Referral sellers have been relationship-building their way through the pandemic.

“Video conferencing is a great way to get face to face with clients. But while it may be as close as you can get to in-person, it’s not, and you’re not. If you have a big-deal prospect or client, you’d better jump on a plane, catch a train, or take a road trip as soon as possible. Your competition is probably still fooling around with technology.”

I wrote that in 2013, back when virtual sales meetings weren’t the only option.

In 2020 and at least the first half of 2021, business travel and indoor socializing have been challenging and at times, impossible. We’ve had to make do with virtual sales meetings, and that has affected many B2B sales pros’ ability to access new customers and to make real-world connections. But not referral sellers.

The Problem with Virtual Sales Meetings

“How do I really get to know my buyers if we can’t meet for coffee, a beer or a round of golf?”

B2B sales reps have asked me that question repeatedly over the past year. They say virtual sales meetings are just not the same, and that’s the truth. There’s nothing like being in-person to build trust and credibility, get to know someone personally, and learn about their values.

(Image attribution: Anna Schvets)

Business buyers seem to feel the same way, so they’re not shopping around much for new vendors. That’s good news for customer retention (and a good reason to make sure your current customers are feeling the love), but it makes customer acquisition tough.

The Harvard Business Review (HBR)  expands on this very real challenge:

“As the pandemic persists, most B2B companies are finding that selling to current customers has moved to virtual methods—such as connecting remotely using video or telephone—with surprising ease. But acquiring new customers remains extremely difficult.


With limited or no opportunity to meet in-person, buyers naturally turn to known, trusted suppliers who already understand their business needs. For sellers, this makes access to prospective buyers the first chokepoint. And if sellers do get access, virtual-only connection makes it difficult to address additional challenges of winning new customers.”

Bottom line: Clients prefer to work with their current suppliers, so lead generation is getting tougher and tougher. And if they do manage to schedule a few virtual sales meetings with prospects, they find it tough to make real connections when there are screens separating them from their prospects.

That is, unless they get those meetings through referrals and come to the virtual table with trust already earned.

The Power of Transferred Trust

How do you get access to your prime prospects? It’s really not that tough. Who are busy people going to talk to when the economy tanks? They’ll always take meetings with salespeople who are referred by someone they know and trust. As busy as they are, they’ll make time for you and trust you from the get-go.

It gets even better. Because they trust you, they’ll be candid, answer your questions truthfully, and give you insights that no one else gets. Even with virtual sales meetings, you’ll convert referred prospects to customers well more than 50 percent of the time. Most people say it’s more than 70 percent.

HBR backs me up on this, suggesting referral selling as a key strategy for gaining new-customer access:

“Leverage referrals. The effectiveness of referrals is well-recognized. Especially now, referrals are the one powerful tool for getting past the access chokepoint. Referrals can transfer earned trust from a customer to a prospect. Customer testimonials and case studies can be effective. Even more effective are virtual roundtable discussions that connect customers and prospects, and warm outreach to prospects through a salesperson’s business network.”


Virtual Sales Meetings Are Here to Stay

The pandemic might be winding down, but not everyone is going back to the office. Less than one in five executives plan to return their entire staff to the office like before, according to PwC’s 2021 US Remote Work Survey. Thirteen percent are giving up their offices for good, while most employers are considering hybrid models that let employees work from home at least a few days a week.

Sure, business travel will eventually resume, and B2B sales pros will once again have opportunities to socialize with customers and prospects. But with many buyers working from home, we’ll all have to get better at virtual sales meetings. We’ll have to learn how to build relationships and trust with less face time. And I can’t think of a better way to do that than by getting referrals. Can you?

For more on referral selling, tune into my new sales TV show—Back in the Black on The Sales Experts Channel. New episodes premiere on the third Tuesday of every month at 2:00 Pacific/5:00 Eastern. A few episodes are available now on demand.

(Featured image attribution: Karolina Grabowska)