The Cost of Unfriendly Referrals

devil in disguiseYour dear lifelong friend thinks so highly of you and your business offerings, she’s referred you to a friend — someone she adores as much as you.

Isn’t that sweet?

Peachy, even?!

Maybe … maybe not.

Family and friends already know, like, and trust you (let’s face it, they love you) so it’s natural for them to want to send business your way.

There’s no denying word of mouth advertising can’t be beat. 

It’s the proverbial cream that rises to the top.

When you treat your clients and/or customers right, you’ll be setting yourself up for loads of repeat business and a business model built on gloriously cherished (and highly valuable) referrals.

But what if …

Your best buddy in the whole world refers you to the devil in disguise?  The client from hell?  The irritating thorn-in-the-side customer who’s bringing sleep deprivation and indigestion into your life?

You know, that illustrious friend of a friend.

Let’s just call these folks “unfriendly referrals”.  (Or maybe better stated as “friendly fire”) 

Ouch

At this point, shooting yourself in the foot would be considerably less painful than dealing with this person.

Take on a few more referrals like this and you’ll be “Vacationing in Burnout-ville”.

So how do you handle this ugly and uncomfortable situation?

You certainly don’t want to burn any bridges with your lifelong friend, right?  Are you willing to risk the possibility of hurting a beloved friendship by unleashing this nightmare of a referral?

I hope you’re not waiting for an answer because I don’t have one. 

It’s up to you to figure out what to do if you find yourself in this predicament. After all, it’s your business.

Worth mentioning …

If your physical or emotional well being is suffering, it may not matter how much an “unfriendly referral” is adding to your bottom line. 

When frustration outweighs dollars and cents, the cost of hanging on to your friend’s friend may be substantial.

“Out With The Trash And In With The Treasures” is my poetic viewpoint on this topic.

Referrals can become the lifeblood of your business.  However, your personal relationships can be jeopardized by hastily dismissing challenging (and that’s putting it politely) referrals from family or friends.

What would YOU do?  Do you think there’s a way to service devilish clients or customers and still maintain your sanity?

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This post is part of the Word Carnival — a monthly group blogging event specifically for small business owners. (It’s the most fun you’ll have all month!) Check out the rest of the fabulous carney work here: http://wordcarnivals.thewordchef.com/2013/08/the-ins-and-outs-ups-and-downs-of-biz-referrals/

  • Wow, that would definitely be a predicament to be involved with a client from hell who was referred to you by a close family member or friend. I always tell people I know personally not to refer anyone to me, simply because they probably won’t refer the right people. I just tell them that what I do is so complicated and I help people in a very specific way that most people wouldn’t benefit from my services and I don’t want to make anyone unhappy. Whether that’s true or not, it works. And I get enough referrals from people who have used my services (so they would know if so-and-so could really use (and be happy with) my services 🙂

  • That’s a catching one Melanie. Being between two fires is never a pleasant situation.

    So far I haven’t had that bad experience but it would depend on the real situation. But I think I would cut the drama with that client from hell. After all, no moneys are worth it being in psychological terror. Otherwise that price could be really really high. 😉

    Thanks Melanie for interesting and thought-provoking post.

    ~Dragan

    • Very nice to have you drop in today, Dragan — thanks! 🙂

      Love this line and I AGREE …
      ” … no moneys are worth it being in psychological terror” Well said!!

      Really happy to hear you’ve never been faced with this kind of nightmare.

      Heading over to read your most recent post — sounds great!

  • Hah! So there was me ready to be spoon fed with your answer Melanie 😉 So far, we haven’t been in this situation, luckily but I’m so very glad I passed by because there is a wealth of inspiration here for when we do need it! I’m heading towards Rand’ys solution too.

    • Hi Caroline!

      Randy is a wise owl (no, not an old owl) LOL! His comment is nothing short of award-winning. 🙂

      Happy to hear you haven’t found yourself in this situation. Believe me, it can become one heck of a sticky wicket!

      Thanks for swinging by!

  • Hello Melanie Kissell, I do like & your mind to keep sharing & writing great articles for your readers. I’m also your reader! I saw your last article & that was amazing.

  • Love that you made us think of the answer! Just been hand-balled one of these with a bit of stalking thrown in for good measure! But now that I am coaching not consulting, it has been easier to deal with. I was able to say, this is my program, this is what it costs, I would love to help you but I don’t consult. Unusually tough for me, but you get to a place where you just don’t have hours to waste or time to spend on troubleshooting burnt relationships. I was honest with the referee. So worth thinking about as a conundrum Mel!

    • Love your thoughts on this, Sandy, as well as your solution. 🙂

      You just lay it on the line. Perfect! If someone doesn’t want to purchase your coaching program, no problem. You put the ball in the prospective client’s court. Smart way to play it!

  • Is this like a season finale cliffhanger? Where’s the denouement?

