Sales and Sales Management Blog

January 29, 2010

Want Referrals? Find Them, Then Have Your Client Give Them to You

Most of us who sell would love to get a number of quality referrals from each of our clients.  The reality for most of us is we seldom get referrals, and when we do, they’re usually no better than if we’d picked a name or company at random from the phonebook.

Asking For Referrals Will Get You Nowhere
Most of us have been taught to get referrals by simply doing a “good job” and then asking for referrals after the sale has been completed—often literally as we’re walking out the door or during a post-sale follow-up phone call.  We pop the referral question on our client and are then surprised and frustrated when they don’t have a quality referral to give.

We shouldn’t be. 

Instead we should be amazed when one does give us a quality referral because what we’re doing is inherently unfair to our client.  We’ve given the client no time to become comfortable giving referrals; we haven’t defined for the client who a good referral for us is; we’ve not given them a reason to give us referrals; and we’re asking them to do our job for us. 

I’ve questioned thousands of sellers over the years about their closing ratio of referred prospects vs. the closing ratio of their non-referred prospects.  Sad to say, in general the closing ratio of referred prospects is about the same—only slightly higher—as the closing ratio of the prospects they’ve contacted through other means such as cold calling.  What does that mean?  It means the quality of the prospects they receive from referrals is no better than the quality of prospects they generate through other means.  It means that when they get a name and phone number from their clients all they are getting is a name and phone number, not a quality referral.

Yet, we want quality referrals from them.

Your Clients Have Quality Referrals to Give
Almost all of us has gotten at least one great referral from a client.   We know our clients have referrals to give if we could just figure out how to get them.

The problem is that our clients really don’t know whom to refer, and even if we define for them who a great referral for us is, most of our clients simply don’t think of those prospects that we’d love to be referred to.

It isn’t their fault.  It isn’t their job to do our job for us.

But we really want those referrals they have.

Make It Easy to Give Referrals
How do we get those great referrals our clients have that they don’t think to give us?

We do it by making it so easy to give us quality referrals that we walk away from our client with three, four, five or more great referrals and all our clients had to do was say, “Yes, I know them.”

We get lots of great referrals by doing our homework, by discovering who our client knows—or probably knows—that we know we’d like to be referred to. 

We do the work for our client.

Become a Referral Detective
Doing the work for your client means you have to become a detective; you have to use your eyes and ears to ferret out who your client knows, or you have reason to believe may know, that you know you want to be referred to. 

For most sellers this is a tough assignment. How can you possibly discover who your client could refer you to?  Can you get into their head or sneak in and take a look at their Rolodex?

In a sense, that is exactly what you do.  You use your senses to figure out who you know you want to be referred to that you client may well know that at the proper time, instead of asking for referrals, getting none and walking out empty-handed, you ask your client if they know the people on your list.  If they do and you’ve earned the referrals, you’ll get them.  So instead of walking out with no referrals, you walk out with three or four or more referrals to people or companies you know you want to be referred to.

Sources of Referrals
Where do you find these potential referrals?  Everywhere.  You must be ever on the lookout for potential connections your client has.  Literally from the moment you meet a new prospect you’re looking for clues to who they may know. 

Here are some ways to discover who your client may know:

  1. Talk.  Asking casual questions about their background, their hobbies, their neighborhood, their workplace during small talk can turn up some great connections.  Former employers, the organizations they belong to, where they spend their time can reveal many potential connections you can explore.
  2. Observe. If you’re meeting them in their office or place of business make sure you look around.  What organization’s membership book is on their bookshelf?  What plaques and photos do they have on the wall?  Are there signs of who their vendors or customers are such as boxes, envelopes, or business cards?
  3. Internet.  Look them up on LinkedIn.  Who are their connections?  Who else from their company is on LinkedIn?  Do they have a blog?  Are they on Facebook or Twitter?  Who are their followers?  What do they blog about?  Examine their company’s website—are there potential prospects you can find there?  Are they likely known by your client?
  4. Think of their professional connections.  If your client is an architect, what other architects do you want to be referred to that they may know?  If your client owns a franchise, are there other franchises of the same company around that your client probably knows? 
  5. Think of their family and social connections.  Do they have family members you know you want to be referred to?  Are there people in their neighborhood or within the same business park you know you want to be referred to?  Are there people involved in the same charity they’re involved with?

For most of us, if we really put our mind to it we could come up with many potential referral prospects for each of our clients.  It isn’t easy, at least not at first.  You have to get your mind into the habit of thinking about whom your client may know that you know you want to be referred to.  You have to train yourself to think like a detective—always questioning what you see and what it means for who your client knows.

But the payoff can be tremendous.

Quit just asking for referrals.  Learn to be a detective and both the quality and quantity of the referrals you get from your clients will go outta sight.



  1. Great!

    I used to think that not asking for these (now useless sounding!) referrals was a distinct omission in my salesmanship.

    Feeling much better about that!

    …oh and I’ve never followed up a referral that may as well have been a lead from a phonebook…they usually seem to result in decent conversation (and work!)

    Thanks a lot Paul, that’s one thing less to work on on less! 🙂

    Comment by Steve Bent — January 29, 2010 @ 5:05 pm | Reply

    • Steve,

      A couple of things:

      Certainly there are sellers who have generated a much higher closing ratio with their referred prospects than those from other prospecting methods. In every workshop I do, whether for a particular company or public workshop, there are a small number of sellers who indicate a substantially higher closing ratio with referrals. That’s the way it should be. But with a great many, the quality of the referral they receive is poor, resulting in a poor closing ratio.

      And I’m certainly not advocating one work on referrals less. I believe referrals should be the centerpiece of prospecting for most sellers. I do believe, however, unless they learn how to turn referral generation from weak question stuck on the end of the sale into a disciplined process that works with the client to generate a large number of high qualty referrals, referrals will just be another low closing ratio tool in their prospecting toolbox.


      Comment by Paul McCord — January 31, 2010 @ 9:41 am | Reply

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by davidabrock, True Small Business, Paul McCord, Paul McCord, Kevin Fisher and others. Kevin Fisher said: Want Referrals? Find Them, Then Have Your Client Give Them to You « Sales and Sales Management Blog: via @addthis […]

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