Referrals might be the silver lining for account-based sales reps when good clients walk away.

I have been in B2B sales so long that I’ve probably forgotten more deals than I remember. I know how to win new clients. Just as importantly, I’ve learned how to turn a loss into a win, either by reflecting on the lessons learned with each loss or by asking outgoing clients for referrals.

The biggest deal I ever lost was 20 years ago, and it’s one I’ll never forget. I was working as an account-based sales rep, and I was so close to nailing a million-dollar deal—something no one in my company had ever done. We were one of 12 vendors under active consideration. I pulled out all the stops. I was attentive to the client’s needs and had multiple meetings with the entire buying team. I knew everyone. When it was bake-off time, I flew in key consultants from our headquarters to participate in the presentation.

I could smell a win in the air. We had a stellar account-based sales team. We were thought leaders; we had visibility; and the client loved our solution for advanced sales training. I was already planning how to spend my commission. I’d take a long vacation, donate a portion to charity, and save the rest.

Then came the radio silence. I called and called and was repeatedly told they hadn’t made a decision. Turns out, I had consistently ignored some major red flags along the way. My prospect:

  • Had a relationship with an existing vendor for basic sales training (When I asked why the buyer didn’t contract with this company, I was told their system didn’t have advanced capabilities.)
  • Wouldn’t tell me who this competitor was
  • Kept pushing out the milestone dates we agreed upon
  • Spent time in Europe where the existing vendor was headquartered
  • Didn’t agree to any additional in-person meetings

Finally, the buyers chose the existing vendor. While I’d been working so hard to win this deal, the other company had developed the advanced sales training it previously lacked. I had never stood a chance.

How to Win New Clients—Even When You Lose the Deal

To say I was crushed is an understatement. I left my office, went home, and took my dog for a hike so I could clear my mind and decide what to do.

When my contact, Nancy, delivered the bad news, she told me that the team appreciated the work of our team and my professionalism. I thought she was just trying to let me down easy, until she said, “I wish all of our salespeople were like you.”

That’s when I knew my next step. I called Nancy and told her I’d like to take her to lunch and ask her for referrals. I have no idea where the idea came from. At the time, I didn’t yet understand that referral selling was the #1 way to ensure qualified sales lead generation and win new clients. I just knew I needed to focus on how to generate leads if I wanted to replace this major piece of lost business.

She invited other members of the buying committee, all of whom also felt terrible they couldn’t do business with me. We discussed many things over lunch, and then I asked Nancy to introduce me to her colleagues in other divisions of the company. She wowed me once again when she offered three referrals.

What she said next surprised me even more. “Joanne, I’m giving these referrals to you, not to your company.” If I left the company the next day, next week, or next month, I couldn’t hand those contacts off to my successor.

That was my first lesson in how to win new clients with referrals—a lesson I turned into my first book and then into a business. I learned that referrals are personal. People refer people, not companies. Even though I lost this deal, I won the trust of my prospects and earned the right to ask for referrals. I also found a new career path: teaching other account-based sales reps how to generate B2B sales leads and win new clients with referral selling.

2 Ways Account-Based Sales Reps Can Win When They Lose

Sometimes you win deals and sometimes you lose them, even when you’ve invested everything you have into closing them. But for every lost deal, there are two possible silver linings:

  1. You earn the right to ask for referrals.
    According to Hubspot, “An account-based sales model treats every account like a market of one. Instead of one salesperson targeting a single contact within a company, an entire team is dedicated to targeting multiple stakeholders at the prospective customer’s company.”This means account-based sellers can lose deals and still win new clients at the same company. Account-based sellers meet and interact with many people during the sales process. They cultivate relationships with multiple people and earn the trust  of multiple buyers, which means they earn the right to ask for referrals to other departments. That’s the way to land and expand, build a qualified pipeline full of hot B2B sales leads, reduce prospecting time, decrease time to close, and convert at an unparalleled rate. This focused referral activity does the one thing every company measures: Drive revenue!
  2. You learn something.
    Even if a lost client doesn’t provide referrals, they can still provide something of value: lessons learned. For example, losing my million-dollar deal taught me to pay more attention to how I build my deals, whom to include, the steps I should take to move deals along, and the red flags that indicate a prospect has no accountability. I knew this buyer team liked us and believed in our solution, but I was “hoping” and not dealing with reality.

Have I been blindsided since? Once or twice. But I do my best to set expectations at the beginning of a relationship and keep my eyes open for the red flags I once ignored.

Because I generate all my B2B sales leads through referrals, my relationships begin with trust and credibility already earned. My prospects are on my side. They tell me the truth and help me navigate the unique buying landscape at their companies. If a prospect isn’t a good fit, I know when to stop before I go down the competitive rabbit hole once again. I also know when I have earned the right to ask those prospects for referrals. And I use all the information to win new clients, even when I lose deals.

Want to learn more about generating B2B sales leads via referrals? Check out No More Cold Calling’s The Complete Referral System for Teams.

(This post was originally published in 2017 and updated January 12, 2023.)