Why no one will help you pt.2

In 2006, I wrote an entry explaining why people won’t help you (and a part two of sorts). It was about why we don’t want to give referrals to people we don’t know. It was true but rather one sided. There’s another reason we won’t. That’s what this is about.

Our reputations can take a hit in two ways when we make a referral. First is if you louse it up. You make us look bad to our colleagues and they come back and say lose my number, you pick crappy customers. The second way is if our colleague louses it up and makes us look bad to the people we referred to them. This is devastating. I don’t know which one is worse.

Here’s today’s example: My friend Andrea has been going through a crummy situation with her ex-sales rep, can’t be more specific than that. Everything started out great, but over a period of months, the situation deteriorated over time. While times were still good, Andrea recommended that another friend of hers hire this rep too. Even I have recommended this rep and even defended her when the first symptoms of her malfeasance came up. Anyway, the rep burnt Andrea’s friend too. So Andrea is being forced to deal with not only her problem but her friend’s problem too.

Here’s some reasons behind why we don’t want to make a referral even if we think you are on the up and up:

We lose credibility with you, it matters to us what you think even if you’re not a customer. We don’t care if no one else ever learns of it, it’s enough that we each know. Crispy as we are, providing a referral can become too much risk to take another chance. We want to help you, not hurt you.

We lose credibility with ourselves. We begin to question our own judgment, our level of self-trust. We take an inventory of our contacts, refiltering them through the lens of this bad experience, who can we still trust?

When you do this inventory, you worry about lag time. Sometimes you make a referral or endorsement of someone that turns out bad. What’s the legacy of that? How many people read or saw that? They don’t check back in with you to see if all is still well. I used to think very highly of one of my DEs, known her for years, a real advocate of people like her. She’s been grand. Then a couple of months ago, she entered a contest and asked us to vote for her. No problem, the winner is whoever has the biggest social network, I get it. A week later, she emails us all again. This time she asks us to vote down her competitors so she’ll score better comparatively. That made me very sad.

Then, it’s rarely over. A bad referral is like an infestation of cockroaches, it seems you’ll never get rid of them. You don’t know what the bad actor will do while you’re trying to extricate yourself (or your friend) from the situation. Will they go whacko or passive aggressive on you or your friend? I’ve certainly had that happen. How do you manage hits to your integrity -especially if they aren’t justified? Hopefully you can just ignore them, not dignifying their actions with a response.

How do we exercise damage control? Do we publicize our bad judgment? It’s really not the loss of face, the real concern is preventing other people from getting hurt. It’s like a recall only it’s personal, not a product. A product recall, onerous as they are, is easy. Obviously, the only sure way to avoid this is to not make referrals but neither party is happy with that for long.

So how does bad judgment happen? I think a lot of it has to do with establishing rapport. In the process of developing relationships with our colleagues, we begin to presume someone is like us even if we don’t know that for sure. We graft our values onto people we get along with.

In the end, failing to provide referrals can say more about us than it does you or anything you may be doing. Our flawed, imperfect and selfish selves. I’m sorry about that. Sad too.

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7 comments

  1. Brina says:

    Not in the fashion world, but I’ve had people I have just met or people I’m a connection or two away from on say Linked-In want to be part of my ‘social network’ or work with me on some project and I know nothing about them. One person was offended because she felt that her position was enough information for me to work with her. The other person–who wanted a social network connection with me sent me a long e-mail explaining that everyone does what she does–basically trying to shame me into connecting with her–but it did not work. In the same way I’m not one bad mouth someone–partly because in the same way that Kathleen says that none of us can guarantee that you’ll have a good experience with someone–my bad experience doesn’t necessarily mean that for you either. That’s why I think it’s good to talk about experiences in concrete terms–what happened and how it happened etc. so that people can make up their own mind about what would work for them.

  2. Dawn B says:

    I never assume that the referer is in any way responsible for the experience I have with the 3rd party. It is still my responsibility to check out the 3rd party, see if that contact is a good fit with my business, and proceed with my own degree of caution.
    In turn, I think passing on a referral is still a good courtesy for someone who asks, if you have some degree of respect for the person asking. And if they came back to me and said, “hey that person you referred me to was crappy,” I would feel their pain but not feel responsible for the outcome.
    Every business person is still responsible for doing their own due diligence and forging their own relationships. We should support one another. That doesn’t extend to babysitting.

  3. Miracle says:

    I never assume that the referer is in any way responsible for the experience I have with the 3rd party.

    When people get to a position of authority and respect, in an industry or among their peers, there is a certain amount of “weight” their referral has, which can be an influential factor in someone making a decision to use a service provider (or not). And even when performing due diligence, part of that, clearly, is asking for feedback of others that have conducted business with that company or person.

  4. Kathleen says:

    Hi Dawn, I agree with you but also Miracle in that there’s different types of referrals. Peer to peer, peer to more experienced practitioner, and peer to service provider or consultant. There’s more gravity in the latter referral because our currency, the capital we have at our disposal to leverage on your behalf (and why people hire us) is the currency of trust in relationships we’ve developed. I mean, I do not accept funds to make referrals, I don’t believe the currencies are equivalent (money cannot buy trust) so referrals are not a negotiable instrument. However, I will make referrals as part and parcel of providing consulting work and people presume the value of my relationships -as well they should. Peer to peer is more of an information sharing strategy, I would definitely presume a greater level of due diligence is required but if you’re paying someone to guide you in a matter, one presumes their burden of due diligence is lightened. That’s why you pay us.

    What I mean to say is that this entry was attempting to address the matter of people in a position to provide services, as referrers rather than peer to peer.

  5. This is a really interesting post, Kathleen. I’ve always found hiring staff at the store to be a difficult problem- most of the candidates have no self-motivation and there is a high turnover in that field because they could leave one job to another one that pays a little more without giving you much notice period. Still, I do place a lot of importance on referrals and I even pay a recruitment agency to filter candidates and send them my way. Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t. At that level there’s a lot to be desired when it comes to basic ethics.

    In cases where I have to recommend people, in the beginning I used to be like you- scared to make a recommendation because I wouldn’t be sure who would screw it up. Most of my recommendations are to do with putting other designers or retailers in touch with textile craftsmen. But now I just have to assume that other parties will do their own homework and sort of judge for themselves if they can work together. The last thing I want to do is to not introduce people when in fact things might work out really well for them.

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