Referrals: Getting the Most From the ‘Low-Hanging Fruit’ of Sales


Tim J. Smith, PhD
Founder and CEO, Wiglaf Pricing

Published October 1, 2008

Everyone talks about referrals, but few actually pursue them. Referrals should be considered the reward for a job well done. They are the by-product of your excellent customer service. As a true sales professional, you have earned the right to ask for and receive referrals. If you are not asking for referrals, you are only cheating yourself. Earning referral business is a fantastic way to grow your business, and the best part is that all of the calls are warm leads.
There are two main types of referrals:

  • Client to Client
  • Client to Co-worker(in-house hand-off)

Both of these offer a plethora of untapped sales opportunities. The hardest part is actually asking for the referral. Sometimes it may seem pushy, or we may be fearful that we haven’t earned the right to ask for referrals.

The referral concept is one of those areas where you must have a game plan and well thought-out strategy. Think about what you are doing: you are asking someone to put his or her neck out on the line and jeopardize his or her reputation by recommending you to another client or co-worker. The concept of “ready, aim, fire” should not be used. You get one or maybe two chances to do this the right way, so be prepared. Most importantly, be professional.

If at all possible, it’s best to approach this topic after your client has successfully implemented your product or service. Keep in mind your client is busy, so pursue referrals after the close of their quarter, project, or general busy time.

View the referral concept as you would any other sales pitch. You are pitching the client on giving you a referral. With this being said, you don’t say, “Hey can you give me some referrals?”You need to show why you’ve earned the right to a referral. You need to present the hard work and excellent customer service you have given the client. He or she should want to refer you to others.

The overall idea is to have a review session with your client to assess their needs, if any, and then transition into your needs (referrals). Start first by asking the customer for a lunch meeting or perhaps a conference call to review his or her account and get an overall status check. During this time, you need to present the client with something tangible, such as customer service reports, product breakdowns, returns, or project deadlines. You need something to get the client thinking, “Yes, I have been very pleased.”

If you can’t present a favorable overview, then you most likely haven’t earned the right to ask for referrals. Make sure your client is satisfied and happy with your service. Your presentation should be structured and professional. During your presentation, communicate three things to the customer:

1.      You and the client agreed upon X.
2.      You delivered X.
3.      The client is happy with X.

Here is a sample dialogue:

Sales Rep:
“Mrs. Customer, I wanted to take this opportunity to thank you for your business and get a feel for how things have been going over the past few months. I’ve prepared a detailed report outlining our most recent project and high points within the project. As we discussed, you wanted XYZ implementation to be up and running by XYZ date. As you can see, we came in ahead of schedule and under budget.
Also, you said it was imperative there were no glitches, and everything seems to be running smoothly, and the project was delivered without problems.

With this being said, how would you rate your overall satisfaction with our most recent project?”

“We are extremely happy with the implementation and look forward to working with you in the future.”

Sales Rep:
“I echo your sentiments. I do my best to deliver on expectations and provide excellent customer service. Based on my proven track record, do you feel I’ve earned the right to ask you for some referrals?”
You’re not doing this for the practice! You’re here to make money! If you’ve held up your end of the bargain, don’t be afraid to ask for a bigger piece of the pie. You said you were going to do X, you did X, and the customer is happy. Your clients understand that asking for referrals is part of the process.

The Two Types of Referrals

Client to Client

The client-to-client referral allows you the leeway to take care of the personal interest of your existing customer. A client-to-client referral is typically a referral to someone outside your customer’s company-perhaps an associate in the same field but employed at different company. It is okay to offer up some sort of reward for a lucrative referral. I’ve seen some sales reps who have a monetary amount they simply pay to the client for referring new customers. Conversely, you often can simply get the referral because your existing customer respects you and doesn’t expect anything in return.

