If Being Liked Doesn’t Get You Referrals, What Will?

Sales leaders know getting a foot in the door with target prospects is essential but increasingly difficult. With cold calling becoming less and less productive, referrals and introductions are the most efficient, effective way to gain access. And although sales people may acknowledge the value of this strategy, most would admit they can’t make it work. Their sales managers see the problem but are challenged to find a solution. So what’s going wrong, and how do you fix it?


Right Strategy, Trial and Error Execution

Sales people assume personal relationships are key to referrals, so they spend time developing “relationships” through lunches, sporting events, and socializing. While this gets the sales person liked and known, being liked just isn’t enough to earn introductions. The goodwill developed in the personal relationship must be transitioned to a business relationship to build the required trust and understanding…which creates willingness and readiness to give a referral.

Referral Best Practices

How do you transition a personal connection to a business relationship? Whether it’s getting a referral from a customer, a colleague within your company, a network connection or a significant partner, it’s the same fundamentals. People’s willingness and readiness to give referrals shoots up when sales people answer three core questions.

  1. What do you want from me? Referral basics start with a core essential: ASK. Sales people must be direct.
    1. ASK for referrals and don’t assume people know what you want. If you never ask, you can’t get it.
    2. ANSWER what is in it for them. The sales person is, in essence, asking for a favor. The potential referrer will ask themselves, “Why should/would I do that?” Proactively answering why giving a referral is a good idea – for the giver – significantly increases the probability of getting one. Their reason why might be that you will give them referrals in return, but it might be that they will be respected and/or appreciated by the person they referred to you.

SALES LEADER PROMPT: How frequently do your people actually ask for referrals or share the benefit of giving one?

  1. Who is your right prospect? Sales people frequently complain that they get poor quality referrals or that when asked, the individual couldn’t come up with any referral ideas. Accountability for this lies with the sales person, not with their potential partner. To avoid this problem, sales people need to:
    1. DESCRIBE which prospects are best. Where can you add the most value? Keep the criteria simple – something that is easy for someone to recognize.
    2. DESCRIBE the most common needs that you meet. Give examples so the needs are easily understood. Keep it to the few (no more than three) high impact needs.

SALES LEADER PROMPT: How well do your sales people describe their right prospect criteria?

  1. What will you do with a referral I give? No matter who is giving the referral, they will feel that, to some degree, their reputation is on the line. They want to know that their contact will be handled the right way – a way they feel is appropriate. The sales person must be transparent and offer answers to the referrer’s fears or unspoken concerns.
    1. DESCRIBE what you will do if given a referral. Everyone has expectations on how to be responsive – a very broad term in today’s diverse business environment of differing service expectations and communication methods. Assumptions can be dangerous; one of the fastest ways to not get a second referral is to miss meeting a referral source’s expectations. Discuss ahead of time what expectations the referrer has of you.
    2. DESCRIBE what kind of experience you will provide. One of the biggest barriers for a referrer is the fear that you will not treat their client, friend, family member or associate the way they deserve to be treated. Providing any insight into how you are professional, customer centric or consultative goes a long way to reducing the reluctance to give a referral.

SALES LEADER PROMPT: How well do your sales people create an understanding of how they will handle a referral, reducing any hesitation the referrer may have in providing the introduction?


Assuming that personal relationships and frequent social interactions generate referrals is a bad strategy. Good personal relationships just aren’t good enough to bring in the quantity or quality referrals that sales people seek. Instead, be proactive with your potential partners and answer these three fundamental questions to create willingness and readiness in those you ask to provide the gift of a referral.

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