Over at Duct Tape Marketing, John Jantsch had a good post on How to Frame a Referral Request.
First addressing the barrier of why more referrals aren't requested, Jantsch says:
...I often find people are reluctant to ask straight up for referrals out of a fear of looking needy or infringing in some manner upon the relationship with the client. I think the reason that this fear exists is because of the improper way most people have learned to ask for referrals.
I agree and would like to add that there is also another very major reason professionals are reluctant to ask a customer to refer them: they know the customer realizes they're not presently getting optimal service.
Little slips such as late deliveries, less than desired communication, unexpected billings, etc. add up and without openly addressing and correcting these problems, we know in our hearts that it's not the right time to ask that customer to point a friend our way.
First, face and fix these problems. Though one instance may seem small to you and you might think the client understands or forgives without your asking for it, that isn't necessarily so.
Second, never hesitate to build on the moment a customer offers an unsolicited compliment. "Great work! We really appreciate the way you handled that." to which a perfectly acceptable response might be: "Well, thank you. It's our pleasure. We're glad that you're pleased and hope you will tell others about your positive experience."
Third, employ Jantsch's advice about how to frame an out-of-the-blue referral request (but only if you know the client is very happy with your services!). Here's what he says:
Most business owners position the asking of referrals as a favor to the asker. Kind of like, we need your help. As much as people like to help, there's really no benefit in that kind of ask.
Here's what I mean:
Many businesses try to rationalize asking for referrals by suggesting that they need more clients just like you - this is how I work or if you provide me with referrals I can spend more time working with you. The problem with both of these ways to frame referrals is that they are all about you. I need your help. I work like this.
One of the keys to becoming a referral magnet (actually the key to any marketing message) is to frame it as a benefit. When you are talking to an existing client the benefit of a referral is the opportunity to help that person help a friend or raise their value with a colleague.
So, how could referring you make your client's life better? That's the proper way to start thinking about referrals. Do that, and you will never be afraid to ask a client again.
Now you are not asking your clients for help - you are offering to help them get more of what they want. Use your expertise to make them look good, add value and enhance their status - now that's a winning proposition.