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WINNING, Incorporated | Boston, Massachusetts

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Many salespeople are of the mindset that it’s inappropriate to ask clients for referrals until after the clients had experienced the outcomes promised by the product or service. Their thinking is that if they deliver the intended outcomes…and do so in an exceptional manner, clients will be more willing to provide a name or two when asked.

While there is some logic to that line of thinking, it is an after-the-fact strategy. That is, the requests for referrals occur after the sales are closed, the products are delivered, the services implemented, and the outcomes are achieved—which can be several weeks, months, or longer after the initial interactions with the clients. More importantly, by relying on the outcomes created by the product or service to justify the request, the significance of the salesperson’s role in creating the relationship and environment conducive to generating referrals is devalued.

Clients’ willingness to provide salespeople with referrals is primarily a matter of trust. And, salespeople can earn that trust not only by providing products and services that ultimately deliver exceptional results, but also by “delivering” exceptional experiences… starting with the initial interactions.

How do salespeople deliver exceptional experiences?

  • By being well-informed about their prospects—their goals and challenges, their industries, their markets, and their competition. And then, by using that information to keep conversations focused on issues relevant to the prospects’ concerns.
  • By asking thought-provoking questions that help prospects examine their situations from alternate perspectives and discover things they didn’t know before the interaction.
  • By refraining from talking about their products and services until after the need for them is established.
  • By being up-front with prospects when they determine that their product or service is not the best-fit for the prospects’ intended needs.

When you think of “trust” as something that is established at the beginning of your interaction with prospects and not something that is only created after the sale is concluded and the intended results are proven, you will recognize that the opportunity to ask for referrals is created at a much earlier time in the relationship.

And when is that time?

Immediately after you close the sale. If prospects—your new clients—have enough trust to place their business with you, they most likely have enough trust to refer you to colleagues or business associates who could also benefit from what you have to offer.

The only thing preventing you from obtaining those referrals earlier is your reluctance to ask and/or not having a preplanned strategy for asking. Let’s deal with each.

If you are of the mindset that you must first deliver the promised results before it’s appropriate to ask for referrals, the only way to get over that type of thinking is to STOP thinking it. If you can’t simply switch off that belief and need a process to help you do so, than grab a sheet of paper and write the following 100 times:

"By developing rapport and creating an environment of trust with my clients, I earn the right to ask them for referrals."

If you actually attempted the exercise, somewhere between the twelfth and twentieth iteration, you would have bought into the notion.

What is the best strategy for asking for referrals?

Just ask.

But, you must ask intelligently. That is, first frame the question in the context of the relationship. Then, identify the profile, position, or title of the people to whom you would like to be referred.

Here is an example:

“Tom, I look forward to working with you and your company. My implementation team and I will be on site Monday morning to oversee the installation and activation of the system and make sure everything goes smoothly.

“Before I go, I’d like to ask you a question. At one point, you mentioned that you were one of nine members of the technology committee of your trade association. Which of the other business owners on the committee, by the nature of their companies, do you believe would be interested in systems similar to what we’ll be implementing for your company?”

Will you always receive a referral? No, not always. But you have nothing to lose by asking. And, even if you don’t receive a referral that day, you will have planted a seed for future cultivation.


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