Asking for Referrals and the Tale of a (Half) a Million Pound Question

In a recent conversation with a long-standing client, I was reminded of a Dale Carnegie quotation that would become a defining principle throughout my career: ‘91% of clients will give a referral, but only 11% of salespeople will ask one.’

Nowadays, I’m a great believer in the power of the referral. When requested with tact, referrals can be a smart, common-sense tactic for expanding commercial networks and quality relationships and driving warm leads in the direction of the pipeline. Asking for recommendations and introductions within a client’s network can be a privilege underpinned by trust built over time and a history of quality, value, and delivering on promises. In my personal experience though, with the right rapport and credibility, referrals can be available at any point in the sales process.

In 2010, a colleague and I met with a potential client to explore partnering to develop sales skills and growth mindsets in their commercial team. In our discussion, we learned the contact had worked in several world-class organisations, one of which transpired was a dream client of mine. In this instance, our rapport was at a level that I trusted my instincts and asked for an introduction. Not only was our host happy to help, but they were also as good as their word and connected us with a contact at their former employer.

The £500,000 question!

Off the back of that positive introduction, we secured a significant contract with our ‘dream client’ and continued to develop our relationship across the years, adding value for several of their subsequent organisations, while securing over half a million pounds in revenue, and gaining a wonderful champion for the work of Dale Carnegie Training.

Asking for referrals

Salespeople should think of referrals as a consistent part of how we generate business. When trust, value and quality are the foundation of how we serve, we earn the right to leverage client relationships and ask for referrals. The power of a satisfied buyer’s influence cannot be overstated and, referred contacts are statistically more likely to buy. So, why are so few of us asking for introductions? From my view, there are three primary reasons: a) It’s not part of our daily activity (habit) b) lack of confidence or c) lack of process.

First and foremost, we need a mindset that enables us to think of clients as close partners who can refer a steady stream of business. Everyone has a network, a supply chain, trusted business contacts, or an internal colleague with an autonomous budget. So, as salespeople, we need to understand who our champions are, where they operate, who they know, and their peer groups and networks. This will help us to identify targets and become specific when asking for an introduction and recommendation.

It is important not to be pushy and having a simple, conversational process helps to focus the mind on that all-important question.

Step 1: Reviewing positive/impressive service results with a customer, i.e., savings, innovations, performance KPIs, generated revenues, positive internal feedback, etc. can provide an eloquent moment to discuss bringing similar benefits to their network.

Step 2: With permission attained, you can describe the challenges faced and benefits received by your ideal clients. This can help fuel discourse into people with similar challenges known to your contact.

Step 3: Identify a potential benefit for giving a referral – this could include helping your client gain a higher profile with their network, increased goodwill within their supply chain, or additional sales opportunities for their business. Where appropriate, you might want to offer a reciprocal referral. Value flows in both directions.

Step 4: Get precise and ask for specific individuals you know to be in your client’s network, or contacts in organisations with whom they do business. You might also want to offer some value in their network – e.g., a free talk for their peer group around solving contemporary pain points.

Step 5: Ask for your referral. Again, this is all about good timing. Referrals spin out of positive conversations around good results. When asking for an introduction, suggest some straightforward processes – can your contact send an email or make a phone call with a friendly word of recommendation detailing some of their results, or perhaps introduce you personally, or via Zoom, or connect you via LinkedIn? In my experience, those personal touch communications can help to make referrals a friendlier experience with a little extra trust preinstalled for good measure.

Summary – seize the day

Sales leaders need to develop processes to ensure referrals are part of your team’s everyday approach. Measurement and accountability are key. Set KPIs around referrals and hold the team to account for generating them. If this is a new idea for your team, ensure training is in place, and think about launching incentives. Coach consistently around referrals. Before too long, the team will see for themselves the power of referrals and create habits around this potent and underutilised sales tactic.

Graham Perkins is a Dale Carnegie Director, outstanding salesperson and trusted advisor to many brands. Supporting sales growth, leader and talent development, he is an expert in his field.

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