Are your buyers clamoring to talk to you?

My phone rang off the hook the last half of 2020. Why the sudden interest in referral sales? A sudden decline in seller access.

When the economy shrinks and companies cut budgets, buyers don’t want to talk to salespeople. Layer the pandemic over that economic downturn—well, it gets worse. No one’s in their office, and if you don’t have their mobile number, forget it.

Gaining seller access was hard enough before COVID. Suddenly it became almost impossible. Unless …

Breaking News

There is an answer to seller access. The events of 2020 changed the customer buying journey, so we must change our prospecting tactics. Or rather, change them back—from digital marketing to relationship building.

What’s old is new again. Referrals are as old as time. Yet, they become even more critical in a slow economy. Think about it. Who are buyers going to talk to when they’re short on funds and stressed about the future of their organizations? Not a cold calling stranger or someone pitching them on LinkedIn. But they’ll always speak with a person who’s been referred by a trusted colleague.

(Image attribution: August de Richelieu)

Sales leaders have an ongoing challenge to get more qualified leads in the pipe, but seller access has evaporated. Instead of doubling down on automated emails, phone calls, and LinkedIn invitations, now is the time to take a step back, thoughtfully analyze your prospecting approaches, and prioritize the most effective of all lead generation strategies: Getting referrals from clients.

Earn the Right to Ask

Referrals are based on trust. You must earn the right to ask. That’s why your existing clients are your best possible source for referrals, because with them, you’ve definitely earned that right.

You don’t have to wait until your solution is implemented and producing ROI. You can ask:

  • During the sales process when you’ve added value
  • When your client thanks you
  • When they sign the contract
  • Those with whom you and your team interact during the implementation process

Existing clients are our best—and often most under-leveraged—source of referrals, because they:

  • Know first-hand the value of our solutions
  • Can attest to the ROI they’ve received
  • Trust us (or else they wouldn’t do business with us)

Lead generation shouldn’t be nearly impossible, not even during a global pandemic and recession.

Seller Access: New Buzzword, Old Problem

Seller access is a newly popular term for an old problem—the struggle to bypass gatekeepers and get meetings with high-level decision makers.

Gartner experts shared their research on seller access in a recent webinar, “The Chief Sales Officer’s Leadership Vision for 2021.” I rarely listen to a one-hour anything, but it was worth the time to learn about three urgent issues that sales leaders are facing. Guess what made the top of the list?

There it is. The first underlying issue creating significant urgency is Decreasing Seller Access. As salespeople struggle to get access to customers during the buying journey, sales leaders have three important questions to answer:

  1. How do I get access?
  2. Are we getting access to the right individuals?
  3. How do I win the right to talk to them?

Here’s the twist: Sellers have limited access to the customer buying journey, and Gartner’s research shows that buyers only spend 17 percent of their time with potential suppliers. And there can be one to three suppliers competing for this business. If I’m one of three, I have only 5.67 percent of my buyer’s time, unless I can earn more time by building trusting relationships.

The ever-decreasing lack of seller access during the customer journey isn’t a COVID-related problem. In late 2019, 61 percent of salespeople said the job was tougher than it was five years before, even though they had better sales technology and more marketing-generated leads. In the same study, 71.4 percent of salespeople said that 50 percent or fewer of their initial prospects were a good fit.

(Image attribution: Ketut Subiyanto)

Digital marketing and lead nurturing wasn’t living up to its promises to fill pipelines with hot leads, even before the pandemic. Now it’s really falling short. According to Hubspot’s 2021 Sales Enablement Report, more than 40 percent of salespeople say prospecting is the most challenging part of the sales process, despite the fact that 77.3 percent of them get at least a quarter of their leads from their companies. And I’d be willing to bet most of those leads are cold (translation: practically worthless).

Hubspot also found that 47 percent of top performers consistently ask for referrals, versus only 26 percent of non-top performers.

It’s glaringly obvious to me that a well-implemented referral program addresses the challenge of seller access … and more. The fastest path to generating qualified sales leads is for reps to receive referral introductions. Referred salespeople get in the door with just one call and make themselves an invaluable part of the customer journey. Problem solved.

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. The first episode is available now on demand.