Originally published in Sales and Marketing Management, April 20, 2015.

 What’s the best way to reach my prospects? How do I get past the gatekeeper? How many touches do I need before talking with someone? What do I do when the prospect’s assistant wants to put me into voicemail?

Sales leaders are constantly bombarded with these questions, because getting meetings with target prospects is the #1 business-development challenge for most sales reps. Some sales managers say to keep calling. Others tell their teams to send emails or to connect with prospects on LinkedIn. The latest advice is retro: snail mail.

They’re ignoring the only prospecting strategy that guarantees buyers will talk to salespeople—referral selling.


The Ticket to the C-Suite

Sales leaders want their reps to score essential meetings—preferably at the executive level, but at least with someone responsible for the P &L of a business unit. However, getting meetings at that level is a significant struggle for most sales teams. Why? Because executives don’t take cold calls, and neither do their gatekeepers. Those receptionists or administrative assistants will shut salespeople down without a second thought.

When you receive introductions from people your prospects know and trust, they will always take your calls. No duplicitous gatekeeper tactics, no wasting time with a barrage of phone calls and emails. The so-called gatekeepers will become your allies. They will put your call through because their bosses actually want to talk to you.

Research has shown the two main reasons executives take sales calls are:


  1. A referral from someone within their companies
  2. A referral from a trusted source outside their companies


(Source: Selling to the C-Suite, Nicholas A.C. Read and Stephen J. Bistritz, Ed.D., 2009)

LinkedIn surveyed 1,500 B2B purchasers/influencers at the director level or above, asking about their likelihood of engaging with a salesperson. These decision makers said they want to work with sales reps who possess thought leadership, reach out through personal connections, and share industry knowledge.

3 Ways to Kick Start your Referrals into OverdriveA 2014 social selling study by LinkedIn and IDC also revealed:


  • 2 percent of buyers prefer to work with vendors they know or who have been recommended to them by people they know.
  • 73 percent prefer to work with sales professionals who have been referred to them by people they know.

Case made.


Building Your Referral Business

 The business case for referrals is clear. Yet, 95 percent of organizations don’t have a written referral-selling strategy, written weekly referral goals, referral-selling skills training, or a disciplined system to track and measure results.

Achieving referral-selling success means adopting it as a strategic initiative for your company. Like anything worth doing, it’s not just point and click. It includes three essential components: Strategy, Skills, and Implementation.


1. Referral Strategy Development

Referral selling becomes the primary outreach for attracting new customers. This doesn’t mean other sales initiatives go away. (Well, maybe cold calling.) You’ve already built a foundation: You have an optimized website, measurable marketing campaigns, and a social media plan. But when it comes to salespeople bringing in their own qualified leads, referral selling is front and center.

Referral selling must be driven from the top so the entire organization understands that referrals are the way you do business. It’s the responsibility of everyone in the company to contribute to the referral initiative, regardless of whether they have “sales” in their title.

Adopting a referral-selling strategy to accelerate business means transitioning to a new way of working. This doesn’t happen overnight, and it requires some legwork from sales leaders to get up and running, including:


  • Integrating referrals into your workflow
  • Ensuring both sales and marketing plans include referral selling
  • Setting referral sales goals for salespeople, sales teams, and the entire company
  • Setting customer acquisition goals to define the types of customers you want to attract
  • Establishing reward and recognition activities for salespeople and other employees who bring in referrals
  • Implementing software to track successful referrals to the customers who made them
  • Determining how you will evaluate the success of your referral program


2. Skills Building

Transitioning to referral selling is a behavior change. It requires focused skills development and ongoing practice to achieve proficiency.  Salespeople must learn how to:


  • Position themselves as thought leaders
  • Articulate the business impact of their solutions
  • Identify and describe their ideal clients
  • Integrate all these talking points into asking for referral introductions


3. Implementation

Investing in a referral program and/or referral automation software is a good place to start. But that alone will not get the results you seek. Studies have shown that adults forget 87 percent of what they learn if there’s no reinforcement or assessment of skills learned, and no measurement of success.

Once your team has the skills to ask for referrals, and you’ve implemented your carefully-crafted referral process, keep the momentum alive with consistent, proactive, and disciplined coaching with accountability for results.

Why is coaching important? Take any sports analogy you want. Top performers have coaches. Why do we need trainers at the gym? All the equipment is there. Trainers serve three main purposes. They:


  • Demand we show up and be accountable for getting results
  • Fine-tune our workouts
  • Push us to achieve even more


The same is true in business, but we frequently shortcut the process. We say we don’t have time to coach and follow up on new skills. We pound our sales teams to make their numbers with endless calls and emails. The velocity increases as we get closer to quarter-end and year-end. After all, when our teams make their numbers, we make ours.

What if you stopped this vicious cycle and relied on the only business-development strategy that converts prospects into clients more than 50 percent of the time? You would have more time for coaching, because your team’s sales pipelines would be full of qualified prospects who actually want to talk to them.

What steps will you take to create a referral program that sticks? What steps will you take to establish a formal referral coaching program? The time is now.

Continue the conversation with Joanne Black on Twitter @ReferralSales

Photo Credit: Freedigitalphotos.net

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