Your referral network is your net worth in sales.

“How do I ask for a referral from customers I haven’t spoken with in two years?” That’s what a client recently asked me, and I was baffled by his revelation. How can smart, experienced sales reps let their customer relationships wither?

I have plenty of advice about asking for referrals, but most of it assumes that salespeople nurture their client relationships. In this profession, our referral network is basically our net worth.

When we invest in customer relationships, we get more business from existing clients and earn the right to ask for referrals. But not all sales teams make those investments.

Customer Relationships Are Priceless in the COVID Era

Far too many sales organizations are so focused on bringing in new business that they neglect their current customers. As a result, 44 percent of corporate buyers switched B2B vendors in 2019, and 36 percent planned to do so in 2020, according to Accenture’s November 2019 report, Service Is the New Sales.

(Image attribution: Anna Schvets)

Of course, that was before COVID-19 came along and changed everything, and Accenture doubled down on its recommendation that B2B organizations prioritize existing customer relationships. In a June 2020 report, The New World of B2B Sales, Accenture explained:

The leaders of tomorrow are modifying their organizations’ sales priorities using a powerful blend of person-to-person communication, predictive analytics and AI engines. That’s because they know, in these changing times, meaningful customer connections and insights are critical to surviving and thriving today and in the days ahead …


Look beyond all the usual places when sourcing leads, as they are no longer relevant; instead, tap into promising social media exchanges, referrals from existing customers and service interactions.

Many salespeople are motivated by the instinctive desire to achieve immediate, tangible results. They want a sale, and they want it now. But all too often, this “cut to the chase” mentality precludes sales reps from taking the time to establish customer relationships before trying to convert people into prospects.

That’s why we see so much bad behavior on social media. Social media is the place to begin conversations and begin customer relationships. But most salespeople show up online like the proverbial used-car salesman. They send a standard invitation or even worse, pitch their products in a LinkedIn Invitation.

Newsflash: That’s not social selling. That’s a cold outreach and is as offensive as a cold phone call, cold videos, or the plethora of cold emails your prospects receive every day.

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The only way to make a hot sales call is to be an expected and welcome caller. And that’s what happens when you tap into your referral network.

Why Word-of-Mouth Won’t Propel Your Sales

Word-of-mouth is not the same thing as referrals. Word-of-mouth is passive and asking for referrals is anything but.

When I read posts about word-of-mouth, they send me over the top. Do we really expect our customers to contact us with rave reviews, ask us to do more work for them, or offer referral introductions?

Top salespeople don’t just expect clients to tell others how great they are. They don’t sit and wait for the phone to ring or their email to ping. And they don’t pester prospects with unsolicited pitches. They stay in touch with their clients, continue to offer insights, and refer them to others to solve issues that aren’t in their wheelhouse.

Just as importantly, they make asking for referrals a priority.

Referrals Aren’t a Favor

My clients often tell me that asking clients for referrals feels like imposing on customer relationships. Worse, it feels like asking for a favor. But neither of those fears are founded.

People like to refer people they know, like, and trust. When we refer, we help three people—the salesperson, the prospect, and ourselves. We introduce a credible resource and save the other person valuable time. In addition, we are elevated in the minds of the recipient. If we must use the word favor, the favor is presented to the recipient of the referral, not for the person asking for referrals.

Yes, you must earn the right to ask customers for referrals. You know when that happens. Sometimes you meet a person, forge an immediate connection, and look for ways to help each other. Done. You’ve earned the right. And anytime someone thanks you for something, you’ve earned the right.

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You’ve also earned the right with your current clients, including everyone you worked with during the sales and implementation process. But have you asked every single one of your clients for referrals? They will always refer you, but you must ask rather than waiting on word-of-mouth to fill your pipeline.

Don’t Lose the Right Once You’ve Earned It

Never lose touch with your contacts at client companies. They are your best sources of referrals—to other divisions of their companies and to their peers in other organizations. And referrals make business buyers 5X more likely to engage with salespeople, according to LinkedIn.

When should you ask for referrals? That’s a common question from salespeople, but more of a reflection of the discomfort many of us feel about asking. We don’t want to appear pushy, or salesy, or arrogant, so we push asking for referrals further and further out in our sales process.

Many think we should wait until we sign a deal, others think when the client implements, and yet others feel they can’t ask until the client sees an ROI. We wait and we wait, and often the relationship with the initial buyer is so far removed, that we never ask.

Bottom line: It’s never too soon to ask clients for referrals. And it’s never too late—as long as you have continued to stay in touch and nurture those customer relationships.

Remember, when your referral source introduces you, they actually help the other person. They introduce you, a credible resource, and save the other person a ton of time and contribute to their success.

Which reminds me, I need to get back in touch with some of my favorite people. I’m on it. Are you?

Invite me to speak at your virtual sales kickoff for 2021. Learn more about my signature presentation, “Referrals Are Retro: How to Build a Referral Culture in a Digital World.”

(Featured image attribution: Matilda Wormwood)