referral selling

Most of your customers actually want to give you sales referrals, but you must know when to ask for referrals, and how to ask for them.


As a sales professional, you know that the only way to influence people is to show what’s in it for them. Well, what’s in it for them to give you referrals? I see two main motivations:

First, your referral source has an opportunity to be a real hero to one or more friends or colleagues. If working with you truly has been a pleasure, he or she can look good by helping a friend or colleague learn about you. When you ask a referral alliance for help, you may be giving that alliance another opportunity to serve one of his or her prospects or customers.

Your ally may want to call the customer or prospect first, not only to clear the way for the referral (great for you), but also to make another helping contact (good for them). Gloria Gault Geary, a successful professional speaker, says, “I bring up my request for referrals as a service to my customers. I give them the opportunity to help their friends and colleagues by telling them about me. It works!”

The second reason for customers to give you referrals is that they want to help you. Don’t ever underestimate the power of this. In fact, I think it is the more powerful reason. If you have been serving them well, most customers will derive great pleasure from helping you become more successful. You just have to ask.

When Do You Ask For Referrals?

You can ask for referrals from anyone — prospects, customers or referral alliances — anytime you’ve served them; notice I said “served” them, not “sold” them.

Delivering value of any kind counts as serving.

Of course, they must recognize that you have given them value. Sometimes they’ll come right out and tell you they’re pleased. Sometimes you have to ask.

As with most things in life, timing is everything. As a salesperson, you are constantly using your experience and your intuition to determine when and how to use your selling strategies. The same holds true when asking for referrals.

Obviously, the best time to ask customers for referrals is after they’ve expressed satisfaction with your product or service. But you should also ask your customers periodically, even if the request is not tied to a specific transaction. Most of your customers meet new people all the time, so you want to ask for referrals again and again (without becoming a pest).

You must make serving your referral alliances a high priority. Refer people to them, help them gain information, do whatever you can to help them experience more success. The more you can serve them, the more they will want to serve you with an endless chain of high-quality referrals. With your customers it is perfectly natural to ask for referrals after a successful transaction. With your referral alliances that may not always be appropriate.

This is where your intuition comes into play. Sometimes it may feel just right for you to serve your referral alliances and then ask for referrals, and sometimes it will seem as if you gave only to get. Generally speaking, I like to ask my alliances for referrals during a separate conversation. Once you have established good relationships you won’t have to ask very often. They will simply call you when they have someone for you.

What does it take to serve them?

Most salespeople have the hardest time asking for referrals from their prospects — people they feel they have not yet served. That’s why it’s so important to find ways to serve your prospects as soon as you can, even ways that have nothing to do with what you sell. For instance, I know a printing salesperson named Gary who called on a high-quality prospect. This prospect liked Gary and seemed inclined to do business with him. But at the moment she needed a printer who could print a special type of label that Gary’s company could not produce. Gary found a printer who could serve his prospect, and she was very grateful. Because Gary had planted the seed that he worked from referrals (and accented that concept by referring someone to her), she called him with three hot referrals. She eventually became a customer as well.

Service example 1

Suppose you sell financial services. Can you serve your prospects before you ever sell them? Of course you can. If you structure them carefully, your first appointments with prospects should help them gain so much perspective on their financial situations that they feel you have served them, even before they give you any business.

Service example 2

If you sell life insurance, use some type of fact finder to accumulate information that puts you in a position to offer the best products. Serve your prospects by getting them to take a comprehensive look at an area they may not have considered. Serving them this way will serve you in two ways: First, they begin to like and trust you more, so they are more likely to buy from you. Second, they want to share the value you have brought to them with their friends, family members and colleagues.

Service example 3

If you sell copiers office telephone systems, educate your prospects by bringing them up to date on the latest communications technology. They will feel served before they are sold.

Service example 4

I have a friend who has built a highly successful roofing business. He likes to establish trust by educating his prospects so they make the best decisions. He knows they can get great jobs from other roofers, but after he educates prospects without pressure, they tend to just sign on with him.

