There’s always a silver lining to getting sacked.

I didn’t plan to start my referral business so soon. But then I was fired. Yep. Just like that, my manager gave me the news. I had a sense something might be going on, since I’d recently lost a big deal to a competitor. But I didn’t expect to be fired. I left the office, went home, and took my dog for a hike. Sure, I shed a few tears, but there was really nothing I could do to change the situation.

In hindsight, this was good news. I’d been thinking about starting my own company, and many people had encouraged me. This was in 1996, and the economy was robust.

Of course, the silver lining wasn’t immediately apparent. In the beginning, I felt a little rejected and worried about the sudden loss of income.

From Problem Client to First Client

My employer gave me two weeks to get my accounts in order. Three days before I was to leave, my manager made me an offer. She needed a “senior consultant” to lead two local projects.

Translation: She had a problem client who needed extra time and attention. And I suddenly had plenty of time on my hands.

She asked me to stay for three months on a part-time, temporary basis. This was great news! I got to stay in my office, work with this problem client (who turned out not to be a problem after all), and start my own company.

From Consulting Business to Referral Business

It never crossed my mind that I’d launch a referral business. My initial goal was entirely different. I would work with small-to-medium companies to craft their sales strategy. I had worked with enough of these companies to know that, while they all had a business plan, you couldn’t find a section on business development if you tripped on it.

I was thinking big picture business development. I didn’t focus on the referral business angle until I started working with my first client.

The client was a leadership team at an outplacement firm. By chance, they were conducting a customer satisfaction survey with 50 of their best clients. The survey was several rounds. I added a question on the last round: “Would you be willing to offer a referral to this client?”

To this day, I have no idea where the question came from, but that survey was the genesis of my business. The survey had a seven-point scale, with seven being high. The average response to my question was 6.5.

Fifty of this company’s best clients said they’d be glad to give referrals. Was this company asking? Nope.

That’s when my wheels began to turn. As I reflected on my career in sales and sales management, I realized my best business had come from referrals.

My next step was to validate my beliefs. I did my “feet on the street” research and interviewed sales leaders and salespeople. I asked specific questions about referrals. Here’s how it went:

  • Do you like to get referrals? (Seems like a dumb question, because everyone likes them. But I had to ask.)
    • The Answer: Absolutely.
  • What do you like about referrals?
    • Prospects trust us. We have credibility.
    • There are no big marketing costs.
    • We build relationships quickly.
    • Referrals give us a competitive advantage.
    • The conversation rate is huge—well more than 50 percent.

Then I asked the pivotal question:

  • Do you have a referral system, a methodology, a programmatic, written strategy, with metrics, KPIs, skills, and accountability for results?
    • The Answer: No.

The answer is “no” to this day.

From Referral Questions to Referral Answers

I’m a logical person. I had to figure out why everyone said referral business was the best business, but no one had a referral system in place. Thus, No More Cold Calling was born.

I began my referral business by consulting with companies to develop a referral system. Then my colleagues in the San Francisco Chamber Business Alliance leads group asked if I would teach them what I taught my clients. I designed a one-day workshop, which I offered in live public sessions for many years.

Soon, people began asking if I had a book. I knew too many people who’d written books and told me it was a horrendous experience. Why would I do that to myself? But then, serendipity stepped in.

I knew nothing about publishing and recognized that I needed to find someone who did. I was introduced to a publishing expert, who could help with my book as well as find an agent. We wrote the proposal first. (That was the horrendous part.)

I got very lucky as a first-time author, and my book—NO MORE COLD CALLING: The Breakthrough System That Will Leave Your Competition in the Dust—was picked up by Warner Books. The book was published in 2006, and it’s selling even better today. The examples are dated, but the methodology is the same—because it works. It’s worked for the past 23 years. It will continue to work, because referral selling is a people business, and people don’t go out of style.

Hasn’t technology changed things? Glad you asked. It’s changed how we prospect, but it hasn’t changed how deals get done. In fact, referrals are more important than ever in a digital world, where many salespeople have let their people skills go rusty. So, in 2014, I published Pick Up the Damn Phone! How People, Not Technology, Seal the Deal.

Which brings me to now …

From Referral Business to Referral Culture

Now clients ask me to help them build a referral culture. It’s a bigger picture engagement, but a referral system shifts how sales teams work. Clients tell me they finally have a methodology—a step-by-step process to ensure sales reps are asking for referrals. They get meetings they couldn’t land before, and they convert their prospects to clients at unparalleled rates. Once they create their own referral business, they no longer complain about not getting enough leads. Better yet, their leads are pre-qualified, because sales reps are introduced to exactly the people they want to meet.

Many people ask if I’m going to retire. I’ve taken a phrase from a good friend of mine who says: “Retire from what?” My juice is seeing the shift sales teams make, how much better their lives are, and how they’re making and exceeding quota. I don’t feel the need to retire from that.

Getting fired was the push I needed to start my business. I stayed at that company’s consulting pool for another five years. I managed major training projects part-time and was on several faculties teaching sales programs. These experiences all informed the work I do today.

When I reflect on my career, I realize that referrals have always been my success secret. In fact, my first job out of college was a referral. My uncle knew someone and introduced me. I was referred to both consulting firms I worked for, and my first client was a referral. I’ve always said that referrals work whether you’re looking for a job, looking for a client, or looking for a date. I say this, not just because referrals are my business, but because a lifetime of experience has proven it to be true.

So, thanks for asking how I started my business and developed a passion for referrals. (Well, maybe you didn’t ask, but some of you have.) I love asking others that same question. Very few people grew up knowing what they wanted to do. Their stories are fascinating and always include serendipity. What’s your story?

Want to build your own referral business? Find out more about No More Cold Calling referral selling programs.