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The Communication Hierarchy – A Major Tool in Generating Referrals

The Communication Hierarchy – A Major Tool in Generating Referrals


By Dr. Jean Norris, Managing Partner at Norton Norris, Inc. and Chairman of the Board, Association for the Advancement of the College Admissions Profession (AACAP)

Everyone knows that gaining a referral from a happy customer or client who sings your praises is a great way to attract new business or prospective students. It just might be the best lead you can get. Wouldn’t you prefer to do business with someone who has already been vetted than taking the risk on someone you’re unfamiliar with? It reinforces what you’ve been saying about your business when someone has a friend’s endorsement. Additionally, it adds a level of comfort that puts you one step closer to the prize: a new customer or client.

Sometimes people confuse a referral with a personally developed inquiry (PDI) – both ways to garner new business.

The difference between the two is fairly simple. A referral is a sales lead or inquiry from someone who is already using your products or services – an existing student, for example. That person, who is having a good experience with your services, is willing to offer a lead or suggestion of someone else – usually a friend or acquaintance – who could benefit from what your business offers.

A PDI, on the other hand, refers to someone who goes out and tries to get business on his or her own – a type of cold calling. An example would be someone who goes to the local coffee shop, orders a cappuccino and leaves your business cards behind for others to pick up. That person is making the effort to generate business by introducing potential prospects to your school.

A referral is more valuable.

The benefits of a referral

One benefit of a referral is that you already have a heads-up; someone you know is recommending your business because of personal experience. It certainly makes your job easier – especially since referrals often convert to a start at a much higher rate than other types of leads or inquiries.

Another plus? Referrals cut down on marketing expenses.

Yes, you’re promoting your business, but when someone sends you a referral, some of the legwork has already been done.

That’s free publicity! It’s also fun to talk about your wonderful school and what it can offer other people. Getting the word out to others and changing their lives feels good.

Finally, referrals also may help improve retention of students. If they like the education they get at your school and are doing well, they tell their friends because they want them to also do well. As “teammates,” they become part of the support network and stay in school.

Know the communication hierarchy

Generating referrals is best done with planning and always begins with trust. That involves a communication hierarchy of getting to know someone and building rapport. It’s a ritual that serves as a tool to help you get to that point. The interaction begins with the ritual which can be:

  • Making eye contact
  • Smiling
  • Introducing yourself
  • Asking the person’s name

As humans, we follow this ritual to let a person know we are interested in moving it to the next level, talking to them or getting to know them better. To successfully reach the point of having your opinion more readily accepted, we need to do the following:

  • Engage in small talk. We’ve all done it. You don’t want to get into touchy subjects like politics or religion, but you might talk about the weather, admire the person’s shoes or outfit, or how your city’s sports team is doing.
  • Find a mutual interest. Discover some common ground. Maybe you discover you both have a dog, or you love Paris or enjoy playing golf. It’s called relationship equity; you’re on equal footing. You must get to this point before you can go on.
  • Share something. Once you have mutual interest with someone, you can now begin to express your opinions more safely. This step is critical especially when you are going to give advice or ask for something in return.

Now you’re really moving up the hierarchy ladder, building trust as you go. Once you’ve established commonality and have shared something, what are you free to do?

  • Express feelings. This high level of the communication hierarchy allows you to now share your feelings safely. You may not get to this stage with every person you meet, but if you’ve moved up the steps carefully, you should be able to do so in a way where you are more understood.

When plans go awry

We’re not necessarily looking to bond with everybody we meet or need to express feelings about things, but do you have opinions sometimes that you’d like to share with somebody else? When we talk about referrals, we’re expressing an opinion that we believe they might be a good fit. Moving through the hierarchy in this way actually helps you build trust, which helps people accept your opinion at a higher level than they would have done otherwise.

Just because you’re following the hierarchy and ascending the ladder doesn’t mean you won’t get “ceilinged” along the way.

