This is a truthful and proven guide for how to ask for referrals. You won’t read that referrals are easy or that all you have to do is ask. What you will read are lessons and insights that I have gleaned from working my referral system with clients for the past 23 years. I’m not braggadocious, but I know what works. I also know there’s a lot of bad advice that’s proffered about referrals. You may not agree with everything I say, and that’s OK. Just know I always tell the truth. You can’t shortcut relationships, and there are no shortcuts to how to ask for referrals.
Sales leaders acknowledge that referrals are their fastest revenue driver and solve their two biggest issues: getting qualified leads in the pipe and scoring meetings with decision-makers. But referral selling is easier said than done.
While all salespeople love to receive referrals, most are uncomfortable asking for them, and many sales leaders don’t believe referrals can scale. One reason is their sales teams don’t know how to ask for referrals.
Asking clients for referrals is simple, but it isn’t easy. There are wrong and right ways to ask for a referral. Mastering the skill requires a process, practice, and (in order to scale) a referral system with KPIs for referral results.
Why Ask for Referrals?
Sales leaders know that referrals work, not just because there’s data to prove it (and there is plenty), but because they know from personal experience.
When sales teams know how to ask for referrals, they don’t have to worry about identifying decision-makers, bypassing gatekeepers, or proving themselves trustworthy. They get meetings with decision-makers in one call, outpace the competition, uncover pressing problems, and build relationships that drive sales (and more referrals).
I’ve been making the business case for referrals for decades. In the beginning, I needed to prove referrals were the way to go. Today, sales leaders tell me I can skip the stats. They already know they need more referrals in their pipelines. Their teams don’t know how to ask for referrals or how to get them at scale.
In fact, 87 percent of frontline sales reps and 82 percent of sales leaders agree that referrals are their best leads, according to an Influitive/Heinz Marketing survey. That makes sense, considering 76.2 percent of business buyers prefer to work with referred vendors, and 73 percent prefer to work with referred salespeople, according to IDC and LinkedIn.
Despite all the hype around referrals, very few salespeople ask for referrals on a regular basis. That’s leaving money on the table, because 83 percent of satisfied customers are willing to refer products and services, according to a marketing survey conducted by Texas Tech. But only 29 percent actually do.
Why don’t the rest of them provide referrals? Because no one asked.
What Is a Referral, Anyway?
Some salespeople really believe they’re asking clients for referrals. They tell satisfied customers, “Hey, if you know anyone who might benefit from my products and services, please pass my name along.” That’s not how to ask for referrals in sales.
Here’s another common scenario: They use LinkedIn to find mutual connections with their prospects, reach out to those connections, and say, “Hey, I’m trying to get a meeting with so-and-so at XYZ Corp. I see you know each other. Can I drop your name?”
That’s not how to ask for referrals either. Even if your referral source says yes, you’re still cold calling.
My definition of a cold call is any attempt to reach a prospect who doesn’t know you and doesn’t expect to hear from you. It doesn’t have to be by phone. Whether it’s via email, social media, text, direct mail, or even a knock on the door, prospects are ice cold unless they expect the salesperson’s call.
That’s why referrals mean you receive an introduction. With referral introductions, prospects expect to hear from you and have already agreed to take your call. In fact, they welcome the call because someone they know and trust has already vouched for you and explained the business reason for making the connection.
Many salespeople now buy into the “warm call fantasy”—the idea that social media intel, mutual connections, and name-dropping can “warm up” cold leads. Wrong! Prospecting is either HOT or cold … period. Unless the prospect knows the salesperson and expects the call, it’s a cold outreach, no matter what you call it.
The only way to make hot calls is to be an expected call. Recommendations, shared social connections, and name dropping don’t warm up leads. Referral introductions do.
How to Ask for Referrals in 4 Proven Steps
If you don’t ask for referrals, you won’t receive them—at least not at scale. Occasionally a well-served client will recommend you to a colleague, but those are strokes of luck, and smart salespeople don’t rely on luck to fill their pipelines. They don’t sit back and wait for the phone to ring or for marketing to send over a fresh batch of cold leads. They go out and ask for referrals.
