It doesn’t really matter who you are, where you live, or what you do for a living — the odds are, a large portion of your ongoing success is going to boil down to your ability to generate a consistent stream of quality referrals from your network.

As a job seeker, personal referrals are vital to helping you get a foot in the door before positions get advertised, as well as in helping you secure some “special consideration” even after an opportunity has been announced to the public at large.  And if you’re a business owner or consultant, instead, referrals will almost certainly be the lifeblood of your business development efforts, and your success will be heavily dependent on your ability to convert each satisfied client into a series of additional leads and prospects.

In light of this reality, I thought I’d take a moment to pass along five tips that might be helpful to those of you out there who are somewhat new to the networking game.  These tips derive from the hundreds of successful (and unsuccessful) networking interactions I witness among my client base each month — as well as through my own business development efforts — and I feel strongly that adopting these principles will help almost anybody increase the number of quality referrals they generate on a regular basis.

1)  Entitlement is out

First of all, more than anything else, I’d emphasize that nobody “owes” anybody referrals — so don’t ever pressure your contacts for names or act like you’re entitled to dive-bomb their Rolodex!  Even when people pay for some of the high-end programs I offer, which cost a thousand dollars or more, I make it absolutely clear up front that people are paying for advice, not introductions.  Relationships, whether mine or yours, are far too precious to be exploited or taken lightly.  They require huge infusions of time, energy, and trust to build, yet can be destroyed overnight through a single bad referral or an introduction that goes awry.  So if you’re running around out there projecting even an ounce of entitlement in this respect, ditch it, and focus instead on “earning” quality introductions from those around you.

2)  Provide a compelling reason for the introduction

Another critical networking factor a lot of people overlook is that in many cases, even between two people who know each other well, the success of a referral isn’t automatic.  In many cases, your contact may need to “sell” the connection to a certain extent and explain why they’re passing your name along; otherwise, the introduction will seem random and the person on the receiving end will be less motivated to respond.  So if you were to come to me and ask for a referral, for example, I’d need to have a crystal-clear answer to the question “Why you, and why them?” in order to feel 100% comfortable moving forward.  What relevant reason can I pass along to my contact to get them excited to meet with you? What’s the relevance between your background and their wants, needs, or expertise?

There’s a world of difference, in other words, between somebody asking “Can you introduce me to your contact at The Gates Foundation?” and “Can you introduce me to your contact at the Gates Foundation, because I see that they’re working on an initiative there that is highly similar to one that I tackled for my last company…”

By helping your contacts in this capacity, and painting a clear picture about your reasons for requesting a particular referral, to a particular individual, you’ll get far better results.  All involve will benefit and it will make it much easier for folks to pass your name along and tee things up properly for success.  Frankly, too, this is also the reason I use the setting on LinkedIn that allows one to “hide” their contacts from casual browsing.  While people are still able to find anybody I may know in the system, and request an introduction, they need to do this using a specific “People Search” on the site (so they know what they’re looking for) instead of just flipping through a list of my contacts, at random, seeking targets of opportunity.

3)  Get coached on the right approach

When somebody offers to make an introduction, you should always ask them what method of contact would be most convenient and appropriate for the situation.  Would they be willing to call or e-mail the person on your behalf?  Would they prefer that you initiate things, instead?  Would going through a site like LinkedIn make sense, under the circumstances?  Different people have different preferences when it comes to communicating, so ask your contact to “coach” you on what method of approach will work best.  They are in a much better position than you are to know whether the referral target is somebody who lives and dies by e-mail — is a social networking site junkie — or is somebody who prefers the immediacy of a phone call.

As for myself, I almost always recommend the usage of LinkedIn when I make referrals, assuming that the two people in question are both linked to me on the system.  Not only does this put the ball in the court of the person requesting the favor to initiate things, but I also believe this approach warms the introduction up, since both parties can read each others’ profiles and get to know each other a little bit before the connection occurs.  Additionally, when an introduction request comes through LinkedIn, you know for absolute certain that the referring party is genuinely sponsoring the intro (since they have to approve it first) and you can also read whatever notes they attach to the message, explaining the reasons behind the referral.

4)  Forgive those who forget

Even the best of us make promises, at times, and then forget to carry them out.  Or we offer to facilitate an introduction, then procrastinate around it for weeks, until we get a nudge that tells us we need to make the referral a priority again.  So you should expect, in advance, that this is going to happen to you a few times during the course of your job search or business development efforts.

The key in these situations is to not get angry or take things personally, but to make a point to gently remind people, if necessary, that you’re still very interested in being granted the favor that they had initially offered.  Give them a few days to come through for you, and if no action seems to take place, touch base with them and tell them again how thankful you’d be if they could make the connection that you had talked about with them earlier.  Don’t embarrass them, don’t give them a guilt trip, and don’t imply that they’ve let you down in any way.  If anything, go the extra mile to make it as easy as possible for them to comply with your request.  Tell them that you’d be happy to call the person yourself, if they’re too busy, or to e-mail along some further thoughts or reasons as to why you think the connection would be highly productive.

5) Don’t get greedy; start with one solid referral and ace it!

Have you ever heard the old saying “pigs get fat and hogs get slaughtered?”  When it comes to networking, you definitely don’t want to be perceived as a hog.  While people can certainly feel free to offer you multiple contacts of their own accord, it’s somewhat impolite to ask for more than one referral at a time, yourself — especially when you’re networking with people you’ve only known for a limited period of time.

So my advice when seeking referrals is to start by trying to earn one solid introduction from each of the people you know, and when that happens, make sure to pull out all the stops to “ace” the referral and convince them you’re a worthy person with whom to share additional names.  In terms of specific behaviors, this means that you should respect (i.e. not waste) the referral person’s time, be clear about your objectives, express gratitude for their help, and follow up with all parties, appropriately, to communicate the status of the referral discussion — as well as your ongoing appreciation.

At the end of the day, great networkers do whatever it takes to make the people they know look like superstars for passing their names along, and this creates both an unbeatable positive feedback loop and an incredibly solid platform for success, whether you’re a professional in transition or an aspiring entrepreneur!