Why sales isn’t off the hook for generating referral leads

Originally published on Salesforce.com

Salespeople aren’t the only ones who understand the value of referrals. Marketers get it, too, and they’re ready to help sales teams generate more referrals and follow up on the great leads. Equally important, marketing has the tools to streamline the sales process so that every single client becomes part of your team’s referral network.

Sound too good to be true? It’s not. Referral automation software delivers what marketing promises: qualified leads. It saves salespeople time and connects them with referred prospects—the only type of sales leads with a 50-percent close rate. Referral automation also helps sales teams nurture existing clients, deepen client relationships, and gain even more referral introductions and qualified leads. What sales exec wouldn’t love that?

But this doesn’t mean that your sales team can just sit back and wait for leads to pour in. For referral automation to help salespeople meet the exact prospects they want to meet, marketing needs to know what those “ideal customers” look like.


Help Marketing Help You

Great marketers already understand your target audience. The problem is that everyone in your target market is not your ideal customer. Before marketing can generate qualified referral leads, they need to know how your team defines “qualified.”

Yet, while most formal lead-generation efforts are now owned and managed by marketing, only 51.3 percent of companies have created a formal definition of a “qualified lead.” That’s according to CSO Insights’ “2014 Lead Management & Social Engagement Study.” It’s no wonder 61.7 percent of salespeople say the quality of marketing leads “needs improvement.” They’re not giving their marketing teams enough information to be effective.

The goal: Sales and marketing working together to build qualified pipelines. How? It starts with a joint commitment to build a referral program with the right software and the right integration with your CRM—not just for lead flow, but also to engage sales in the referral process. For example, when a customer provides a referral, the rep gets an email reminder to thank the referral source and to learn about the new referral. Salespeople also receive notifications when referral leads close. Then they can thank their sources and ask for even more referrals. No more dropping the ball on follow-up or “forgetting” to say thank you.

 This is great news for sales, but sales isn’t off the hook for generating referral leads! Sales still needs to play a critical role in the referral program, or your team may not get the “qualified leads” they were expecting. Once referral automation is up and running, the process becomes much easier than reps could ever have imagined. But salespeople must help with the heavy lifting up front by clarifying exactly the kind of customer they want to meet. Then marketing can use that criteria to generate great leads via automation, as well as with traditional marketing approaches.


Define Your Ideal Customer

When salespeople know exactly who they want to meet—and communicate that profile to marketing and to their referral sources—they get qualified leads, reach decision-makers, get in early, and close every deal well more than 50 percent of the time.

Your ideal customers are out there. But unless your sales team can articulate the profile of your ideal customer to the marketers running the referral program, your advocates are just taking shots in the dark.

The key is specificity, which seems counter-intuitive. Sales pros often think that if they don’t mention everyone they serve, they’ll miss out on introductions. But the opposite is true. The more specific the description, the easier it is for both sales reps and their marketing counterparts to understand your ideal customer. Plus, referral sources will know how to make the right introductions.

People want to make the best introduction possible, and you can choose your clients. But you get what you ask for, so ensure your sales team asks for exactly what they want.

As you and your team begin to create the profile of your ideal customer, review these categories:


  • Industry: In what industries is your expertise? Where do you have a track record? In what vertical do you want to expand?
  • Geography: Where is your ideal customer located?
  • Company Size: What size company is the best fit for your offerings?
  • Business Unit or Function: What group of people within the company are your ideal prospects (e.g., CEOs, CIOs, COOs, HR employees, sales or marketing teams)?
  • Type of Person: What are the personality traits of your ideal customer?
  • Situation/Need: What specific business challenges do you address? What are people complaining about? What problems can your team solve?

When you’re this precise about your ideal customer, no one will be confused about the best leads for you. Your team will elicit remarkable referrals and receive introductions to the clients they want to serve.

Bottom line: Referral automation software is essential to manage a referral program at scale, but make sure it is delivering the right clients—those who produce revenue and profits, and refer you to others just like themselves.

SaaS referral automation


There’s no cheat sheet for referral selling

Originally published in Sales and Marketing Management

Referral selling seems pretty simple, right? All you need to do is tell your salespeople to ask for referrals. Why wouldn’t they latch onto their most powerful sales strategy? After all, referred salespeople:


  • Score every meeting at the level that counts
  • Arrive pre-sold, with trust and credibility already earned
  • Fill their sales funnels with people who actually want to talk to them
  • Shorten their sales process without incurring any hard costs
  • Engage gatekeepers as their allies
  • Convert prospects into clients more than 50 percent of the time(usually more than 70 percent)


No other sales or marketing strategy promises the same close rates or business-development opportunities as referral selling. So why aren’t more salespeople doing it? Because referral selling might be a simple concept, but it’s not a simple process.

Even though most sales organizations recognize the impact of referral selling, 95 percent of companies don’t make referral selling a priority and don’t have a proven referral system to hardwire referral selling into the way their teams work.

Simply put, if you want to sell more, change your game. It’s time to put referral selling into action.

