Asking for referrals feels riskier than cold calling.

“I’m not sure of the reason, but I have never been comfortable asking for referrals.” That comment was from a 20-year sales veteran, the kind of seasoned pro who should know how to get referrals, and given this person’s track record, should feel confident about asking.

I wasn’t surprised. It’s what I always hear. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been in sales. Culture, country, religious beliefs, and industry don’t seem to make much difference. One thing most everyone has in common—they’re uncomfortable asking for referrals. And so most salespeople don’t.

That’s a problem, considering every sales leader I’ve ever met acknowledges that business referrals are their highest quality leads, hands down.

Referrals aren’t that hard to come by. In fact, 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.

To receive referrals at scale, you must ask for referrals at scale.

With that in mind, it’s time to address the elephant in the room—the hurdle you must overcome before you can learn how to get referrals. And that is call reluctance.

Why Referrals Feel So Risky

Why are salespeople so afraid of asking for referrals? When we know referrals work, why does asking for them feel so risky?

Here’s why. Referral selling is damn personal. We’re vulnerable. What if the person says no and refuses to refer us? It’s rejection front and center. Therefore, we don’t ask.

But even before asking for referrals, call reluctance looms. We worry about seeming like one of those pushy, aggressive, sleazy salespeople. (Think “used-car” salesman.) Nobody wants to be seen like that. We feel asking is intrusive and could jeopardize important relationships. We think that asking for business could be interpreted as a sign of weakness.

So, we shut down and don’t even bother to ask. After all, it’s easier to just pester strangers with social media sales pitches.

The Truth About Asking

Referral reluctance is your brain playing tricks on you. When you really stop and think about it, you’ll realize that you’ve got referrals all wrong.

A referral introduction means prospects have agreed to talk to salespeople, unlike cold calling victims who never asked to be interrupted. Referred prospects trust salespeople, because they trust the referrer, and that trust gets transferred. With referrals, salespeople rarely have competition, and the conversion rate of prospect to client is well more than 50 percent. Plus, the relationship is different from the get-go, isn’t it?

None of that is bad, underhanded, or risky. It’s the opposite: Most people like referring salespeople they trust. Don’t you?

Once you change your mind about asking, you can focus on how to get referrals.

5 Levels of Call Reluctance

Sometimes referral reluctance stops salespeople from asking. Other times it stops them from asking the right way.

There’s more to how to get referrals than simply asking for them. There are at least five follow-up questions to optimize a referral request, and each of them presents an opportunity for referral reluctance.

These questions include:

  1. Who are one or two people you can introduce me to?

It’s easy to get a name and run with it. That’s typically how referrals have happened in the past. No more. Without an introduction, your outreach is ice cold. The prospect doesn’t know you and doesn’t expect to hear from you. Sure, you can drop a name, and sometimes that works. But that’s not a referral.

  1. What can you tell me about the prospect?

Now’s your opportunity to get “intel.” Find out stuff you’ll never learn on social media. (Because we only publish what we want others to see.) Find out about the relationship. How does your referral source know the prospect? What’s her style? What’s important to her? What’s the best mode of communication? Get as much color commentary as you can.

  1. Why me, why now?

 Ask why the referrer thought of this prospect for you. What are the problems you can solve? What would be important to emphasize in a conversation? 

  1. What’s the best way to introduce me?

Most introductions today are by email, but not all. I recently asked a client for a referral, and he told me he was seeing an individual that evening who would be a good prospect. It’s best if your referral source reaches out to the person first, but many don’t make the time. Be sure that you’re copied on the email and can respond quickly to schedule time to talk.

  1. When can you make the introduction?

You may be thinking “Enough, already. This feels as if I’m asking too much.” But if you don’t ask this question, you have no timeline, and neither does your referral source.

It Gets Even Riskier

After decades of helping sales teams learn how to get referrals, I’ve discovered that salespeople know exactly where their best referrals come from: their clients. Yet, clients are often the people they’re most uncomfortable asking.

Huh? Clients are our best source of new business. They know us, trust us, and are clear we’ve made a huge difference in their company. So, why don’t salespeople want to ask them for referrals?

Because their brains start playing tricks on them again. They worry: “What if I didn’t do a good enough job? (Even though I thought I did.) What if they had a complaint I didn’t know about? Then I’d have to spend my sales time fixing their problem instead of selling. They paid us, so what right do I have to ask for more?”

Oh yes, asking our clients for referrals is riskier. Once again, we put our reputations on the line.

Fact: Clients will be glad to refer you, but you must ask. They won’t refer you to their competitors, of course, but they know other people who might be your ideal prospects.

Another fact: Your clients are not mind-readers. They might not know you want more business. (I know. A crazy question. But I’ve gotten it.) They might think that if they refer you, you won’t have enough time for them. You can cut this off immediately. Tell them you always have room for one or more great clients like themselves.

How to Get Referrals: Ask Everybody

Ask everyone you’ve met during the sales process for a referral. Every single one. You may think some are too junior and wouldn’t know anyone, but you don’t know who people know until you ask. You don’t know their neighbors, family, networking groups, roommates, kids, etc. (Yes, some of us have kids in the workforce.)

Don’t be like this senior consultant, when I inquired whether they were asking their current clients for referral business. The exact response was: “That would be a really good idea.”

Yes, it would. Start asking. That’s how to get referrals.

If you agree that referrals are your best business and you haven’t systematized referrals and learned how to ask, check out this 2019 Summer Virtual Referral Selling Workshop Series. I only want people who agree to be accountable for results, because otherwise you waste your money, your time, and mine. You might not know me well enough to click a link and enroll. If that’s the case, send an email to and we’ll schedule a call. I want to ensure that this program is right for you.