How to connect beyond the click when asking for referrals.

My client, Sue, identified a colleague on LinkedIn who knew her prospect, George—a high-profile, very senior buyer. She’d tried asking for referrals to George on LinkedIn, but she felt their introductions lacked the emotion needed to convince George to meet with her. This time, she arranged a call with her colleague to get the referral.

What a difference! Not only did she get the referral. She got the inside scoop. She learned what George valued, the best way to communicate with him, key topics to probe, insights to share, and most importantly, what he was like. She also got an inside story that was quite comical, which she was ready to use if the opportunity arose.

Turns out, George was not ready for her solution, but he introduced her to two of his counterparts in other companies. Sue expanded her network into the C-Suite, and she and George have become business friends. (Not just colleagues, but friends, and I don’t use that term lightly.)

Social media lead generation can work. But clicking buttons is not the way to forge new relationships, and it’s certainly not the way to get referrals. Start a conversation online and then take the conversation offline. That’s how you build relationships and trust. Consider this contrarian thought: People do business with people they know, like, and trust. That’s what makes referrals so powerful. But trust must be earned, and we don’t earn that right with digital referrals.

Get Offline to Get the Referral

What’s so bad about asking for referrals on social media?

1. Referrals are your reputation.

When you introduce someone, your reputation is on the line. You must have a strong enough relationship to feel confident that this person will follow through, earn the prospect’s trust, and take care of your contact just as you would. You want to know this person will be informative, insightful, and leave your contact with information she can use, even if she doesn’t buy. Simply put: You want to be sure the person you’re referring won’t embarrass you and jeopardize your relationship with the buyer.

The same is true for your team’s referral sources. Clients tell me it ticks them off when they receive automated requests from salespeople hoping to get referrals. It’s not only presumptuous; it’s rude—and a big sales mistake.

An exception: It’s OK to write to someone on LinkedIn or send an email and ask if they know the person you want to meet. That’s not cold calling. But that’s where digital referrals stop. Use social media to identify potential referral sources, but then have a conversation to get the referral. If you don’t know someone well enough to pick up the damn phone and talk to them, you don’t know that person well enough to be asking for referrals.

2. You have no clue about the connection.

The average LinkedIn user has at least 500 connections. Tell me, do you know 500 people well enough to introduce them to strangers?

A LinkedIn connection is not a relationship; it’s a contact name. Granted, everyone’s connected to people with whom they have actual relationships, but many people accept every LinkedIn invitation, even those from perfect strangers.

Until salespeople actually talk to potential referral sources, they don’t know how those people are connected to their prospects.

3. Your referral source needs to know the business reason for the introduction.

Buyers take referrals when:

  • They’re wrestling with a problem, and someone they trust has explained how your company might be able to solve it.
  • A trusted colleague has always sent good people their way. They know they won’t get a pitch, and they’ll always learn. Reps will share best practices, insights, and stories about what’s going on in other companies.

But referral sources can’t explain the business reason for the call if they don’t know it, nor can they be sure your sales team will provide relevant insights. At least not without a conversation.

4. You miss key business insights.

When reps automate referral introductions, they lose the chance to learn more about their prospects. But when they take their conversations offline, they not only get the referral, they conduct a discovery call—the same as if they were speaking directly with a prospect.

How does the referral source know the prospect? What’s she like? How does she prefer communicating? What’s important to her, both personally and professionally? Those are the kinds of insights that help seal deals.

I’ll Let You in on a Secret

I automate my LinkedIn invitation responses. That might come as a surprise if you’ve spent much time on my blog. But I only automate responses to people who send automated requests. Send me a personal invitation, and I’ll review your profile and send you a personalized response. Otherwise, this is what you’ll get:

 Many thanks for your invitation to connect. LinkedIn is a place to begin a conversation. Let me know what questions you have about referral selling, and we’ll begin a dialogue.”  

You might think this is duplicitous, and that’s OK. Remove my connection. After all, if you received this message, it only took you a couple seconds to add me in the first place.

My goal is to begin a conversation, and many people respond with questions that I’m glad to answer. Some questions are more complex, and we’ll arrange a phone call. Either way, we’ve begun a conversation and started a relationship. That’s what sales is about.

Closing Thoughts 

Over half (55 percent) of sales leaders are dissatisfied with their team’s ability to generate referrals, according to CSO Insights. I can think of plenty of reasons that sales teams don’t get referrals at scale, and digital referrals are one of them.

There’s a saying in sales that people buy with emotion and justify with fact. If we don’t connect with people on a personal level, we’ll never get the sale. And salespeople stand a far greater chance of learning who their prospects are by talking to people who know them than by reading their LinkedIn profiles.

You can automate your sales process, but you can’t automate relationships. You can’t automate culture. You can’t automate people. You must earn the right to get the referral.

Carefully examine your social media lead generation strategy and include asking for referrals … the right way.

Want to help your team learn the secret to asking for referrals in a way that gets results? Invite me to speak at your annual Sales Kickoff Meeting.