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The Best Referral Programs Start with a “Referral Culture”

How does your team work when no one is looking?

For the first time ever, clients are asking me how to build a “referral culture.” Sales VP Sam told me he wants to create a referral culture, as did CRO Sue, and CEO Amanda. Why? They recognize that referrals are the fastest and “stickiest” business development methodology for qualified lead generation. And they know the best referral programs require a sales culture where referrals are top priority.

What is culture, anyway? I’ve read too many long and complex definitions, and I have no idea what many of them mean. My favorite definition is simple but brilliant: “Culture is what people do when no one is looking.”

This quote is often attributed to Gerard Seijts, executive director of the Ian O. Ihnatowycz Institute for Leadership at Western University in Canada. However, I wrote to Gerard, who told me that he first heard this nugget of wisdom from Ed Clark, former CEO of TD Bank, but he doubts Clark is the original source. I’m still attempting to reach Clark. (Let me know if you have a connection to him.)

Whoever first said it, I think he (or she) said it all. When I think about a referral culture, I think about the many aspects of a work environment and what it would take for people to have the best referral programs possible. Referrals must be part of their Sales DNA and the way they do business—when people are looking and when they’re not.

What Culture Looks Like in Practice

Culture begins with the CEO and the work environment she creates. What does it feel like? When I switched careers, I interviewed with many companies. I was glad they didn’t hire me, because I knew I couldn’t work there. It was a gut feeling about the environment as well as the people I met. One year later, I was referred to the CEO of a small company. The minute I walked into the reception area, I knew I’d found my home. There was something about it—from the furnishings to the welcoming artwork on the wall. But the clincher was the receptionist, who was beyond friendly (if there is such a thing). I worked there for eight years in sales and sales management positions. That’s culture.

My husband and I recently moved to a new area. A few days ago, we felt like having Chinese food so we checked out local restaurants and menus on Yelp. We found one near our house that looked great. Two steps in, we knew we’d made a good choice. It was newly remodeled, clean, neat, and welcoming. The food was amazing. We learned that the restaurant had been in that location for 20 years, but the waiter proudly told us it had just been sold to the employees. Even the message in my fortune cookie—“Book lovers never go to bed alone”—just felt right. That’s culture.

Then there’s the story of John F. Kennedy and the janitor. During a visit to the NASA space center in 1962, the president noticed a janitor carrying a broom. He interrupted his tour and approached the man. “Hi, I’m Jack Kennedy,” he said. “What are you doing?”

“Well, Mr. President,” the janitor responded. “I’m helping put a man on the moon.”

Some debate the truth of the story, but whether you believe it or not, that’s culture.

What the Best Referral Programs Have in Common

How can sales leaders build a referral culture?

  1. Empower them to ask.

Companies spend embarrassing amounts of money on client events, company celebrations, sales incentives, and work-life balance perks like childcare, but then they skimp on investing in building permanent, repeatable sales skills for their teams. They provide “training,” but training without reinforcement, coaching, accountability, and practice is a waste of time and money.

The main obstacle to referral success are sales leaders. Yep. You could argue otherwise, but unless leaders commit to referral selling as their #1 outbound lead generation approach and provide their teams with the opportunity to build referral skills, nothing happens. It’s simply not something they’ll learn and adopt on their own.

Sales leaders discount the time, energy, and investment (yes, investment) that it takes to execute the best referral programs and to clock repeatable, measurable referral results. But having a referral culture means that salespeople have the training, resources, processes, and leadership support they need to feel comfortable asking for referrals … every single day.

  1. Provide ongoing coaching and support.

Sales execs recognize that coaching and recognition contribute to performance. But by how much? And how are they supposed to find the time? Most sales leaders are so busy that the only coaching they have time for is asking reps who they plan to call throughout the week. That’s not coaching. That’s checking in.

One could argue that sales managers don’t know how to coach. They’ve never had any training to build those skills. So, they “point and tell.” But you can’t point at people, tell them to do something differently, and expect a miraculous change.

A recent study by Insperity Solutions and the Sales Management Association validated this sales coaching paradox. While 76 percent of sales managers said coaching is important, 76 percent also admitted that too little coaching is provided for sales teams, if it’s provided at all.

Teaching referral skills requires a clear and repeatable process. It takes lots and lots of practice, joint calling, feedback, continuous coaching and reinforcement, and accountability for results. But if coaching is not part of the sales culture in most organizations, referrals won’t be part of the culture either.

  1. Insist on in-person networking.

Networking is essential for referral business development. It’s how we expand our connections, get ourselves and our brand known, and exchange ideas. It’s also how we build and nurture our referral networks, which are the foundation for the best referral programs.

Woody Allen said, “Eighty percent of life is showing up.” No matter how you slice it, showing up counts! That’s one of the best networking tips around. I recommend that my clients attend at least one networking event a week, and that they insist their teams do the same. Better yet, I suggest companies pay for sales reps to attend conferences to learn and make new connections.

One of my colleagues couldn’t get budget to attend a conference with movers and shakers from her industry. The decision was not only short-sighted, but my colleague left shortly thereafter. Turns out, the lack of budget was just the tip of the iceberg. Communication and collaboration fell apart. Senior management knew what was happening and let it happen. They lost one of their best and most hard-working reps because they didn’t support her desire to network and learn. And they clearly didn’t have a referral culture.

  1. Show appreciation for referral success.

Everyone appreciates recognition. Not just going to President’s Club, although that’s a great accomplishment. Ongoing, frequent recognition makes a difference—whether that’s personally thanking people in the halls or highlighting their achievements in videos, on webinars, or via email or text.

As a new employee at the company where I felt so at home, I received two unexpected awards: Rookie of the Year and Bias for Action. What did I get? Tiny trophies, but I proudly displayed them on my desk.

The award I received at Club one year was for a record $3M in sales. It was a beautiful crystal paperweight on an engraved base. I’ve carried it with me every time I’ve moved my office.

What Is a Referral Culture?

The answer should be clear by now. Culture is who you are and what you feel … all the time. It’s “sticky.”

What in the heck does that mean? Everyone understands, believes, and internalizes that they are a key player in the success of the company. They’re enrolled in the referral process and understand what constitutes an ideal referral. Everyone in the company has a referral network and they’re an extension of your sales team. You just need to tap into it. Don’t count anyone out.

One of my clients was establishing a commercial branch of a community bank. It was housed on the seventh floor of an office building in the financial district. The manager had a small team. He gathered them together and painted a profile of their ideal customer. Everyone understood. The very first referral came from an unlikely source: the 23-year-old receptionist. Why? His roommate’s parents were the bank’s ideal client. This bank had their first commercial customer.

That’s a referral culture—the kind that makes the best referral programs work!

Want to learn more about referral selling? Check out my new referral sales training course on LinkedIn Learning.

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