Upon making your introduction to the new client, you have to immediately let them know you have a successful relationship with the mutual contact, and that based on your past success, the contact suggested you give them a call. It has to be clear that you are calling to earn business based on your previous achievements with the mutual contact. You are calling with the purpose of getting in the loop and earning business. They will thank you for not wasting their time with a bunch of meaningless chitchat.

Don’t show up expecting to have business handed to you. Remember, your old client’s reputation is on the line. You not only have to impress the new client, you have to make your old client proud and confident in his or her decision to give you the referral. Be eager and confident. Be humble and honored to have the opportunity to earn the new client’s business. Be knowledgeable of his or her industry and business model. Most importantly, be professional and respectful.

Don’t talk about details regarding your other client except the professional relationship you have. Breaking the ice doesn’t mean you have to be anything other than professional.

Once you have established some rapport with the new client, it is up to you to keep the relationship alive and thriving. A referral simply allows you an opportunity to get your foot in the door, and the rest is up to you. You can’t expect someone to buy from you simply because he or she met with you. You have to show credibility and earn his or her trust just like with any new account.

Client to Co-worker

This isn’t too different than the client-to-client referral, but it requires a little more hand-holding. You can’t offer up a bonus incentive because it could be a conflict of interest. Your goal is to have your client champion you into other departments of his or her company based on the added value you bring to the table. Remember, if you have been holding up your end of the bargain, your client should want to have you working with the other departments and contacts.
Use the same concept as we outlined before: “Based on this proven track record, do you feel okay with me offering my services to other areas of your company?”

Lunch meetings or joint conference calls are a great way to do introductions. Approach these referrals the same way you would approach the client-to-client referral. Make sure you are on your game and prepared to put your best foot forward.

Referrals don’t always have to be sales related. The concept is simply you proving yourself and earning the right to ask for something in return. You can prove yourself without the customer even making a purchase. If you have bent over backwards to get them information and product demos, you have still accomplished the three criteria: you agreed on X, you delivered X, and the client was happy with X. Even if they haven’t purchased anything from you, you have still executed and met expectations. This can apply to anything. It shows you are dependable.

Also, referrals don’t have to be to a new contact. You can use the referral concept to expand your offerings within the same contact. If you have accomplished the three criteria, then you have earned the right to ask for other business from the same contact. This is your own way of referring yourself into net-new business with existing contacts. If you haven’t given them a reason to doubt you, then why wouldn’t they give you a shot at more of their business?

Referrals should be viewed as the low-hanging fruit when it comes to increasing your business. You completely take cold calls out of the equation and basically have the best introduction to a new opportunity. You’re having someone refer you into new business based on his or her past satisfaction levels.

Lastly, always remember to thank your client for any successful referrals. It is just common courtesy to thank someone for a referral, regardless of the outcome. You will lose credibility very quickly if you forget to thank your existing clients for their helping hand.

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About The Author

Tim J. Smith, PhD, is the founder and CEO of Wiglaf Pricing, an Adjunct Professor of Marketing and Economics at DePaul University, and the author of Pricing Done Right (Wiley 2016) and Pricing Strategy (Cengage 2012). At Wiglaf Pricing, Tim leads client engagements. Smith’s popular business book, Pricing Done Right: The Pricing Framework Proven Successful by the World’s Most Profitable Companies, was noted by Dennis Stone, CEO of Overhead Door Corp, as "Essential reading… While many books cover the concepts of pricing, Pricing Done Right goes the additional step of applying the concepts in the real world." Tim’s textbook, Pricing Strategy: Setting Price Levels, Managing Price Discounts, & Establishing Price Structures, has been described by independent reviewers as “the most comprehensive pricing strategy book” on the market. As well as serving as the Academic Advisor to the Professional Pricing Society’s Certified Pricing Professional program, Tim is a member of the American Marketing Association and American Physical Society. He holds a BS in Physics and Chemistry from Southern Methodist University, a BA in Mathematics from Southern Methodist University, a PhD in Physical Chemistry from the University of Chicago, and an MBA with high honors in Strategy and Marketing from the University of Chicago GSB.