Asking for referrals feels riskier than cold calling.

“I’m not sure why, 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. I hear it all the time, from sales newbies, small business owners, and even experienced, successful salespeople like this one. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been in sales. Culture, country, religious beliefs, and industry don’t seem to make much difference either. One thing most everyone has in common—they’re uncomfortable asking for referrals. And so most salespeople don’t ask.

That’s a problem, because 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 companies after a positive experience, according to an oft-quoted Texas Tech survey. But only 29 percent actually provide those referrals. Why? Because salespeople don’t ask them to. According to recent research from Sales Insight Labs, 40 percent of salespeople rarely ask for referrals, and less than 20 percent ask every single client.

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.

(Image attribution: Will Burrard-Lucas, via CNN)

Why Referrals Feel So Risky

Why are salespeople so afraid of asking for referrals? When everyone knows referrals are the best source of new business, why does asking for them feel so risky?

Referral selling is damn personal. Asking for referrals makes reps feel vulnerable. They worry that asking for help will make them seem weak or desperate. After they’ve put egos on the line, the person could still say no and refuse to refer them. How mortifying would that be?! Simply put, the fear of rejection keeps salespeople from asking.

Or maybe the fear is what asking for referrals might do to our reputations. Reps don’t want to seem like one of those pushy, aggressive, sleazy salespeople. (Think “used-car” salesman.) Many worry that asking for referrals might be intrusive (it’s not) and could jeopardize important relationships (it won’t).

Too many salespeople let fear and ego stand in the way of asking for referrals. After all, it’s easier to just pester strangers with social media sales pitches. But it’s not nearly as effective for prospecting.

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. Referrals aren’t bad, underhanded, or risky. The opposite is true. Referrals are built on trust and mutual respect.

When you have a referral introduction, prospects have agreed to talk to you, unlike cold calling victims, who never asked to be interrupted. Referred prospects trust you, 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?

Most people like referring salespeople they trust. Don’t you? It makes us look good when we make referrals. Why wouldn’t your customers feel the same way?

Once you change your mind about asking for referrals, 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 (which salespeople should always ask referral sources) 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.

2.  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 the prospect’s style? What’s important to them? What’s the best mode of communication? Get as much color commentary as you can.

3.  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?

4.  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.

5.  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.

What’s Stopping YOU?

I’m curious what’s standing in your way of asking for referrals. Take the poll below.

How comfortable are you asking for referrals?

Take the poll here.

(This post was originally published on May 19, 2019 and updated February 28, 2023.)