Filtering referrals

Today, I give myself a little permission to wander and reminisce.

Where possible, I think most of us prefer to select vendors and providers by referrals. There’s only one problem with that: motive.

Many years ago, I served in the trenches of the IBM/Microsoft War as the rough equivalent of a corporal. I did this in downtown Bellevue, Washington, about five miles from the Microsoft campus in Redmond. It was easy to tell a fully vested Microsoft guy, because he was likely to come in looking like hell, spend a few thousand dollars at whatever price you quoted, and do wonders for your numbers. I made $500 per month plus 15% of the gross profit on whatever I sold, which meant that if my margin (profit) stayed good and I had a good December, $30K per year was achievable enough. Like most sales-driven organizations, the sales staff ran the store, and functioned as the default executive committee. Whoever generated the most money for the company had the most say. As I look back, it was a sign of the owner’s wisdom that he took such good care of the non-commissioned support staff. Had he not done so, we would have been tyrants.

The owner was an American success story. As I understood the history, his family had fled the Chinese mainland for Taiwan with the Kuomintang when the Nationalists lost the Chinese Civil War to the Communists. They had killed his father. The family had emigrated to the United States, where young Chang Te-Lung–whom I would know as just ‘Telung’–became a Hoosier, and a Boeing electrical engineer. As he would remind me now and then, Mr. Chang had been an American citizen longer than I had. Sometime in the early days of the PC revolution, he and his wife Mei-O had started a retail PC business, which had grown through a combination of hard work and Mr. Chang’s technical understanding of electronics. By the time he hired me, I think he had about twenty-five employees, nine of whom were sales staff.

Mr. Chang had some eccentricities, including a certain amount of preachiness about his Buddhist beliefs, and was a man of his times in terms of mild general prejudices, but he was also a hell of a businessman and a fundamentally good man. When I decided it was time for me to move on, he offered to list my reason for leaving as ‘position eliminated,’ so that I could collect unemployment. Later, when I became a bookkeeper and began paying payroll taxes, I understood that this had been a very generous gesture on his part. Mr. Chang has passed on in recent years, and I miss him. I learned about a third as much from him as I would have had I been more mature and less selfish, but even that third made a difference.

In those days, for me, referrals had far less to do with “This provider provides excellent products and/or services” and more often meant “I see an opportunity to send some business this provider’s way.” You might say that I tended to be in referral debt, and was always trying to find ways to catch up. Now I’m in the same position, fielding the same referrals. I am gearing up to sell a house. Everyone I know has an agent s/he wants me to call. Almost none of those I have called have impressed me; most have just chanted the usual fifteen minutes of real estate bullshit, then seemed irritated when I asked anything of substance.

It was immature, certainly. I should have made referrals based only upon my perception of the person’s best interest seeking goods or services. And nowadays, in more mature years, I do. I learned yesterday that a typesetter has completely jacked around a client of mine. When you demand advance payment before releasing inferior work, full of mistakes, you do bad business. I don’t even know this typesetter’s full name yet, but I can tell you two things:

  • Nearly every new client asks me where to go for typesetting. I need capable typesetters to whom I may refer clients.
  • I will make sure I get her full name, so I make sure never to send anyone to her. She has also tarnished the name of her referrer.

That also is part of the dance: referrals reflect back.

So, the moral here is this: when someone tries to refer you to a friend, take a look at who that someone is. Is s/he in sales? If so, is s/he in a mode of needing to make sure one hand washes the other, in a way that could mean that s/he made the referral simply because they are in the same Leads Club (every Tuesday morning at Denny’s)? If so, then it’s questionable. Because with certain people in certain economic situations, it’s not disinterested. My home inspector tried to steer me to a listing agent. I heard nothing from that agent that would make me see why I should be impressed. I do know for sure that home inspectors get a lot of referrals from agents, and this inspector won’t get the chance to make any more money from me in life, so he must look to those from whom he can. That’s why the referral. It has nothing to do with actual endorsement of a blowhard part-timer who can’t even mail a damn business card when asked.

Have a great Christmas Eve, and remember: a lot of folks tonight will turn keys in cars when not in condition to drive. I hope that the ‘Lancer’s faithful will not be among them. Be safe, and ride only with those who also be safe.


2 thoughts on “Filtering referrals”

  1. Thanks Jonathan. Enjoyed the thoughts and appreciated the kind words about my dad. I miss him everyday. I wish you the best in life and health.


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