1. Describe your ideal client.
Salespeople often think that if they don’t mention everything they offer and everyone they serve, they’ll miss a sale. The opposite is true. When you’re precise about your ideal client, you make it easy for referral sources to think of the right person(s) for you to meet. As you’re painting a picture of your ideal client, consider the following:
- Industry: Which industries are you targeting? Where does your business have a track record and existing relationships?
- Geography: In what regions or countries do you want to work?
- Company Size: What is the ideal size of your target prospect, and how do you measure it? (number of employees, revenue, length of time in business, geographic coverage)
- Business Unit or Function: What group of people within the company are your ideal contacts?
- Type of Person: What are the personality traits of your ideal client?
- Situation/Need: What is the problem your prospect faces that makes your solution imperative?
2. Explain the business reason for asking.
My ongoing Referral I.Q. Quiz asks, “Do your referral sources know the top two reasons to refer you?” Out of more than 550 sales pros who have taken the quiz, two-thirds (66.53 percent) said no.
If people don’t know why they should refer you, and to whom they should refer you, they’re clueless. Your referral sources aren’t mind-readers. Part of knowing how to ask for referrals is explaining the business impact of your solution.
It’s your job to give potential referral sources as much information as possible about the results your clients achieve. This makes your referral sources feel confident about putting their reputations on the line for you. It also helps them to think of someone to refer, and then make the case for those people to talk to you.
3. Get the introduction.
We’ve been over this, but it’s worth repeating: Don’t skip the introduction. Without an introduction, you don’t have a referral. You’re just another cold caller pestering busy people while they’re trying to work, or worse, enjoying their personal lives.
Ask your referral source to introduce you to your prospect, either over the phone, via email, or even in person. If they’re reaching out via email, ask to be copied so you can follow up.
4. Say thanks (preferably in writing).
People really do enjoy connecting good people, and referral sources want to know when they’ve made a perfect referral. They’ve gone out of their way to introduce you, and that effort deserves recognition. Just as importantly, when they know they’ve made a good referral, they’re clear on exactly who you want to meet and can send more referrals your way.
Be sure to thank the referred prospect as well. Even if you don’t write business with them now, let them know you value the new connection and continue to stay in touch. Over time, you will become a trusted resource. Offer to be a sounding board for ideas—no strings attached. Maybe they’re not ready now, but they might become a client later. At the very least, they could be a great source of referrals. Follow up.
What’s the best way to say thanks? You can make a call or send an email to express your gratitude, but my favorite method is still a handwritten note. Writing a thank-you note shows that you actually care enough to take the time and energy to find a card, an envelope, and a stamp. It also makes your message stand out. People receive so few handwritten notes today. It’s truly a lost art. Which mail do you open first? Not the gas bill.
Practice, Practice, Practice
Building professional skills takes practice—deliberate practice. That includes knowing how to ask for referrals in sales. But adults resist practice. We get paid to do our jobs correctly the first time. Practice is on our own time. And who has extra time just floating around?
Children practice all the time. Remember learning to ride a bike? You probably started with a tricycle (very safe), then got a bicycle with training wheels (safe), which you eventually dropped for a free ride (not so safe). You fell, skinned your knees, and got back on. You eventually mastered the machine, but you didn’t learn overnight.
B2B sales reps don’t learn how to ask for referrals overnight either. It takes practice to be good at it … and to stay good at it. As Malcolm Gladwell wrote in Outliers, “Practice isn’t the thing you do once you’re good. It’s the thing you do that makes you good.”
Consider professional athletes and musicians. They don’t just practice once. Their career success is predicated on continual practice. And they don’t practice the fancy stuff first. They practice the basics—over and over again. Practice is how precision is built.
It continues to amaze me that we spend time and money with trainers at the gym, coaches for our sports activities, and teachers for our hobbies. But our professional development comes last, if at all. Who are the first people to raise their hands to participate in training and commit to results? It’s not the low performers. It’s the high performers, the experienced salespeople, the veterans who understand the way they got to the peak of their careers was by building their professional skills.
