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?