rigidity.


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  1. […] presence. Generally, I am likely to connect based on my investigation, relying in part on the transferred trust from the person I know. Sometimes I even write to our common connection and ask if s/he knows the […]

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