That’s when you’re stopped dead in your tracks by someone who is sending the message, “I’m not interested and don’t want to know you any better.” The conversation is over. But you don’t want it to end! What do you do? You may have moved too fast. You might just need to go back to the ritual or engage in more small talk. Sometimes we get ceilinged because we jumped to opinion too quickly and people just turn off. Since everyone has his or her own hierarchy, you must concentrate on getting to mutual interest with each person in the conversation.

Refining your approach toward generating referrals

You have an idea of how to start the referral process – by following the communication hierarchy to build meaningful rapport and trust. The next step is to refine your approach toward asking for a referral.

  • What problems can you help people solve? In social situations, have you ever been asked what you do? Instead of answering directly by saying that you work in admissions, say what you do to benefit students and solve problems.
  • Give something away to get something back. This is not about prize giveaways, but rather something as simple as connecting with someone and giving them something first. This can be advice, a job lead, a helpful resource or something motivational that you can offer. If you show you care, human nature takes over, and people will want to help you.
  • Change the ask. Jeffrey Gitomer, author of “The Sales Bible,” says that you ask someone permission to ask for a referral after they see the value themselves, rather than asking, “Do you know someone you think might do well here?” Don’t ask for a person’s name and contact info right away. Say something like, “We’re excited to have you as a student, but I have just one request of you: think of friends or family members who might want to go to school here. Once we’ve proven how great our school is, could you please contact them and suggest that they meet with me. Does that sound fair?” This is a much safer way to ask for referrals because you’ve already over-delivered; you’ve “given” that thing.
  • Expand your network. Look for networking opportunities, the times you’re with a group and have a chance to solicit a referral. Brainstorm to come up with places where you can connect with people – the laundromat, the line at the coffee shop, your doctor’s waiting room, the movie theater. Ask people you know to ask other people to get the word out for you. Step out of your comfort zone and plan to meet two or three new people a day. You never know when one of them will give you the ultimate referral.
  • Write it out. Write out the words you’re going to say in terms of the ask, and practice how you’ll say them. The more you do it, the more comfortable you’ll be. Eventually, it will become second nature.
  • Make it a habit. It takes about 30 days or three to four weeks to make something a habit. Make that commitment to do something every day that moves you toward building referrals. There’s no need to make it overwhelming. You can make a list of people to talk to, and then, the next time contact one of them to share things with their network. Then, the next day refine your ask to see if you’re making progress. Reach out to those who have already experienced the results (i.e., currently enrolled students or alumni) and ask for a referral.
  • Follow up. Don’t just ask for a referral and then walk away, assuming they’ll come back some day. You have to follow up and get back to them to make sure you actually get the referral. It takes diligence. You shouldn’t assume someone’s not interested just because they didn’t introduce you to somebody. Sometimes life just interferes, and people get busy.

ReferralsNo one said generating referrals is easy; the challenge involves convincing satisfied customers to actively promote your business. That requires a plan and perseverance, but the results are worth it.

Jean Norris

DR. JEAN NORRIS is the leading advocate for the admissions profession and is often called upon to speak at national conferences, commencements and organizational retreats. Her research, articles and interviews are found in many well-known publications.

This year marks her 31st in the field of higher education. She started in admissions and was a faculty member, a dean and a vice president at several private colleges. She currently is a managing partner of Norton Norris, Inc., a Chicago-based marketing/consulting/training firm focused exclusively in the higher education sector.

Dr. Norris developed EnrollMatch®– the ethical enrollment process, a comprehensive admissions training program offering proven results to balance compliance and performance. In 2015, she launched My Guidance Coach® (MGC), a software program that is transforming higher education admissions with pre-enrollment advising available 24/7.

Norris earned a B.A. in management, an M.A. in Communication and Training and an Ed.D. in Organizational Leadership. She is also a licensed Master Neuro Linguistic Programming Practitioner.

Dr. Norris also serves as the Chairman of the Board for AACAP (The Association for the Advancement of the College Admissions Profession) and Allied Director of the Board for CECU (Career Education Colleges and Universities).

Contact Information: Dr. Jean Norris // Managing Partner // Norton Norris // 312-262-7400 // Jean@nortonnorris.com // NortonNorris.com or advancingadmissions.org // https://www.linkedin.com/in/jean-norris-ed-d-bb74455/


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