Get over the discomfort and get referrals with confidence.

I used to think it was just sales newbies who struggled with asking for referrals. They simply hadn’t built their networks or their confidence. When seasoned reps admitted they needed to get over their sales discomfort around asking for referrals, I was shocked. I wondered about those in non-traditional sales roles like customer success, CPAs, attorneys, architects, engineers, and consultants—who are now being asked to sell. If sales pros can’t muster the courage needed to be asking for referrals, I doubt anyone outside the sales team is asking with any regularity.

It doesn’t matter your gender, age, industry experience, or culture. Asking for referrals is hard for us all, because it’s the most personal kind of selling. It’s also the most effective prospecting method.

Personal sales discomfort is the elephant in the room. I’m calling it out, because everyone feels the same way. (Just when you think you’re the only one, you never are, right?) It feels uncomfortable, because you convince yourself:

  • You could be intruding and jeopardizing a trusted relationship.
  • You’re asking a busy person to do even more.
  • You’re afraid of being perceived as weak because you’re asking for help. (Well, that’s not cool.)
  • If you have to ask, it might suggest you’re not very successful. (That’s embarrassing.)
  • Asking for referrals feels pushy and “salesy.” (You’re not that kind of salesperson.)
  • It feels like begging, asking for a favor. And then you might owe them something back.
  • They might say NO.

The truth is, your clients and trusted colleagues won’t say no. Why would they? Referrals are how most people prefer to do business, whether they’re looking for a good restaurant or a new software vendor.

Don’t Assume Your Team Is Ready

Let’s set the record straight: Most everyone on your team has some degree of sales discomfort, whether they’re cold calling or asking for referrals. Yet, sales leaders regularly tell their teams to go out there and get referrals. But how many qualified referrals does this actually help them get? Few, if any. I call this the “pointing and telling” method. When has that ever worked? Just try it with your kids and see how it plays out.

(Image attribution: Karolina Grabowska)

If some of your team members had trouble with a new initiative, would you tell them to figure it out on their own? Of course not. You’d help them, pair them up with team members who get it, or provide other resources. Why not do the same thing to help them get referrals?

In addition to referral sales discomfort, your KPIs are out of whack. In most SAAS companies, reps close a deal and hand it off to customer success. They then go looking for new logos. See the absurdity in this approach? Account executives make amazing relationships with many clients during the buying process, then leave them in the dust. These relationships are the best source of new business. Clients can refer to their counterparts in other companies or to another division in their company, if salespeople actually maintain these relationships.

What would your pipeline look like if salespeople were asking for referrals from every one of these clients? Every company has an under-utilized higher-value revenue stream that can generate significant qualified opportunities in any economy. New clients and existing clients are the top source of new business, and no one is asking.

You’ve heard the often-quoted statistic that acquiring a new customer is anywhere from five to 25 times more expensive than retaining an existing one. It makes sense: You don’t have to spend time and resources going out and finding a new client. So, why risk losing them once you’ve got them?

The Cure for Referral Sales Discomfort

 Sales reps won’t ask for referrals until they get over their referral sales discomfort. They not only need to understand the value of referral selling, but also recognize that a referral system isn’t optional.  it’s integrated into your sales process, with metrics and accountability for results.

Despite the success of referral leads, most companies still haven’t implemented a systematic referral program. Referral selling is a disciplined process sales leaders need to learn. Are you “all in” with referral selling, or just trying it on? Are you telling your team to ask for referrals? Or do you unequivocally believe and trust that you have a referral process in place to drive revenue, save your job, and position your company for sales success?

Referrals don’t just happen, at least not at scale. Yes, occasionally a well-served client will mention your company to another buyer and you’ll magically get a sale. But how often does that really happen? Unless you have a referral program in place to ensure your reps ask for referrals from every single client, your team is leaving money on the table.

Here’s what it takes:

  1. Making referrals a process and the priority: Referral selling must be your #1 business-development outreach. “Priority” is a singular word. Referral selling is either the priority, or it’s not. Referrals must be tightly integrated into your sales process, linked to KPI, and reinforced with rewards and recognition for your referral programs to scale.
  2. Setting metrics: Accountability for results is key. Without accountability, referrals are just an exercise that will soon be forgotten. The trick to track and measure referrals is to focus on leading indicators like referral activities, over lagging indicators like revenue. Key referral metrics include: referral introductions requested, referrals received, meetings scheduled with referred clients, meetings conducted, and deals closed from referrals.
  3. Provide tools for success: Referral selling is a skill—a behavior change. They must learn the right way to ask and avoid the tiresome, passive, and ineffective “If you know anyone who might need me, let me know.”  They must learn how to describe your company’s ideal client and explain the business reason for working with you. This takes time, training, and coaching.
  4. Keep skills sharp with practice and coaching: Reps will never get over their referral sales discomfort without practice. And for skills to stick, they must be coached and reinforced. This is not a one-time event. Referral selling becomes your DNA. You build a referral culture.

Adopting a referral program is simple, but it isn’t easy. It requires a complete shift—in the way your team thinks about referrals and how they go about getting them, and leaders making referrals a priority.

Referral selling is the most effective way to prospect. With a 70-percent conversion rate of prospect to client, your team will eliminate competitors, shorten your sales process, and decrease your cost of sales. Why would they waste time doing anything else?

 Ready to start tapping into the power of referrals? Check out No More Cold Calling’s Referral Selling Program for Account-Based Sellers.

(Featured image attribution: Joaquin Rivero)

(This post was originally published on April 20, 2017 and updated February 24, 2022.)