Here are some basic DOs and DON’Ts to consider:


1. DON’T point and tell.


Referral selling is a shift in behavior that informs the way we work every day. It’s a skill that must be learned, practiced, coached, and reinforced, and it starts at the top—with leaders who prioritize referral selling. Simply ”telling” your team to ask for referrals doesn’t work. Without the proper skills, most people feel a bit awkward and even uncomfortable asking for referrals. They say:


  • “I’m not comfortable asking for help or a favor.”
  • “I won’t ask a busy person to take on even more work.”
  • “What if they say ‘no’?” (fear of rejection)


Referrals aren’t favors; they’re connections between two people who could help each other. Many salespeople hesitate to ask for referrals because they haven’t had any luck doing so in the past. They thought it was enough to tell people, “Hey, if you know anyone who could benefit from my services, please refer me.” But even the best-intentioned friends and clients will think no more of this generic request after the conversation is over.

To commit to referral selling, salespeople need leaders who teach them how and then hold them accountable for referral results. Without accountability, a referral initiative becomes just another “program du jour.”


2. DO know the definition of a referral.


What constitutes a referral? Salespeople receive introductions from people their prospects know and trust. Just getting names and phone numbers doesn’t cut it. Sure, sometimes that works. But if making every call or email count is important, introductions matter. Then prospects know all about your company and the reason for the meeting, and they welcome a conversation. Save time? You bet. Speak with your target clients? You bet.

Without an introduction, any outreach is ice cold. The person doesn’t know you and doesn’t expect to hear from you. That’s the definition of a cold call—whether you reach out by phone, email, social media, or knocking on doors.


3. DO ask all of your clients for referrals.


There are only two ways to get more business: Do more business with existing customers or find new customers. Referrals work both ways. It’s not just who you know; it’s who your clients know.

Your current and former clients are your best source of referrals, because they know firsthand the value your solution delivers. They choose to do business with your company, so why wouldn’t they recommend their friends and colleagues do the same?

Many sales teams miss the boat on client referrals, because their roles and responsibilities are out of whack. After a deal is done, reps hand clients off to an implementation team or account manager. The salesperson moves on to search for more qualified prospects. This methodology is totally out of sync with the way the buyer—now the client—wants to be treated. And if salespeople lose touch with clients, they also lose opportunities to turn those relationships into referrals.


4. DO know the right time to ask clients for referrals.


It’s never too soon, and it’s only too late if you’ve waited months or years and haven’t stayed in touch.

 Salespeople can ask for referrals anytime during the sales process when they’ve created value. How will they know? Prospects will thank them—for an idea, an insight, or a strategy they hadn’t considered. Don’t wait until you ink the deal, deliver your solution, or provide metrics for results. By that time, reps are far away from the people with whom they developed relationships during the sales process.

It’s also OK to ask prospects for referrals when your company has lost a deal. This sounds crazy, I know, but think about it. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain. Your prospect is probably feeling awkward about delivering bad news and might be relieved to help you out. Besides, your company wouldn’t have gotten this far in the process unless you had the correct solution and built trust with your buyers. Ask yourself: “What do I have to lose?” If you’re OK with the answer, go for it.


5. DON’T neglect your relationships.


Salespeople know when they’ve earned a buyer’s trust. We have instincts that inform us whether we’ve connected with someone or missed the mark.

Once you’ve built trust with prospects, technology through advocacy programs can help continue to enhance the salesperson/client relationship. Marketing plays an important role in the trust equation by reaching out to prospects with personalized communications, posting on social media, and using advocate referral programs to connect salespeople with customers. But that doesn’t mean sales reps should be removed from the equation. After all, relationships are a salesperson’s most valuable asset, so don’t let your team give them up.


6. DO align with marketing and seek supporting technology.


The sibling rivalry between marketing and sales has raged for decades, but it’s time we grow up and start playing nice. In this tech-driven, social-media-obsessed environment, companies depend on both sales and marketing to find and nurture customers. Without alignment and teamwork, the customer experience suffers … and so does the bottom line.

A referral program is the perfect opportunity for sales to engage with marketing and work together to provide a top-notch referral experience for customers. As the velocity of your referrals increases, so will your sales. While your reps are in meetings with key decision makers, your competition will still be trying to figure out how to get in.

As referral programs gain traction, many organizations find that a referral automation platform helps to organize the process. No more figuring out who referred whom. A referral automation platform tracks referrals from the time they are made until business closes, and then attributes that success back to the referring customer.

Referrals are the highest quality leads, yet management is stymied about why salespeople fail to follow up on so many of their referrals (some say 35 percent). A top-notch referral platform integrates with your CRM, which ensures referred prospects are front and center, and get contacted immediately. Then the system automatically reminds reps to get back in touch with their referral sources, thank them for the introductions, and congratulate them when referrals result in closed business. This is not just a nice way to do business; it’s also an opportunity for reps to reconnect with people who might provide even more referrals. Companies also have the option to automate referral incentive programs—either for referral sources or for team members who bring in referrals.

Equally important, both management and sales can see the number of referrals reps receive, how many referred leads convert to clients, and the increases in revenue. Some systems provide sales hot lists, call lists, and leader-boards to keep reps on their toes, and the referral competition keeps reps motivated.

But a word of warning: While a referral automation platform can help you organize the process, track results, and better nurture referral sources, actually asking for referrals requires relationships, which means it’s something salespeople should be doing.

People buy from us because they trust us. That’s it. You gain that trust with referral introductions. Then it’s yours to nurture and develop. Lose it, and you lose the deal.


What is brand advocacy?

3 ways to kick start your referrals into overdrive

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

What is brand advocacy?