I can never get a referral to someone else. Perhaps that’s why I can’t get the ball rolling in my job search. What’s the deal with personal referrals?
It’s awkward and intimidating, isn’t it — getting a personal referral? This is a critical challenge in a job search. Once a person has identified a company where they’d like to work, how do they get a personal referral?
This is one reason I started Ask The Headhunter over 20 years ago. Every “expert” will instruct you to “network” and to make actual contact with people, but rarely does anyone explain exactly how. On this website, we’re all about how. Detailed how. How-to-say-it how.
Getting personal referrals: Get ready to say it
I’d like to ask everyone for your input on this. What has worked for you? To whom do you go, and how do you actually say it?
Here’s one path that can lead you to a hiring manager through the recommendation or referral of someone they know and trust. It’s just one path — let’s discuss more!
- Ask yourself, which company do I want to work for and in what area or department? Search online for articles and information about that area. Check the company’s website, newsletters and press releases.
- Identify a product the company produces or a technology it uses (or a marketing method it relies on, etc.). Now you have a legit topic to discuss with an insider.
Personal referrals: Talk shop
Let’s say the company makes blue widgets and they use technology X to make them — state of the art, according to a recent press release! Cool! You’ve been in the widget business for years, but X is kinda new to you.
- What 3 questions do you have about X that would help you understand and possibly apply X? The more esoteric your questions, the better — you’ll be taken more seriously, and you’ll avoid being re-routed to the HR department. HR can’t talk shop. That’s why this works!
(See where this is going? Nobody’s talking about a job here. You’re talking about your work.)
Find the right people to talk with
Now use Google, LinkedIn or any other tool to find someone that works in the aforementioned department.
- Contact them, but not through LinkedIn! Avoid routes that add “noise” — and I mean social media. For example, everyone knows LinkedIn messages are usually spam from people that don’t know you. Find an e-mail address or — wow! — call the company and talk to the person!
- Introduce yourself very briefly. Express your professional interest in X. “I see X has made a huge difference to your product line.”
- Ask for their professional insights and advice.
Ask for insights
The value in any contact lies in what they know, what they think, and in what they’re willing to share with you. What makes this easy is that most people love to talk about their work. They love to tell you about themselves and what they think — if you ask. And they love to give advice.
Do not ask about jobs. Do not talk a lot about yourself. Start by asking for insights.
How to Say It
“I’ve found some online resources about X, but I’m looking for the inside scoop about X and how to use it most effectively. You guys seem to be leading experts on X. Can I ask you for your insights about X?”
“What are you reading that’s influenced the way you use X, or how you design and market your products?”
“Is there a training program you respect and recommend?”
“Who’s the shining light in the field about X?”
Congratulations, you’ve just opened a professional discussion about work you and the other person do — without asking for a job lead. You’re talking shop!
What should I ask?
- If the person responds helpfully, ask questions like these, then be quiet and listen.
How to Say It
“What do you think about that?”
“Can you give me an example?”
“Is there any downside to using X?”
Ask for advice
If the conversation goes well and you find you’re learning something useful, take the next step.
- Let the conversation flow. Do not ask about jobs. Instead, ask for professional advice.
“I’ve been so impressed with X and the products [your company] has created that I’m seriously considering moving to a company in this business. May I ask your professional advice? If you were me, would you pursue this?”
“What companies would you look at if you were me? Which are the shining lights in this business?”
- Then pop the question:
“If I were interested in working at your company, what advice would you give me? I don’t want to start a formal application process with HR. I really want to understand X and the company’s business — nothing proprietary! — before I apply. I want to be able to speak knowledgeably about X and the products first.”
You get the idea.
Get the personal referral
Once you’re talking shop, you’ve made a new friend, so act like a friend. Exchange some useful information about the topics you discussed. Offer to return the favor of insight and advice, if your new friend would like that.
- Finally, gently achieve the objective in any friendly networking experience: Get the name of the next person you need to talk with. Yes — this is another personal referral! You will likely get a chain of them. Follow it.
“Do you like working in this field? Before I think about making the leap, can you tell me what the management is like?”
“I’d like to learn more. Is there someone specific you’d recommend I talk with?”
Don’t forget to ask if it’s okay to say who suggested you get in touch.
This where personal referrals come from: talking shop with people who do the work you want to do, in the companies where you want to do it. Of course, not every discussion will lead where you’d like to go — to a hiring manager. But all you need is one successful exchange, one chain of personal referrals. Handle this with some poise, and every exchange you have will add to your list of professional friends. (See “A Good Network is A Circle of Friends” in How Can I Change Careers?, pp. 27-32.)
Sure beats filling out job applications and spamming “contacts” on LinkedIn.
These are just my suggestions about how to cultivate personal referrals to get a job. I hope to find loads more in the Comments section below!
Who would you approach to get on the path to a personal referral, and how would you say it? What has worked (and not worked!) for you?