    I haven’t had this happen with close non-work friends but it has happened with colleagues who I also consider friends. If they completely misunderstood what I do (hey Nicole I want to hire you to do my bookkeeping) I explain how that is not part of my services offered and try to help them find alternatives. But the ones who just don’t fit maybe from a chemistry point of view – I’m all ears on ideas to handle it.

    • ” … season finale cliffhanger” — Love it, Nicole! 😉

      Thanks for adding another layer to the conversation. You numbers (biz finances) experts are great at creating columns. LOL!

      I’m with you …
      I consider many of my colleagues as “friends”. They’re not just fellow bloggers or writers or business owners. They’re people I love and genuinely care about — relationships worth working on.

      In case you’re wondering …
      The reason I went this route with this month’s Word Carnival topic is because I’ve witnessed, firsthand, a “referral gone bad” and a long time friendship gone down the drain. I want folks to think long and hard before choosing to work with a friend of a friend. I’m sure loads of those stories have happy endings … but a few end in disaster.

  • Oh man what a cliff hanger!

    I like the different view point you took on referrals here. Solid reminder that it’s not always rainbows and butterflies. And that even referred business means your’e dealing with people – which really means anything can happen.

    • Seems I’ve left my loyal readership standing on the edge of a cliff, Eugene. Not my intention but there’s just no clear-cut solution here.

      TOO TRUE …
      ” … it’s not always rainbows and butterflies”

      Feelings get hurt and sometimes brutally stomped on, human nature is what it is, and no matter how you stack it up … “you’re dealing with people”.

      In general, I believe it’s a bit risky to mesh your personal relationships with those strictly related to business. I know that makes me sound like some hard-nosed, inflexible individual. But nothing could be further from the truth. I’m just a gal who prefers to avoid confrontation and one who places a high value on my friendships.

  • Man, I was totally waiting for an answer there, Melanie. I’ve found the best way to deal with those referrals is to make it clear that:
    a) the rate my friend told them was a one-off discount (and tell them what the real rate is)
    b) give them a client questionnaire so they have to spell out exactly what they want.
    c) request a 50% deposit

    By the end of that process they know what I can do for them and whether they can afford me – and I do too. Of course, I do it very nicely, with profuse thanks to friends for referrals and apologies if I’m unable to help. That also opens the door for letting my friends know a bit more about what I do so the next referral is better.

    • You’ve got it wired, Sharon!

      You and Randy Cantrell should team up. Between the two of you, you could create and sell a special
      “How To” report on this topic. 😉

      I think it’s a very wise practice to have these steps in place when getting referrals from family and friends. Making everything clear as a bell will surely prevent your ears from ringing due to high blood pressure. Offering up “profuse thanks” and “apologies”, when needed, is a nice touch. Keeps you in good graces with those you love. 🙂

  • What, no answer?!?! And I was so waiting for one! I love the idea of an open-ended question. It’s definitely a great way to stir up some conversation and also get some feedback that could be worthwhile!

    This is a super tough place to be because we have gotten plenty of referrals from friends and family. Sometimes they do it to be helpful. Sometimes they have a friend who needs help and they KNOW we would be perfect. The first one is not so bad – you can just say thank you, but this isn’t the right fit. The second kind is dastardly because the referral is more of a “favor” – it’s like they are giving you business and asking your help in return. And that usually comes in the form of extra work or lower rate work or something. I hate to say it, but lots of times I throw that into the “ooooo I would love to but we’re just too busy right now” category. Then you don’t hurt people’s feelings.

    So I guess what I’m saying is…. lie?? Lol… ok, a white lie. You don’t want them to stop referring people necessarily, and they mean well so you don’t want to insult. Also here’s an idea: teach them how to give you better referrals. Tell them who your perfect client is and what you’re looking for so they know when to avoid sending you someone who isn’t good for you.

    • Kudos and accolades for this, Carol Lynn! …

      ” … here’s an idea: teach them how to give you better referrals. Tell them who your perfect client is and what you’re looking for so they know when to avoid sending you someone who isn’t good for you.”

      Works for me. 🙂

      Referrals from those we love can be the proverbial “Six of one, half dozen of the other” syndrome. Your advice to “teach” our friends and family exactly what we’re looking for in a biz referral can make or break the experience and end result. I think it’s well worth the time to fill them in. Otherwise, you’re apt to get referred to white elephants. LOL!

  • Step 1 – I tell them that I’m just not going to be able to serve them as they deserve. Which is true. They deserve poor treatment and I don’t deliver poor treatment. I just don’t tell them all the details. Why muddy the water? It’s the classic “it’s me, not you” deal.

    Step 2 – I refund them all their money. Every last cent. I don’t keep anything. Even if I’m out money, it’s the best money you’ll ever refund.

    Step 3 – I ask them if I can suggest somebody who may be able to better serve them. If they’d like that, I send them to my worse (best?) competitor. Well, actually, I send them to somebody I don’t like. Just for meanness. ‘Cause that’s how I roll.

