LinkedIn is a place to build relationships, not ask for referrals.

Far too many sales teams get social selling all wrong. Reps click buttons to invite people to connect, spam them with sales pitches, and even start asking for referrals. (Where’s the “hello”? Where’s the conversation?) Invite me to connect on LinkedIn without a personal message, and you’ll be one of the 150 invitations I have yet to answer. Social media is the place to begin a conversation and begin a relationship. Don’t muck it up by asking for referrals from people you don’t know well.

I’m not arrogant. I’m busy—just as you are. I’ll take the time to read your profile and respond with a personal message. But first, I need to know what prompted your invitation. Have we met in person? Did you read one of my blog posts, watch one of my videos, listen to me on a podcast or webinar, or read my book? In other words, do you want to actually start a relationship with me, or are you just hoping to sell me something?

(Image attribution: Karolina Grabowska)

What NOT to Do on LinkedIn

Relationships still rule in sales. Whether your reps connect in person or online, the goal is to begin a conversation, ask questions, and develop relationships—not scare people away by immediately launching into a sales pitch. This rude behavior has gotten way worse today, because the cold calling is now multi-channel.

How many spam invitations do you get? Here are a few I’ve received and how I would have responded, if it had been worth my time to respond at all.

Hello there Joanne, I help coaches and consultants create a stress-free lead generation ecosystem. We specialize in working with companies like yours & we have experience in working with them. Are you currently looking to improve the conversions of your business?

What companies do you work with that are like mine? Actually, none are. If you’d done even a little research on me, you’d know there’s only one lead generation strategy I believe in, and that’s asking for referrals.

Hi Joanne, I’m reaching out to see if I can be an asset to your business at all? We work specifically with your industry to bring on new high paying clients organically.(see recommendations in link below) If you are open to connecting and discussing more that would be great. I would love to be a resource for you now or in the future. Hope to connect and chat!

My industry? That’s way too broad. You’d “love” to be a resource for me? I don’t know you, so I don’t care what you love. Drop that phrase from your sales pitch lexicon, please.

Heya Joanne, you popped up in my feed and I gotta say — you’re one of the most badass entrepreneurs here on LinkedIn! Noticed we had a few friends in common on here too, so I wanted to follow along so I’ve always got the scoop.

This one is really simple. Call me a badass, and you’re toast. It’s rude, and you don’t even know me. I don’t care if you have the scoop.

I would love to have the opportunity to connect with you to fulfill your engineering and consultancy needs in the Oil, Gas, and Power sector most dynamically and cost-effectively. I’ve attached a free, 190 page blueprint to help you grow the No More Cold Calling website traffic. If you like what you read, let’s connect after. Click below to pick up the free traffic building blueprint.

Why would I be interested in oil and gas? Download a 190-page blueprint? No way.

I’m well aware that most of these messages are automated. But here’s the thing. You can’t automate relationships, and you need relationships if you’re going to be asking for referrals.

3 Reasons You Shouldn’t Be Asking for Referrals on LinkedIn

Unfortunately, many salespeople forget that clicking a button and blatant self-promotion don’t start conversations, begin relationships, or result in referrals. Neither do automated LinkedIn introduction requests. Sales reps must prospect for referrals on LinkedIn, but it’s not the place to be asking for referrals. Here’s why:

1. Referrals Are Personal

Referral selling is the #1 most personal sales approach, which can make it feel risky. Think about it. When you refer someone, your reputation is on the line. You must ensure that you know the person you’re referring well enough to be confident they’ll follow through, won’t pitch, and will take care of your contact just as you would. They must be informative, insightful, and leave your contact with valuable information—whether they do business together… or not.

What if the sales rep you refer drops the ball? What if they try to sell without first questioning and understanding? What if they embarrass you and jeopardize your relationship? Those thoughts and more are running through the mind of your referral source. When you understand the risk, you will be circumspect about the referral introductions you offer.

That’s why we should never, ever, be asking for referral introductions on LinkedIn. That jeopardizes the relationship by assuming the other person even wants to refer us. Clients tell me they’re pissed off when they receive an automated request for an introduction. They say that the person assumes they’ll make the intro. Big mistake.

Most people only refer others they know well and trust implicitly to take care of their connections as they would. And if you don’t know someone well enough to pick up the phone and have a real conversation, you don’t know that person well enough to ask for a referral.

2. You Have No Clue About the Connection

A LinkedIn connection is not a relationship, it’s a contact name. Most sales reps add connections by clicking a button. Until you actually talk to potential referral sources, you don’t know how they’re connected to the prospects you want to meet, or if they know those people well enough to make referral introductions.

Many people accept every LinkedIn invitation. That’s why it’s important to conduct due diligence before asking for referrals. Reach out to learn if mutual connections actually know the people you want to meet. If not, move on. If yes, schedule a call.

This is the time to conduct a discovery call, to ask questions such as: What’s the relationship with the prospect? How do you know them? What are they like? How do they prefer communicating? What’s important to them and their business?

(Image attribution: Karolina Grabowska)

Don’t blow it. Take time to learn what’s new, clearly define the business reason you’re asking for referrals and ask how you can help the prospect. Share insights and offer introductions to others with whom they could have mutually beneficial relationships. Put in the time and effort online and then take those sales conversations offline.

3. Name Dropping Isn’t the Same Thing As a Referral

Some of my colleagues have amazing tips to follow prospects, comment on their posts, and teach you how to search on social media. They also tell you it’s OK to name drop, to say things like:

  • “Your colleague, Frank Bird, referred me to you. “
  • “Frank Bird suggested we talk.”
  • “Frank Bird gave me the OK to write and tell you why I would like to meet.”
  • “Frank Bird told me about you, how he knows you, and why we should meet.”

You get the picture. Does this work? Yes, much of the time. Then why am I telling you never to name drop? For one reason. You’ve missed the opportunity to learn from Frank. Yes, learn about the prospect. When you talk to your referral source, you get the inside track and are privy to information no one else gets.

Instead of name dropping, what you want is an introduction that lands you a one-call meeting. That changes everything.

To Be Social Selling, You Must Actually Be Social

Social media is a powerful tool, and salespeople today are wise enough to know the value of relationships—with prospects, clients, and referral sources. But far too many foolishly waste opportunities to build real connections, because they think the rules for relationship-building are different online. And that’s just not true.

How can you use social media to build business relationships and generate referral leads? Find out in my ebook, “Referred: Rediscovering the Power of the Original Social Network.” Email me at to request your copy.

(Featured image attribution: Pixabay)

(This post was originally published on August 15, 2015 and updated August 9, 2021.)