Should you ask for referrals from your clients? For some professional services providers this is not even a question they consider. Conventional wisdom from the popular business press demands that you ask all your clients on a regular basis. To not do so would be akin to marketing malpractice.

One of my partners recently circulated an e-newsletter article by Michael Katz that raised a relevant argument to the contrary. He likened asking your professional services clients for referrals to asking someone to set you up with their sister — uncomfortable, pushey and even “a bit creepy.”

Katz makes a great point. For many professional services providers the relationship is one of trust, confidentiality, and even discretion. To ask your client for a referral under those conditions seems to show a fundamental insensitivity to your client's feelings. Other colleagues around our office countered that one does not need to ask for a list of names and addresses of possible new clients to encourage the referral process.

Our recent study of professional services buyers sheds some light on the topic. Most referrals (about 60%) are made in response to a friend or colleague asking for a referral (for example, “Do you know of a good IT firm?”). The remaining referrals (about 40%) are made by a satisfied client bringing it up in the context of a discussion (such as “You should hire a professional facilitator for your planning session. I'll give you the name of the person we used. She was fabulous.”). What about referrals driven by a request from the professional service provider themselves? Almost nonexistent.

Whether you ask for referrals really depends on your circumstances. Asking for a referral is all about you. In certain situations it can come across as selfish — even damage a good relationship for very little gain. In other client relationships, however, establishing a mutual referral partnership can be a great benefit to all involved.

My opinion? If you aren't comfortable asking for a referral, it's probably not a smart move.