Researchers used the Perception Analyzer tool to evaluate referral language

How to talk about referrals

What if you could monitor your client’s emotions as you spoke with them about referrals. Then you could know, word by word, what you say that makes them feel good and what annoys or even angers them. You could try different conversations and learn to say just what makes them feel best and maximizes the likelihood that they will refer. What would you do if someone created a system to measure that?

It turns out someone has.

In The West Wing episode “100,000 Airplanes”, White House Communications Director Sam Seaborn and political consultant Joey Lucas watch a screen monitoring real-time voter reaction to a speech from President Bartlet. They track lines that rise as people react positively to some of the President’s statements, and drops as they react negatively. By analyzing listeners’ emotional state in response to each statement, they can craft a message that will drive voter approval.

There’s real science behind that and it uses a tool called Perception AnalyzerÒ. Consumer research firm Maslansky + Partners, turned those devices on a group of high net worth individuals and read them common approaches to asking for referrals. By measuring the emotional reactions to the statements as participants heard them, researchers discovered how you can talk about referrals in a way that actually makes clients feel good.

The methodology involved subjects listening to statements and turning a dial up or down depending on how what’s being said makes them feel. The dial starts in the neutral position and turning it registers a score from zero to 100. Neutral is fifty. Higher numbers are good and lower bad. The subject holds the dial and turns it one way or the other while listening.

Maslansky researchers working with Invesco Global Consulting read the standard lines many advisors are taught to say and recorded the reactions. They found that specific words and types of statements create consistent and sometimes strong feelings within clients as you say them.

First they tested the classic “I get paid two ways” approach. As the high net worth subjects listened to the referral pitch, their reactions drifted from 50 downward, eventually landing on 40. Not awful but mildly annoyed. Even if it is not a big drop, how likely is a client to search their memory and make a valuable introduction if that’s how they feel?

Next they tried the “elite” pitch. As in “I only work with a select group of people and one of the benefits is that you get to gain admission for friends you would like to recommend.” Although couched as an offer or a privilege, test subjects did not perceive it as a benefit. The approach provoked a strongly negative reaction, taking the meter down to 30 – from neutral into anger.

By carefully testing different approaches, the team gradually worked out language that works. Here are the principles.

  • Don’t put your client on the spot. Demanding a response by asking a question creates discomfort, even resentment.
  • Let clients know that while you appreciate referrals you would never pressure them to give you any.
  • Communicate a problem you see that potentially compromises other people.
  • Make an offer for people the client cares about.
  • Leave it for the client to take action if and when they find an opportunity.

Statements that increased positive feelings indicated by a score above 65 crossed over the “sales point” – a level where people were disposed to take positive action. Statements constructed using these principles generated a score over 70. While clients may not recommend friends on the spot, this approach put clients in the most likely frame of mind to make a referral.

Maslansky and Invesco have proven what we have known for some time – putting pressure on clients to hand over friends and family hurts your relationship. It serves your purposes and not theirs – and clients can tell.

Share the problems you see people exposed to and invite them to recommend people who would benefit from finding a solution. Articulate the specifics of how you can help. Connect your services to those solutions and invite clients to share word of it to people they care about.

It may not generate introductions when convenient for you, but it is the most likely way to lead to them consistently.

That’s the productive way to talk about referrals.


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  1. CBNovember 8, 2021

    Do you have a link to this study? Would be interested in digging into more depth and seeing the results printed out.

  2. Stephen WershingNovember 8, 2021

    I apologize I can’t find one. I suspect it was proprietary and not published publicly. But here’s a link to the document used in the presentation:


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