    Step 4 – I tell the referring friend/family member that I appreciated the lead, but it didn’t work out because somebody else was better suited to help and that I refunded all the money, but helped them find somebody else who could serve them better. It’s called “getting-out-ahead-of-it.” I don’t belabor it or complain or share details. ignorance is bliss for your friend/family member.

    Step 5 – I don’t look back. Close the file and move on.

    Of course, this never happens to me so I’m just talking hypothetically here. 😉

    • Oh, Randy, you’ve made my day!

      Step #3 is a classic and just my style! That’s how I roll, too. 😉

      Even though it’s my understanding this never happens to you (wink-wink), you’ve laid out the PERFECT plan of attack. Er, I mean “resolve”. LOL!

      I’m awarding your brilliant remarks “Comment of The Year”! I don’t think anyone can top your signature genius. 🙂

      • My “genius” came at a high price. My youth and my sanity – both, GONE!!

        • I paid that same high price, Randy, and I just bet we’re not alone!

          Raising four daughters on my own (Do the letters PMS mean anything to anyone here?! I had a house full of it!) caused the loss of my sanity. LOL!

          And I don’t think I ever experienced “youth”. Had to grow up a a very young age. (That story is a whole other Oprah) 😉

  • I have this discussion a lot with my closer friends: “I don’t care if you don’t like me, I have lots of friends that don’t like me. But in order to not like me, you at least have to *know* me.”

    When I get burned by a referral; I always let the buddy know so when it gets back to them, they know how to handle it tactfully. They have their own relationships to maintain. I am honest and up-front with my policies and procedures, my ideal clients; if I get referred to someone who isn’t in the list, or who does something I think is abhorrent, I don’t work with them. I refer ’em down the line.

    In either case, I honor the relationship that means something to me and I let the rest slide. Not worth all the drama to do otherwise 😀

    • Bingo, Nick! And I agree — it’s “not worth all the drama”.

      Life is tough enough … and business can be a whole lot tougher.

      I like how you would go back to your buddy and help him/her to understand how to handle this situation “tactfully”. That shows me you truly value your friendships. Instead of just reporting back with, “Gee, thanks for the good-for-nothing-pain-in-the-ass referral”, you give your friends tools to work with to ease the discomfort.

      The message I hear most often from my gut is to steer clear from working with friends of friends. I know that immediately cuts off my chances of possibly getting some awesome referrals. But I’ll take my chances and work on getting referrals from other sources.

      Love your message in this month’s Word Carnival post!! 🙂

  • What, no answer?!?! And I was so waiting for one! This is a super tough place to be because we have gotten plenty of referrals from friends and family. Sometimes they do it to be helpful. Sometimes they have a friend who needs help and they KNOW we would be perfect. The first one is not so bad – you can just say thank you, but this isn’t the right fit. The second kind is dastardly because the referral is more of a “favor” – it’s like they are giving you business and asking your help in return. And that usually comes in the form of extra work or lower rate work or something. I hate to say it, but lots of times I throw that into the “ooooo I would love to but we’re just too busy right now” category. Then you don’t hurt people’s feelings.

  • Thankfully, I’ve not ever had to deal with this particular situation. Crazy clients, yes. But not ones that came as a referral from a close friend or family member.

    I think what’s important to remember is that we’re all human. And communication is key to any solid relationship. If someone becomes your client and then they turn into a nightmare, the best course of action is to gently and respectfully let the person know (the one who made the referral) that it’s not a good fit for you. I’m pretty sure they’d understand that you aren’t built to serve everyone.

    • Happy to know you’ve never had to deal with this type of scenario, Tea. Most likely because you have parameters in place — specific and clear guidelines you stick to regarding referrals. You are one smart cookie, for sure! 🙂

      By the way, your “5-Star Referrals” post is tops! Your list of what you look out for before you’ll refer someone is highly valuable information for biz owners.

  • oooh weee, you hit on something significant there! I have had the similar experience more of a person I referred to help a long-term client. It started out just fine, matter of fact they worked together for over a year, but something happened and it went awry. It actually involved me in a discussion that was not pleasant and I knew from that point, I would no longer refer to her. I had referred this same person to another client, and it did not end well at all either, so I learned my lesson. This is a person that is difficult to deal with anyway, but she is very good at what she does. I just know I cannot refer any more business to her and just keep her at the friendship level…Nice post Melanie!

    • OY, Michelle — really sorry to find out you’ve been down this path. 🙁

      That old adage, “Never do business with family or friends” really makes me think twice about the possible consequences of intertwining personal and business relationships. If things go awry as they did in your tale of woe, you’ll find yourself faced with the unpleasant task of performing “damage control”.

      The positive side of this issue is that, hopefully, we have compassionate friends and family members who understand not every [business referral] story has a happy ending.

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