Even the most experienced sellers get rusty without regular practice. If you want to build permanent, repeatable, effective referral selling skills, you must make time to practice the following:
1. Practice How to Ask for Referrals
Referral selling is a skill, and the only way to build skills is to practice. If you don’t practice asking for referrals, you’ll blow it. You’ve wasted your time, because you’ll fall back on your old way of asking. Once you’ve learned how to ask the right way, you need to practice in-person with at least two people. The guidelines are:
- No one in your household
- No one in your company
- No clients
Practice with a colleague, next-door neighbor, running partner, parent at your kid’s school, sales rep in a different business than you. Your practice partners don’t need to know anything about your business. If they “get” what you’re looking for, you’ve nailed your intro.
I also suggest finding an Accountability Partner for ongoing practice—someone to keep you on track and tell you the truth. Someone to be “in your face” and ensure you do what you say you’ll do. Someone who expects you to practice and report your results.
2. Practice Giving Referrals
Connecting people not only feels good, but you’re helping someone out. When you refer people you know and trust, you become a valuable, credible resource.
I’ve built my business entirely through referrals, but I’ve given as many (or more) than I’ve received. Because my referral sources and prospects know I have a large network, they realize that I am also a great source of information that can make a difference for them. Sometimes I get non-business requests for referrals—for a dog walker, mechanic, realtor … you name it. My suggestions are invariably met with, “I knew you would know someone.” What a great compliment!
Actively look for opportunities to give referrals as often as possible. Don’t wait to be asked. Learn who they want to meet and ask about their best referral partners. You could refer resources to your clients, refer your clients to their prospects, or refer other salespeople who aren’t your competitors.
3. Practice Your Follow-Through
You’ve probably heard the saying, “The fortune is in the follow-up.” There’s no excuse for not following up—immediately—with clients, prospects, and referral sources.
People forget about us if they haven’t heard from us, so it’s important to keep in touch with everyone in your referral network. Develop a campaign to send relevant information on a regular basis. I send a weekly email and a monthly newsletter, and each month I get a response from several people I haven’t heard from in years. For some reason, the message was timely, and they’re ready to talk. Some just write that my message spoke to them—nothing more. That feels great.
It doesn’t matter how busy you are. Make time to practice these and other critical prospecting skills. Otherwise, you’ll never learn how to ask for referrals in sales. Practice becomes your game-changing, compelling event. Practice is your sales future.
4 Misconceptions About How to Ask for Referrals
What stands in the way of salespeople learning ways to ask for referrals? There are many misconceptions that trick sales pros into thinking that they’re already “doing” referrals the right way, even when they’re way off.
Here are four of the most harmful referral myths:
1. Referrals are easy.
Nope! If it was easy, everyone would be doing it. Sure, referrals happen from time-to-time—maybe a client moves to another company and brings you in. But very few sales teams have a reliable methodology to ensure referrals become the way they work every single day.
The truth is, asking for referrals isn’t easy. It feels risky, scary, and unnatural for most people. Learning how to ask for referrals requires skills-building, coaching, lots of practice, and accountability for results.
2. Sales leaders can just tell people to ask.
Because many sales leaders buy into the myth that referrals are easy, they believe it’s enough to simply tell their teams to ask for referrals. Then they scratch their heads and wonder why referrals aren’t pouring in.
Saleseople spend their time on prospecting activities that get measured, and in most organizations, referrals aren’t part of their KPIs. Instead, sales performance is measured based on calls made and emails sent. So, guess how reps choose to spend their sales prospecting time? Pestering strangers with cold calls, cold emails, and cold social media outreach.
Telling doesn’t work. Metrics do.
3. Referrals don’t scale.
Referrals do scale when you have metrics, reinforcement, and accountability—in other words, when referrals are the sales organization’s priority and there’s a system in place to measure results.