Use High-Gain Questions

Another way to serve your prospects is to ask what I call high-gain questions. These are questions that probe a little and get your prospects thinking about their situations in ways they may not have previously considered. You can ask them to evaluate, compare or speculate. If you ask a prospect a question and she says, “Well, I’ve never thought of that before,” then you know you’ve asked a high-gain question. You serve prospects when you get them thinking.

When you serve your prospects on the first appointment, it demonstrates the responsive service they can continue to expect from you. They can see that you are there to help them in any way you can, not just to sell them.

Burt Dubin, a professional speaker and writer who coaches people on building their businesses from referrals, says, “If the prospect had a valid reason not to buy, and if you earned his respect, then there’s no reason for him not to help you.” Dubin suggests you say something like,

“If you were me, who would you call on next?”

If the prospect gives you a name, write it down and ask,

“Why did you pick him (her)?”

This will lead you into upgrading the referral, which I will cover shortly.

The Three Keys To Asking Prospects For Referrals

The three keys to asking prospects for referrals are:

  1. Serve them before you sell them.
  2. Plant seeds that you are building your business from referrals.
  3. When the rapport is good, ask them directly for referrals.

In his article “Is Your Networking?” sales trainer Dennis Fox writes, “Not every sale is finalized during the first or second appointment. In fact, many times the sales process is a long-term one, taking months or even years to be consummated. Certainly during that time you have many opportunities to gain the confidence, trust and respect of your prospect in order to ask for a referral. Not only that, a complete sale to a referred client can strengthen the resolve of the potential buyer who referred you in the first place.”

Kim, a salesperson in Baltimore, pursued a prospect for several months. Most of her prospecting activity with him was spent playing phone tag. When she finally reached the prospect she learned that he and his company were moving out of state. This move excluded them from doing business together; but during the conversation rapport was high. So Kim became proactive and asked for a referral. She received three referrals, and two became customers within a month.

The rapport must be right for you to ask people for referrals. They must like you and trust you before they will entertain such a request. I have met some prospects with whom I felt comfortable asking for referrals right away, but with a few long-term customers the request still would not be well received.

Be Flexible

In “Relationship Selling,” Jim Cathcart describes various communication styles. As you become more aware of the various styles, you can become more flexible with your style and build greater rapport right from the start. One parameter of communication he discusses is open versus contained.

Open people talk about their feelings and let others talk about feelings. They let people into their lives easily. You may call a prospect for the first time, hoping for five minutes of her time. The next thing you know you’ve been on the phone for 20 minutes. You know where her kids go to school, why she’s mad at her boss today and much more. Ask an open person a closed-ended question, and you’ll still get an open-ended answer. Open people are usually much easier to gain an appointment with than contained people.

Contained people reveal information only when it serves a specific purpose. They operate on a need-to-know basis. They are usually uncomfortable sharing their feelings. They let new people into their lives slowly and only on their terms. Ask a contained person an open-ended question, and you’ll get a closed-ended answer. (“What types of printing do you buy?” you ask. “All kinds,” the contained person answers.) Unless a contained person has an explicit need for what you sell and is in a buying posture, it usually takes several contacts to gain an appointment.

What does this have to do with asking for referrals? As you might surmise, open people will feel much more comfortable with a request for referrals much sooner than contained people. The more contained your prospect or customer, the more you need to wait for substantial rapport and trust to develop. I’ve made the mistake of asking moderately contained people for referrals too soon, and it was painfully clear they were not ready. This doesn’t mean you never ask them for referrals. It just means you must take a little more time and care in building the relationship.

Target Niche Markets

When you target an industry, you gain much knowledge of that industry and how your various customers handle different challenges. When you call on prospects in your target industry, your knowledge and experience bring much value to them. You can discuss issues they are facing that another salesperson would not be familiar with. You can bring them ideas and perspectives that serve them, even before you sell them.

The Goal Is Still Making The Sale

Now in all this discussion about service, I don’t mean to diminish the importance of making the sale. That’s still paramount — but when you serve your prospects from the very beginning, the sales become much easier.

The better you serve your customers, referral alliances and prospects, the higher the quality of referrals you will get. For sustained success in selling through referrals, you must always be in a serving mode. Service is the name of the game, even before the sale is made. I can’t say it any better than Zig Ziglar, “You can get everything in life you want, if you just help enough other people get what they want.”