Four Steps to Using LinkedIn as a Referral Tool

Welcome to Andy Lopata, our contributing writer and friend from England. Described as “one of Europe's leading business networking strategists” by The Financial Times, Andy Lopata FPSA works internationally with global brands to help them make the most of their networks. He is the author of three books on networking and a Fellow of The Professional Speaking Association.

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Based on the Six Degrees of Separation Theory, LinkedIn helps users to see how they can connect with other members through mutual networks. Put simply, if you want to be introduced to someone else who is a member of LinkedIn, the site shows you the people you know who are connected to that person.

Six Degrees of Separation suggests that we are no more than five steps from anyone in the World. LinkedIn works on the first three degrees. You can see your network through the site. You can also get linked to your network’s connections and even to another level beyond that.

That is a very powerful tool if used properly and can allow you to ask for, and receive, important introductions.

In this article I want to share with you the four simple steps to take to use LinkedIn as a Referral Tool. While there is plenty of other functionality on LinkedIn, and many ways to get value from the site, these four steps are all you need to know to get started and to get referred.

Not only are these steps simple to follow, once the initial work is done they should not take much time. If you have concerns about the time you have to spend online with sites like LinkedIn, think again. You could spend ten minutes a day, or even ten minutes a week on the site and get powerful referrals for your business. How much time could that small investment save you elsewhere?

The steps I am going to outline are all available under the free membership category on LinkedIn. There is additional functionality available for paying members, but that doesn’t affect the advice I’m going to share with you here.

Step One – Complete your Profile

If you receive a referral from a connection on LinkedIn, where is the first place your new connection is going to visit to find out about you? If the referral takes place through LinkedIn, they will visit your profile first.

That’s why you must spend some time getting your profile right. It’s not just a question of ticking the right boxes and putting in basic information. This is your opportunity to sell yourself. If a potential client is going to make a decision on whether or not they are interested in meeting you based on your profile, what do they need to see there?

Here are a few things you may want to consider when writing your profile:

Step Two – Build Your Network

The first thing to note is that this is step two, not one. If you are going to connect with people you may not have seen for a while, just like your prospects the first place they will look is your profile. So get that right first before moving onto this stage.

Building your network is an important part of using LinkedIn to generate referrals, but it’s not simply a question of ‘size matters’ here. ‘LinkedIn Open Networkers’, who build their networks as large as possible on the basis that this increases the number of connections they have, might disagree with me. But I believe you need to restrict your connections to people you know, like and trust if you are looking for referrals.

There’s a simple rule of thumb for me. If you approached someone and asked them to introduce you to a trusted contact, would they be happy to do so? And if they asked you to refer them, how would you feel? If there is any unease, perhaps there is more relationship-building to be done before you connect on LinkedIn.

However, for the site to work effectively for you to generate referrals, you need to build a critical mass. Restricting yourself to ten connections of your nearest and dearest is not going to give you the reach you need for LinkedIn to meet its full potential. On the flip side, trying to work your way through 10,000 connections, with or without the help of the site’s search engine, could make LinkedIn a much less efficient tool.

Use the tools on the site to upload the contacts from your email account. You then will have the opportunity to decide who on the uploaded list you’d like to invite to join you on LinkedIn.

My advice is to ensure all of the connections are unselected first, then go through the list and invite the people who satisfy the relationship criteria I’ve discussed above. I wouldn’t advise sending invitations to people who aren’t already members of LinkedIn without checking with them first. By this stage they are probably tired of all of the invitations they’ve received.

You will find that you will start getting more and more connection requests from people you don’t know on LinkedIn. The site suggests people to fellow members who they may know, based on mutual connection, previous correspondence and other factors. Many people simply click ‘connect’ in these cases. I strongly urge you not to do so.

If you do send messages to people to connect, add a personal note to each one. You can change the templates provided by the site. And if you receive invitations from people you don’t know or don’t want to connect to, don’t just delete them. Reply explaining why you don’t want to connect and, if possible, inviting them to connect on another site.

Step Three – The Power of Endorsement

It’s one thing for you to say what you are good at; it’s something else entirely when other people do it for you. LinkedIn, along with a number of other social networks, make it easier than ever to collect endorsements from people who we have worked for and worked alongside.

