Recommendations: How to ask or ask others for advice about our most essential needs

A letter to help a friend’s child get into a certain college. Reaching out to someone for the suggestion of a good doctor. Going on a trip almost anywhere and contacting someone who lives there for ideas about good restaurants, the most important sights, where to stay.  

A recommendation is basically advice from a source who’s in the know for information for a specific objective. But asking someone for a recommendation or giving one may cut into our busy schedules. It’s a favor, sometimes a huge one, since we all know that our time is precious.  

We’ve both been asked for recommendations and to make them. Margaret, whose younger son lives in Montreal, was asked recently for ideas about where to eat, stay and visit in the city. She took time to ask her son and his girlfriend and then compiled a list adding phone numbers and email addresses. When she ran into the person who had visited Montreal, she was effusive in her thank you. How nice. 

Barbara is asked often for recommendations about restaurants, sights and hotels in her bucolic Hudson Valley; she also was recently asked by a New York City friend for oral surgeons in her former city of St. Louis where the friend’s college age daughter had a dental emergency. She took time to reach out to St. Louis pals for their recommendations and compiled a list, knowing it might be tough for the student to get in fast, so she wanted to give her alternatives. 

But today you often don’t have to ask a live person for a recommendation with so many online resources available such as Wirecutter in the New York Times that limits its suggestions to some of the best products on the market. If we need a new laptop, we might turn to that compilation. However, if we need a computer person to set up the product, we may rely on our peers for their suggestions. 

What other recommendations do we often need or find that others want and ask us for our ideas? Doctors are high on the list, especially, as we’re aging; kitchen designers and contractors; travel groups and planners, dieticians, attorneys for all sorts of problems, books to read, movies, T.V. shows and plays to see, gift shops, bookstores, books to read, clothing stores that aren’t part of chains, destinations worth the airfare and hotel, trainers, lawn services, cleaning help, hair stylist and colorist. The list goes on and on. 

We like to be helpful but sometimes we may balk at giving a recommendation when the person asking never seems pleased with whom you suggest. Who wants to hear that their recommendation was terrible? We don’t and avoid making recommendations to certain folks the next time they ask or offer it with a caveat. “I’ll share but if you don’t like I don’t want to hear what you didn’t like!” Better to lay our cards on the table. Barbara did this after one friend kept giving her negative feedback on her recs. 

Here are more tips we’ve found useful. 

How and whom you ask is key. Make a list of all the people you know with their phone numbers and/or email addresses who might make the recommendation. Margaret did this when she was in the process of purchasing a cooperative in New York City. She asked six people to write letters of recommendation to the board of the co-op building. 

She started her ask by calling, emailing or texting and explained her need simply in the apartment case and with other requests. “I need a good dermatologist; can you recommend one? Just provide the names; I’ll look up the contact information unless you have it available.” And she added, “One or two names will suffice.”

She was specific regarding what she needed, in the case of the apartment recommendation she ticked off how long the letter should be and what it should contain. She also sent a sample. With a dermatologist, you might add if it’s cosmetic. Feed the person other pertinent information so they can craft their recommendation accordingly. 

Give the person plenty of lead time, and if you need a letter of recommendation or medical name as in the case of the student with the dental emergency, give a deadline. But preface it with, “Is that feasible?” Always be gracious since you’re asking for a favor. Compliment the person on their importance in this process—“No one knows my child better than you; you’ve seen him grow up. I like the way you write. You are well connected, and I admire that you are a great resource.” 

If a letter of recommendation, ask if you can make changes to what they’ve written if something isn’t accurate, or a fact was left out. Say you’ll send it back for their okay before you send it. But ask! 

Be even more gracious. Thank them profusely for their time and suggestions and, of course, say that you’ll return the favor when appropriate. 

Of course, a recommendation has to be honest and genuine. If you’re asked to write a letter, for example, make sure you can meet the criteria and the deadline. If not, make an excuse. You are not doing anyone a favor if you don’t have the time, the resources or it’s insincere if you really don’t know the person’s child that well, for example. Barbara was asked to write a recommendation for a student applying to her college, whom she barely knew. She suggested to the parent she meet with the student first to understand why they liked her school. 

Remember, just because you get a recommendation of a good restaurant, doctor or interior designer, you do not have to take the suggestion. Margaret asked someone to recommend a real estate salesperson. Although she didn’t ask, the person went to extremes to look up information on the employees and send her links. In the meantime, another friend sent her the name of her salesperson who did a “fabulous job”. She asked others about the salesperson, interviewed the person and felt a strong connection. The woman who initially made the recommendations to Margaret, seemed miffed that she didn’t heed her advice. In Margaret’s mind, she didn’t ask the woman to go the extra mile, but she made sure to thank the woman profusely for her time.   

After the ask, if you use their letter or verbal recommendation, follow up and let them know what happened. “Oh, unfortunately, he didn’t get into that school but got into another, so thanks,” or, “I loved the hairdresser you suggested. My hair looks great.” It’s just polite to do so. 

And always write a thank you email or if they perhaps used their connections to help you achieve a goal, like getting their child into a certain private school, a handwritten note might be the classy thing to do, maybe even dropped off with some homemade brownies or a bouquet of flowers. Here remember, too, that whenever you ask someone to make any recommendation, they are taking time from their busy lives to do this favor for you. 

It’s wise to maintain relationships to speak up about anything negative that occurred based on a recommendation if it’s a life or death matter. Hair will grow back if a bad haircut, a contractor’s poor workmanship often can be fixed and a bad meal is simply that, one bad meal. Otherwise keep silent. 

1 comment

  • Audrey Steuer

    This is filled with excellent suggestions and reminders on how to be a helpful and grateful person. Wonderful suggestions for many potential occasions.

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