For referral selling to work, it needs to be your organization’s primary outbound lead generation strategy. Your marketing team still produces content to drive and nurture inbound leads. But your other outbound strategies (i.e., cold calling and stalking strangers on social media) waste valuable sales time that could be spent growing your referral network and asking clients for referrals.
A referral program isn’t just one more initiative to introduce to your organization. Referral selling is a complete shift that requires skills building so that reps know how to ask for referrals. It requires an organized referral program that includes:
- A short, specific written referral sales plan
- Written weekly referral selling goals for your company and for each salesperson
- Metrics to track and measure referral activities and referral results
- Company and individual accountability for referral results
4. You can save time and ask digitally.
Nope. Digital referral requests are cop outs, creepy, and sales faux pas. Forget all those articles about how to ask for referrals on LinkedIn or how to ask for referrals in an email. Just pick up the damn phone!
Done right, social selling is a powerful way for salespeople to nurture their referral networks, conduct research on prospects, and engage new audiences with relevant content. But clicking buttons is not the way to forge new relationships, and it’s certainly not how to ask for referrals.
Use social media to identify potential referral sources, but then take the conversation offline to make your request. Here’s why:
- A conversation is personal: Referral selling is a highly personal interaction. If you don’t know someone well enough to call them, you don’t know them well enough to ask for referrals.
- A conversation yields more information: Speaking with referral sources gives you the opportunity to explain the business reason for your referral request and to get “inside information” about your prospects.
- A conversation is a chance to reconnect: Asking clients for referrals is a great reason to reach out, nurture those important relationships, and learn what you can do for them.
Who Should You Ask for Referrals?
The short answer is, everybody you know.
You should certainly be asking clients for referrals—including clients from former companies. Clients know how you work, what your ideal client looks like, and how you add value. But while they make up the top tier of your referral network, there is untapped referral potential in every area of your life.
Many of us believe that, because our solutions or industries are super-complex and sophisticated, only certain people are worthwhile referral sources. That assumption is just plain wrong. Everyone knows someone.
Referrals come from everywhere. Think of all the people you know. All those people know other people, and you don’t know who they know until you ask. You might get the perfect referral from your attorney, another passenger on an airplane, your neighbor, or even your family.
Some of your best potential referral sources are the people you see every day—your co-workers. Everyone in your organization knows hundreds of people, and who understands the value of your organization better than your colleagues? And who could possibly be more invested in your company’s success than the people who get their paycheck from that company?
Find out where your colleagues worked before they joined your company. Who are their next-door neighbors? Who were their college roommates? Perhaps one of them has a sister who works at your ideal client company. Spend time talking to the people who work for or with you, and help them understand how to ask for referrals and connect your team with qualified leads.
Another unexpected source of referrals are the prospects who didn’t decide to work with you. Maybe your solution wasn’t the right fit, or they just didn’t have the budget for your product. But if you built a good rapport, you can still ask for referrals, even if you didn’t win their business. Talk about a silver lining!
Asking Clients for Referrals—When Is the Timing Right?
“When should I ask?” This is a common inquiry I get from salespeople. It’s a good question, but it also reflects the discomfort that many salespeople feel about how to ask for referrals from existing clients. They don’t want to appear pushy, or salesy, or arrogant, so they push it further and further out in the sales process.
With satisfied clients, it’s rarely too soon to ask for referrals. But it can be too late.
Many salespeople think they should wait until they sign a deal, some wait until implementation is complete, and others feel they can’t ask until the client sees an ROI on their solution. They wait and they wait, often until the relationship with the initial buyer is so far removed that they never ask.
What does that scenario tell us? We should never lose touch with our buyers and all of the other individuals we touch during both the sales and implementation process. We should be asking every single one of them for referrals—not when the deal is done but as soon as we’ve provided them with something valuable, whether that’s expertise, information, or just a good experience.
How do you know when you’ve provided value? A good indication is when they say “thank you.” That’s your in. Don’t be afraid to take it.
Bottom line: If you don’t know how to ask for referrals from existing clients, and if you’re not asking every single person you meet at every single client site, you’re leaving good money on the table.