Referrals aren’t favors.

Salespeople often downplay the importance of referral networks or just don’t know how to ask for a referral. Don’t get distracted; don’t get embarrassed. Relationships and referrals are what business is all about!

When I interviewed Wes, senior vice president of sales for a well-known marketing automation company, I expected to hear all about the advantages of using his technology. Boy, was I wrong! Instead, he talked about the power of relationships for sales. “It’s not what you know,” he told me. “It’s who you know.”

When Wes was considering a new vendor, he spoke to a fellow VP at another company—a friend with whom he regularly meets to bounce around ideas. The two of them trust each other and value the relationship, so Wes didn’t need to shop the market. He chose the vendor his friend recommended.

“Relationships like this are how deals get done,” said Wes. “When a trusted resource refers you to someone, you take the time to explore the option.”

I couldn’t have put it better myself. If you haven’t figured out how to ask for a referral, here’s what you’re missing.

Referrals Aren’t Favors

 A key reason salespeople don’t get leads from referrals is that they’re hesitant to ask. They don’t know how to ask for a referral the right way. They don’t want to feel pushy, intrude on a relationship, or look like an aggressive, “in your face” salesperson. (You know the type.) It feels like begging and asking for a favor.

Let me set the record straight: Referrals aren’t favors. A favor is something you do out of goodwill, without getting anything in return—like helping someone move or feeding your neighbors’ cat when they’re out of town. But with referrals, everyone wins. You get leads, your prospect gets your expertise, and your referral source gets a reputation as someone with a network of experts.

When it comes to B2B sales, clients are not just buying your product or service; they’re paying for your expertise. They are accountable for results, and their jobs are on the line. They want to do business with people who know their stuff, who know how to deliver results, and who offer something a little different, better, or more targeted than competitors.

If you’re that kind of salesperson, referring you is not a favor. If anything, the referral source is doing a favor for your prospect by saving them the time and resources they would have spent looking for an expert like you.

The great truth about this sales lead generation technique is that people want to put good people together. (At least 98 percent of us do.) You just have to know how to ask for a referral.

To Like You Is to Trust You

Asking for a favor and asking for referrals do have one thing in common: Both require you to have a relationship with the person you’re asking.

Building relationships takes time. That’s why it’s important to start demonstrating your trustworthiness right out of the gate. In an era of economic instability and wrecked public faith in business, trust is no longer the default starting point for skeptical consumers. That means salespeople must earn and nurture it over time. And we must deliver on trustworthiness every single day.

When we’ve earned the trust of our clients, not only do they keep coming back for more (even bigger) deals, but they become our most loyal cheerleaders and advocates—spreading word of our value to their friends and colleagues. In other words, when we know how to ask for a referral, we get leads without cold calling. Relationships built on trust give us an edge over our competitors. In fact, often other sellers don’t even get a chance to compete. After all, why would our prospects bother shopping around if they already know they can trust us?

To Trust You Paves the Way

 We give referrals day in and day out, and they’re not favors. You spread the word about a delicious meal you had, a terrific movie, a must-read book, or the latest app for your phone. And when someone you know, like, and trust asks you for a referral, you say yes immediately. It’s not a bother or a favor. You’re simply telling others about a great experience you’ve had.

Some sales “experts” suggest this sales lead generation strategy is risky—that asking for referrals means putting your relationship or a friendship at risk. Puh-lease.

If we erroneously follow the “referrals are a favor/risk” logic, then we’d never ask for referrals. Or we’d ask in such a meaningless way that we might as well never ask in the first place. And that would be a shame, because business referrals are, hands-down, the best way to get leads.

Yes, you must earn the right to ask. Referrals are risky (and annoying) if you’re asking someone you met for a few minutes at a networking event, someone you’ve connected with on social media, or someone you’ve cold-called.

You’ve certainly earned the right with your customers, but have you asked everyone you know in your client organizations? Of course, they’ll refer you, but you must ask. Just because you’ve done important work for your clients, saved them money, and helped increase their revenue, doesn’t mean they’ll automatically think to refer you. Sure, that happens once in a while, but you can’t depend on their goodwill. They have a business to run, and you’re probably not top of mind for them. They may not realize you want more business (yep, I’ve had people ask me that), or know exactly the people you want to meet. Cluing them in is part of the job.

You leave money on the table every day if you’re not tapping into your most powerful referral resource—the people who like and trust you, i.e., your clients. They’re glad to help. But you must ask.

It’s time to re-wire your referral brain. We give referrals all the time—and they are neither favors nor risks. When are you going to delete “referrals are a favor” from your lexicon?

Get out of your comfort zone and learn how to ask for a referral in a way that gets results with my LinkedIn Learning “Referral Selling” course.

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.