Look at the people you have connected with and ask yourself who has the right story to tell. You are not looking for people who can say how nice you are or what good fun. You need testimonials that will encourage prospective clients to find out more and accept your connection request.

Ideal testimonials should share the value you bring to the people you work with. Ideally the person giving the testimonial will have faced a challenge you have helped them overcome and can tell the story of how you did that and what benefit they enjoyed as a result.

Linkedin Referral

I’d recommend you asking for a handful of strong testimonials telling the right story rather than masses of testimonials that fail to add any additional value. LinkedIn allows you to ask people to amend testimonials they have written for you before you post them on your profile, don’t be afraid to ask them to do this.

You need the testimonials you do publish to each have the right impact. Your prospective connections won’t read each and every testimonial posted unless you have a handful, so each one has to count.

Just because people give you a testimonial, don’t feel obliged to give one in return. You may not have experienced their services in the same way, especially if they were clients of yours, and your testimonial may not add the same value to their profile. Additionally, many people are sceptical if they see two parties exchanging testimonials with each other. They begin to doubt their authenticity.

Step Four – Searching for Connections

You now have a profile that will engage, people who will connect you and the third party endorsement to back up your claims. You are ready to look for referrals.

There are two main ways I look for referrals on LinkedIn.

The first is to simply look at the network of your connections. LinkedIn allows you to see the networks of the people you have connected to, as long as they haven’t chosen to hide it (and why would you if you only connect to people you trust?).

One word of reassurance. You can’t see the networks of people you are not directly connected to; therefore they in turn can’t see your network.

You’re unlikely to want to trawl through everyone in the network of each of your connections. The larger your network the more of a chore this could be. But if you have identified someone who would be happy to refer you, or someone has offered their help, you have the opportunity to see who they know and how they might best be able to help you.

The more efficient route is to search for connections. Using LinkedIn’s search fields you can look for people by name, company, job title or location. If you want to meet someone in Marketing at Ford within 50 miles of London, then search using those terms.

linkedin search

Running the exact search above has just given me 35 results of people who satisfy the criteria. I can reach out to 23 of them through my existing connections. Within those 23 may well be the person I need to speak to if I want to work with Ford.

If you have a connection to them, alongside each name will be a blue circle. Inside the circle it will either say 1st, 2nd, 3rd or Group. That means that you either are already connected to that person (1st), know someone who is (2nd), know someone who knows someone who is (3rd) or are in the same LinkedIn group as them.

linkedin referral request

If they are a 2nd degree connection, you can click below to see who you know who can introduce you. If they are a third degree connection, click on ‘Get Introduced’ and it will tell you which of your connections can provide the next link in the chain.

Asking for the Referral

Once you understand how you can connect with someone, it just remains for you to ask for the introduction. You can either do this by picking up the phone and asking your contact direct, or you can ask through the site.

One of the biggest problems when we ask for referrals is that we are not in control of the conversation that takes place when the referral is made. All we can do is educate our advocate well and hope that they are able to repeat the message well enough to spark some interest in our prospective client.

On LinkedIn we can manage the initial approach much more effectively, by writing it ourselves. When we ask for an introduction we are asked to write two messages. One is to the person we are asking to pass on the connection. If they are then passing it through someone else in their network, they will write their own personal message to them.

The other message we write is to the person we want to be connected to. This can be seen by all of the links in the chain, allowing them to decide whether they are happy to forward it.


Think carefully about both messages before you write them, particularly the one to your prospective client. What is going to make them want to reply? Will the person, or people passing on the referral be comfortable passing it on?

I once received a request to connect someone in my network with a celebrity chef in the network of someone else I knew. The message they asked me to pass on was “If you ever need someone to look at your pension arrangements, give me a call”.

Suffice it to say, I didn’t pass on the connection.

So there you have four simple steps to asking for referrals on LinkedIn. Once you have put the groundwork in place and have a strong profile, network and testimonials, it’s just up to you to ask. Sadly, that’s where most people fall down.

Do you have a list of companies or industries you’d like more work in? Then try it out now. Search for people in those areas on LinkedIn and, as long as you have a fairly strong network, you may be surprised at how connected you are.

What difference would it make to your business if you spent just ten minutes a week asking for such connections, from people who would be happy to pass them on?