Why I made referral selling my life’s work.

The year was 1996. I was working for a global consulting and training firm. The economy was booming, and my colleagues encouraged me to go out on my own. I had no name for my company, but I knew my focus. I would work with small companies to develop their sales strategy, sales process, and sales goals, and incorporate these into their business plan.

Well, that’s how it started, but it didn’t stay that way for long.

My first client was an outplacement firm (and a referral). Concurrently, they were conducting a survey with different questions each round—depending on respondents’ answers to the previous questions.

To this day, I don’t know why, but I added this question on the last round. “Would you be willing to be a referral to this company?” Fifty of the company’s best clients said they’d be glad to refer them!

I shared the results at our next meeting. My client was thrilled, of course. Then I asked the question I still ask every single client today: Have you asked every one of your clients for a referral? Their answer 25 years ago is the same answer I still hear every time I ask this question today: No.

That got me thinking. My entire career had been sales and sales management, and my best business had always come from referrals. I had the germ of an idea, but I needed to validate it. So, I did my “feet on the street” research. I asked salespeople and sales leaders I knew if they liked to get referral introductions. (Seems like a stupid question, but I had to hear their answers.) They told me that referrals helped them:

  • Gain immediate trust and credibility
  • Outwit the competition
  • Get meetings with prime prospects in one call
  • Decrease the cost of sales
  • Convert prospects to clients more than 50 percent of the time

Yep, that was my experience as well. My next question was key: Do you have a referral methodology, a system with a written strategy, metrics, skill-building, and accountability for results? Shocking, but the answer was “no” 25 years ago, and it’s “no” today.

Well, I’m a pretty logical person, and this made no sense to me. If referrals are so great (and every sales pro seemed to know that they are), then why wasn’t referral selling a priority for any sales organization? Suddenly my path was clear: I needed to fill the gap between what salespeople said about referrals, and what they were actually doing.

That’s when I developed my referral methodology—a straightforward, step-by-step process to hardwire referral selling into the way sales teams worked.  The methodology is the same today, but of course the examples and nuances have changed. People tell me it’s like Dale Carnegie. What works never goes out of style.

I didn’t know what to call my company. I was debating between No More Cold Calls and No More Cold Calling. I remember shooting a short video about my company. I asked the producer which she liked better. “Easy,” she said. “No More Cold Calling rolls off your tongue better.” That was it.

I was a member of a leads group at the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce. I knew the people in my group well. They asked if I could teach them what I was teaching my clients. That was the start of my public workshops, which I continued to facilitate for the next eight years, while still doing private work with clients.

By 2002-2003, people were continually asking if I had a book. I considered writing a book, but every author I knew said it was a grueling experience. Why would I want that? But I began interviewing people whose business was helping authors with their books. None felt right. Then one day, I got a call from a woman I’d met at a networking luncheon. When I told her I was going to write a book about referral selling, she said, “You have to meet my father-in-law, Gerry Sindell.” He knew how to write a proposal that sold, and it did. He’s a brilliant editor and can tell you what’s missing, as well as what needs to change. As the saying goes: “The rest is history.”

Gerry introduced me to an agent who had just left a major publisher. He accepted my book, and I got an advance. Then the writing began. My first book—No More Cold Calling: The Breakthrough System That Will Leave Your Competition in the Dust—was published in 2006 by Warner Books. It’s a long time ago, but the referral process still works.

Fast forward to 2013. I was increasingly concerned with all the focus on technology and the disregard for human interaction. That’s when I wrote Pick Up the Damn Phone, with my long-time editor and friend, Taylor Mallory Holland. (She knows my content better than I do, and she edits every single blog I post.)  I was concerned about using “damn,” but my colleagues told me it wasn’t a swear word. I’m so glad I stuck to that, as the title makes everyone laugh. But it’s the subtitle that says it all: How People, Not Technology, Seal the Deal.

Flash Sale

For the month of June, you can get my books at a significant savings.

No More Cold Calling (Kindle edition) is $3.00 USD

No More Cold Calling (hardcover) is $20.11 (was $23.95)

Pick Up the Damn Phone (paperback) is $9.95 (was $23.95)

Pick Up the Damn Phone (Kindle edition) is $1.00 (was $9.95)

What’s different today after 25 years? Sure, I’m older. My points of view about referral selling have gotten stronger. Here are some experiences.

  • No one should ever have to cold call. (I get a lot of push-back on this.) Many people tell me they’re hugely successful at cold calling. I tell them to keep doing it. But that is not the experience most salespeople have.
  • I developed an online program in 2012. (I forgot the year and had to look it up.) The program consisted of eight 30-minute webinars plus live facilitation. But most of my client engagements were in-person until 2018.
  • In 2018, I was referred to LinkedIn Learning. It took several months working with my producer to outline the course and the video scripts. The course is a series of three-to-five-minute videos with worksheets and quizzes. They flew me to their professional studios in Southern California. What an amazing experience! LinkedIn Learning did a fabulous job of editing and adding quizzes. You can find my course here.
  • I no longer need to tell people why referrals are the best qualified lead generation ever. Thankfully, it’s become common knowledge.
  • I started working with clients to build a referral culture. I never wanted to use that term, because I thought it translated to lots of money and taking forever. Then I found this definition of culture: “Culture’s what happens when no one is looking.” Yes! Referrals become the way we work. It’s in our DNA.
  • The biggest gap today is between inbound and outbound referrals. We all get occasional inbound referrals—a client moves to another company and calls us. Or they call us to do more work with their existing company. Or they tell others to call us. But that’s passive. Top salespeople don’t sit around and wait. Outbound referrals are referral introductions we ask for—purposely. We ask for an introduction to our ideal prospect. That’s only happening few and far between.
  • No one is asking all their clients for referrals. Still.
  • The conversion rate of prospect to client has shifted from an average of 50 percent to 70 percent. Yet, few companies still don’t have a referral system with a strategy, metrics, skills, and accountability for results. Doesn’t make much sense, does it?
  • People still feel safer hiding behind technology and sending cold, automated emails and spam on LinkedIn. I guess they think something will stick. What a waste of time, when they could be asking for referrals and getting introductions.

What Else Is New?

On a business note:

  • My referral selling program is going bigger! It will be on the top Sales Enablement Platform: SalesHood. What I love about SalesHood, is it’s real time with peer sharing and total transparency. Managers coach their people so that no program falls off the radar. It means boosting productivity, improving win rates, and faster time to ramp new employees. Everyone is engaged. (What a concept!) Elay Cohen is the CEO and co-founder, an author, and is recognized as a top contributor to sales enablement. I’m pleased to call Elay a friend, and I’m super-excited about this new direction.

On a personal note

  • Well, I’m a grandmother and love that these young teenagers still want to come for an overnight—which they’ve been doing since they were three months old.
  • We sold our family home in 2020 (a perfect time to sell) and moved to Santa Rosa, California. Just about 45 minutes north.

What’s Next?

I don’t know. It depends on what salespeople want. I’ll be slowing down a bit, and I have no idea what that looks like yet.

Please keep in touch, let me know what you’d like more of, less of, or just the same.

Thanks for celebrating 25 years with me!


(Note: This post contains affiliate links, and I will be compensated if you make a purchase after clicking on my links.)