Terms of Art: Referrals -vs- Introductions

By: Lori T. Williams, Owner/Managing Attorney of Your Legal Resource 

I’ve  noticed that people sometimes use the word ‘referral’ when they mean ‘introduction’.  They’ll say, “I’ve got a referral for you, I’ll call you!”  Then when the call comes, they actually have someone in mind they want to introduce me to in another field who they think I might have some business synergy with, or who wants to meet someone in my field.   That’s great, and I appreciate the thought, but I think it is important to use “terms of art” correctly.  A referral and an introduction are not the same thing.

A referral is a potential client for your product or service.

An introduction is a connection to someone who could one day be a referral partner, a client, or a nice human being you might enjoy meeting one day.

I’m careful to make email introductions that clearly state why I’m connecting two people.  I’ll email both people at the same time and say something like this:

“Hi Joe and Sally!  I wanted to introduce you to one another, because I think you might have some business synergy.  Joe is a financial advisor who works with families of special needs children. Sally is an estate planning attorney who also works with families of special needs children.  I know the two of you like to meet professionals in one another’s fields, so I thought I’d take this opportunity to connect you with one another.”

Then I provide contact information for each of them, wish them the best, and sign off.

This is effective because it sets the expectation clearly up front.  It’s up to the two of them whether or not they’ll make a relationship. I’ve just made an introduction, and now they both have the potential to form a relationship with a target referral partner.

This is much more effective than if Bob tells me at a networking event that he wants to introduce me to Jim and then goes back to his office and gives Jim my number.  Jim isn’t going to call.  Not because he’s not interested, but because he’s going to get busy and there’s no sense of urgency for him to call me.  If you really think two people might have some business synergy, set it up properly with an introductory email as demonstrated above.

Two other terms I’ve noticed that are misused interchangeably are “support groups” and “networking groups”.

I once posted on a popular social media site the following request:

“Can anyone recommend a Networking Group in SE MI for providers to Special Needs Children or Adults?”

The responses I got back were for names of support group type agencies for special needs patients and families.  While I’m sure those are great resources to have if you are a family in need of those resources, it wasn’t what I was looking for.  I was seeking networking groups where professionals in different industries come together and hopefully cross refer to one another, because they have a common client: special needs families or patients.

A Support group is an organization that exists to support its members in the challenge they are facing.  It could be for individuals and/or their families who struggle with alcohol or substance abuse, or a divorce recovery group, or one that deals with the challenges of chronic illness, etc.

A Networking Group is an organization made up of business people in different industries (or sometimes the same industry), who meet with the hope of beginning a business relationship.  Over time, as the relationship develops (if it develops), they might refer business to one another or purchase the products or services of one another.  The focus is supposed to be on relationship building and learning about the other person, rather than promoting yourself.

Support groups and networking groups are both valuable, just different.  One is essentially a group of consumers with a common need or interest, while the other is a group of business builders looking to cross promote one another and be promoted by one another.

Why is it important to use these terms of art correctly? 

Because of the expectation and impression they create.  If I asked you for a fish and you gave me a fry pan, wouldn’t you be confused and perhaps disappointed?  Both are useful, but it depends on the purpose you are seeking them whether or not they are helpful to you at that time.

People want to be heard, understood, and responded to.  By doing so, you show you care.  But if you respond with something out of left field, what kind of impression does that leave?

Remember, everything you do, don’t do, say, or don’t say adds to or diminishes your brand.  It’s important to get schooled on the basics to be an effective networker and business builder.  We can all learn from one another, both what to do and what not to do.  Being intentional about focusing on the other person’s needs, using these terms of art correctly, and really listening to others will go a long way towards branding you as a caring professional.


  1. Do you struggle with getting or giving referrals?  If so, describe a typical scenario that you’d like some help or feedback about. 
  2. Describe a situation when someone left a really good impression on you, either at a networking event or as a service provider.  Note what it was that made them stand out, or made you feel heard, understood or responded to. 
  3. Describe a situation when someone left a really bad impression on your, either at a networking event or as a service provider.  Note what it was that caused the disconnect and unpleasant feelings.  (I’ll share one of mine:  someone visibly stepped away from me and changed the expression on his face from a smile to a frown once he realized I was no longer a prospect).

Lori T. Williams

Lori T. Williams is an attorney based in Birmingham, MI, licensed in 1989.  As owner of a legal referral business called Your Legal Resource, PLLC, Lori personally assists individuals and small businesses in need of legal advice or representation in Metro Detroit by connecting them with the right legal specialist to meet their needs.