If you want to transform a pile of business cards into real relationships, then you have to understand the difference between chasing a lead, following a referral or being blessed with an introduction.

Basically, the best leads turn into referrals, and the best referrals turn into introductions. Here’s the breakdown:

Leads: The Cold Calls of Networking

If you mention to your cousin that you’re starting a business making surfboards, and she says, “You should check out this website that sells handmade surfboards,” that’s a lead. Leads are unqualified, unannounced, unsolicited, and unrequested. One person points another in the right direction. No bridge is created between the two parties. The recipient is not expecting to hear from the initiator. A lead can be as simple as a name on a website, but if you work your network, a good lead can become something even better: a referral.

How a Lead is Likely to Go Down

At a dinner party, you meet a guest who tells you that Company X needs the service you provide. You’ve just been given a lead.

Best case scenario: You email the company and introduce yourself and your services. A company representative writes back and you strike up a conversation.

Worst case scenario:

You have no idea that you just got a lead. You continue eating and drinking, dab your gin and tonic on a stain you got on your tie, and never give another moment’s thought to the dinner guest.

Referrals: Getting Warmer …

The basis of a referral is that one person expects to hear from another because a mutual contact has made both parties aware of the other. Someone who wants to work in sales at a big tech firm gets a tip that Google is hiring salespeople. That person then asks their friend who works at Google to let the hiring manager know that their qualified friend is interested and will be sending a resume.

That’s a referral.

With referrals, the mutual contact builds a bridge between the recipient and the initiator. The call or email or message won’t come out of the blue and the name won’t be totally foreign. Although they’re more intimate than leads, referrals take place remotely through mechanical communication, and are still fairly one-dimensional.

A Likely Scenario for a Referral

You’re back at the dinner party, only this time the guest says that his friend Jane works at Company X, which is in need of the service you provide. He’ll be glad to pass your info along to her and give her a heads up that you’ll be in touch.

Best case scenario: You call, you talk to Jane. Jane immediately realizes you’re the solution to all her problems. Jane calls you in to meet the steering committee. You send a fruitcake to the dinner guest to show your appreciation, not realizing that a fruitcake is actually a horrible gift.

Worst-case scenario: You call, Jane is kind of busy, it’s a little awkward and it’s not quite a match. Jane is dismissive and curt when she tells you that she’ll call you if anything comes up. You send a fruitcake to the dinner guest so he can feel the same level disappointment as you.

Introductions: Nice to Meet You

An introduction is a physical meeting between two parties, prearranged by a mutual contact or contacts. The Introducer will often have laid the groundwork and provided context for everyone involved through a brief varying in the degree of formality. Less frequently an introducer may set up a sort of “blind date” where he or she is present to connect two or more individuals.

In this setting the introducer facilitates the conversation with an understanding of what each party hopes to achieve through the interaction. Introductions require movement, the anxiety associated with high-pressure meetings, and a longer time commitment than mere phone calls or emails, which is why people often pass them up, but don’t throw away opportunities! Introductions are the most powerful weapon in a networker’s arsenal.

An Introduction to How Introductions Work

You’re back at the dinner party, only this time, the mystery guest is there with Jane. He introduces you and informs you that he and Jane have discussed your service. He begins to point out all ways that your service is exactly what Jane’s department has been looking for.

Best case scenario: It just happened! The mystery guest has put his reputation and relationship on the line to give you a leg up. He respects you and believes in you so much that he facilitated an initial conversation, which can be so hard to wrestle out of a lead, or even a referral. The deal is on the plate—go close it!

Worst case scenario: Jane loves fruitcake. When you go to meet her higher ups, she offers you some and you have to eat a piece out of obligation.

You can’t play the game if you don’t know the language. Leads, referrals, introductions: many people use these terms interchangeably, but they are not synonymous. Leads aren’t as valuable as referrals, and the best referrals are the ones that become introductions.