How (Not) to Ask for Recommendations, Referrals and References

A while back I met a first-time author, who gave me a copy of their book. Shortly after, I got an email from the author’s publicist, saying:

“…We’d appreciate it if you would post your 5-star review of the book on Amazon…”


  • I don’t mind being asked to post a review of a book (though this ask was poorly done)
  • I don’t mind being asked by a publicist, as opposed to the author, if it’s done well (this was not)
  • But what frosts me is being told by a publicist what rating to assign the book – without even asking whether I’d read it, or even intended to read it.

Let’s break it down: what are the rules governing recommendations, referrals and references? And how many did the publicist violate?

How To Ask for a Favor

Rule Number One: Don’t ask for a favor – ask for the repayment of a favor already done.

The ideal way to promote your book is to start 6 months in advance by deciding whose help you’re going to want – and immediately start promoting them.  Comment on their blogposts; tweet their material; introduce them to others.

That way, when it comes time for your ask, they are simply discharging an obligation of etiquette, a favor they are more than happy to grant. (And lest this sound coldly utilitarian, note this is a description of what friends do for friends).

What’s true for books is true for referrals.  Haven’t done any favors for others lately? Then you’re going to come up short when you start trying to ask for favors.  Life is like that. Favors earned are favors granted.

Think that’s not fair? Wrong: it is very, very fair. It’s the essence of the matter.


Rule Number Two: Assume absolutely nothing.

Remember the saying, “Assume makes an ass of u and me.” Do not assume the person has the time, or the interest, or the inclination, to do you the favor you want.

In fact, make it clear you have no clue whether what you’re asking is reasonable. Say something like, “I realize this may be an inopportune time, or more complex than I realize, or there may be other reasons you can’t do this, and I assure you I don’t mean to be asking for an unnatural act on your part….”

By explicitly saying you’re not making assumptions, you give the other person all the degrees of freedom. You grant them several outs, should they choose to take them; you willfully give up the guilt-trip approach; and you humbly recognize that you are not in a position to judge them.

Let a favor be a favor, not a guilt-tinged, calculated script. A favor freely given is worth vastly more than an extracted behavior.


Rule Number Three: Don’t over-specify the favor. “Would you consider writing a review on Amazon?” is a perfectly reasonable statement. Asking that my review contain five stars is just insulting: it implies either that my ratings are for sale, or that I needn’t read the book to determine its value, both of which rankle the would-be favor giver.

“I’m not sure what the right next step would be, but would you mind having a look at Joseph’s resume?” That’s fine.  Compare it to, “I’d appreciate it you’d take Joseph’s phone call and meet with him, just for a half hour or so.” That’s over the line.

(A tour guide on the canal in Bruges, Belgium, after a delightful ride, said to me, “May I remind you the ten-franc tip is not included in the admission price.”).


Rule Number Four: Treat it like a big deal.  Because presumably it is. Which means, you won’t often ask it unless you’ve earned some favors in the favor bank already (see Rule Number One).

And if you have earned some favors – say so. You want to convey very clearly words to the effect of, “I value our relationship; it is strengthened by our mutual collaboration and reciprocal favor-doing. I don’t ask this favor lightly – and I don’t want you to treat it lightly. If you agree you can return this favor to me – or do this favor and I’ll owe you big-time – then we will be that much closer going forward. That’s how I look at this favor; how about you?”

Of course, those are not the words you’ll use; you’ll use words that are right for you.  But they’d better convey that kind of intent.


A favor asked and given is an invitation to a deeper relationship. Don’t be cheap in granting favors; and don’t be promiscuous in asking for them.

Referrals, references, recommendations; all follow another “R” word – reciprocity. What you give, you get. What you don’t give, you won’t get. To get, give. Pay it forward isn’t some dumb movie line – it’s how it all works.

Finally – a word to those of you still reading who are rolling your eyes upward and saying, “Charlie, you don’t get how ratings are done these days – the agent is just playing the game the way the game works, and you’ve got to play it to be in it.”

  • Yes, that is how the game works – for the masses. But being like everyone else is inherently un-strategic; you succeed only in failing to differentiate yourself.
  • And no, you don’t have to play that game to be in it.  The Trusted Advisor, to my knowledge, never once made it to the top of the best-seller list – any best-seller list.  And yet – sixteen years after it was published – it still ranks about #5,000 on Amazon on any given day. Not bad for a business book up against Harry Potter and Fifty Shades of Gray. I’ll take 16 years in the #5,000 slot any day of the week against a one-shot “number one” ranking. Which is all the ‘game’ does for you.

Really being “in it” means consistently playing a long-term game of substantive favors given and favors received. That’s the only game ultimately worth playing.

Does Your Customer Trust You? The Acid Test

Most salespeople will agree—there is no stronger sales driver than a customer’s trust in the salesperson. And, I suggest, the best way to be trusted is to be trustworthy—worthy of trust. You can’t fake it.

Is it possible to know if your customer trusts you? Is there one predictor of customer trust? Is there a single factor that amounts to an acid test of trust in selling?

I think there is. It’s contained in one single question. A “yes” answer will strongly suggest your customers trust you. A “no” answer will virtually guarantee they don’t.

The question is this:

Have you ever recommended a competitor to one of your better customers?

If the answer is “yes”—subject to the caveats below—then you have demonstrably put your customer’s short-term interests ahead of your own. This indicates low self-orientation and a long-term perspective on your part (I’m assuming sincerity), and is a good indicator of trustworthiness.

If you have never, ever, recommended a competitor to a good customer, then either your product is always better than the competition for every customer in every situation (puh-leeze), or—far more likely—you always shade your answers to suit your own advantage. Which says you always put your interests ahead of your customers’. Which says, frankly, you can’t be trusted.

Here are the caveats: don’t count “yes” answers if:

a. The customer was trivially important to you
b. You were going to lose the customer anyway
c. You didn’t even offer a product in the category
d. You figured the competitive product was terrible and you’d deep-six them by recommending them.

The only fair “yes” answer is one in which you honestly felt that an important customer would be better served in an important case by going with a competitor’s offering.

If that describes what you did, and it is a fair reflection of how you think about customer relationships in general, then I suspect your customers trust you.

If not—well, then why should they? Would you?