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The Best Way to Ask for Referrals [+ Free Email Template]

I started my business in 1986 by calling every company I could in the Blue Book. There’s no sugarcoating this: It sucked. I was good at cold calls, but it was still a pain in the neck. My goal became to set up a by-referral only business. 

Did I succeed? In 1994, I switched my main business line to a private number. The only way a person could call me is if they knew someone who already had my number. By that time, I had an ironclad referral process, and my business is still thriving today.

Last week, David Weinhaus and I hosted a live webinar called “How To Get Referrals.” We conducted two informal polls surveying attendees: one on how important referrals were to viewers’ businesses, and the other on how effective their processes to get more referrals were. A disconnect emerged: While referrals were generally considered very important, attendees rated their processes to generate referrals as weak to moderately effective.

Why this gap? Some of it is in salespeople’s heads. They don’t want to appear needy by asking for help.

But I don’t think you should wait for referrals to come to you sporadically -- you should instead proactively seek them, no matter what industry you’re in. If you take the time to develop referrals, you’ll get more qualified prospects for the simple fact that people hang out with others like themselves. This cuts the sales cycle to a much shorter timeframe.

You will also virtually eliminate objections of the ilk that the prospect doesn’t trust you. Trust is already built in, thanks to your referrer. 

However, getting and giving referrals isn’t comfortable for many salespeople. Building a referral process sounds great in the abstract, but requires a deft touch on the tactical level.

6 Referral Process Tips

Before getting into role plays and email templates, here are some general rules around building a referral process to keep in mind.

1) You have to start somewhere.

Referrals can be an extremely effective way to grow a business, but it’s a snowball rather than an explosion. Don’t expect immediate results.

2) Be excellent at your job.

Customers will only want to refer you if you’ve delighted them. Go above and beyond with your customers to reap the referral rewards.

3) Don’t accept just any referral.

When I first started seeking referrals, I’d ask customers “Who do you know?” and they’d give me some names. The problem with that phrasing was that people would occasionally offer contacts they didn’t have a good relationship with.

I’ve since changed my question to “Who do you like?” to ensure I’m getting referred to a person my customer has a strong relationship with. I can then benefit from the respect the referral has for my customer.

4) Inbound marketing and referrals are not mutually exclusive.

Sometimes people think because they’re already getting plenty of inbound leads that they don’t need referrals. But the two sources work together -- don’t exclude one to solely focus on the other.

5) Don’t treat a referral like a cold call.

Because it’s not. You should enter into a conversation with a referral with a much friendlier tone, playing up the relationship you have with the referrer. Act like you’re already in their inner circle -- in a way, you are.

6) Develop a referral mindset.

If you want to get referrals, you should also give referrals. This is what I call a “referral mindset.” Help your contacts and acquaintances grow their businesses by hooking them up with people in your network, and they’ll feel inclined to return the favor.

Role Play #1: Setting the Stage for Referrals With Prospects

I not only make it a point to ask customers for referrals -- I do it even before they become customers in the first place! The earlier you can introduce the topic of referrals, the better.

Here’s a role play example for how you can infuse the subject in an early prospect conversation.

Salesperson: It seems as though you’re a pretty sharp guy. I don’t know where this process is going to end up, but can I ask you a question?

Prospect: Sure.

Salesperson: Did you ever do business with someone you really liked a lot? Someone who you felt over-delivered? Can you think of one example in particular?

Prospect: I have, and I can think of a service that exceeded my expectations.

Salesperson: Can I ask -- how many people did you tell about them?

Prospect: I told [x number] of people.

Salesperson: If we end up working together and I deliver to you that same kind of experience, would you keep it to yourself or would you share it?

There are one of two ways the conversation can go from here -- either the prospect says they would definitely share, or say they might or wouldn’t. If you get the first response, you have laid the groundwork for referrals. But the second response is trickier.

In the event of an “I wouldn’t” or “I’m not sure,” here’s what I recommend following up with.

Salesperson: Please don’t take this the wrong way, but in that case, can we not go any further? I work really hard to deliver 110% satisfaction, but if you’re not going to tell the world about it, why would I? I could also talk to someone who would tell the world once I make them happy.

I find that here the prospect usually backtracks and says they in fact would be willing to tell friends. In the slim chance they stick to their guns, it’s good to find out early, as they probably wouldn’t have made a good customer anyway. End the relationship and move on.

Role Play #2: Asking for a Referral

Once I sign a new customer, I let enough time pass to produce some results, and allow the client to decide whether they are pleased with my work or not. This could be a week or it could be a few months. I then follow up on the groundwork I laid in the buying process by directly asking for referrals.

After ensuring the customer’s satisfaction, dive into the following:

Salesperson: You told me you’re happy with my work thus far. Have you told anybody about what we’ve done together?

Customer: No.

Salesperson: Is it because you’re not pleased with the outcomes?

Customer: No, we’re pretty happy.

Salesperson: Well then, do you think what we do together would be beneficial to your clients, vendors, or competitors?

Customer: I don’t want you working with my competitors, but maybe some of my vendors.

Salesperson: Your vendors then -- do you have a favorite? Do they sell to other people you know?

Customer: Yeah, we have a good relationship.

Salesperson: But you haven’t mentioned that you were working with us yet.

Customer: I haven’t, but maybe it’s not such a bad idea.

Salesperson: Do you remember why you hired me?

Customer: To grow our business.

Salesperson: And are any of your favorite vendors trying to grow their businesses?

Customer: Yes, a few in particular.

Salesperson: Okay. In that case, if you called or sent an email and said ‘I’ve been working with Rick for six months, and we’re starting to do some pretty interesting stuff. I know you’re growing your business, so I thought I’d put you two together,” would they like you for that or not like you?

If your customer thinks that would be fine to do, send out the email template below.

If your customer is on the fence, work to reframe the situation to assure them they’d be helping the referred party, not setting a money-hungry salesperson on their trail. Emphasize that your purpose is to grow businesses (or whatever your company’s mission may be), and not to be a hard-pitching nuisance.

Referral Email Template

Use this template to make it easy for your customer to refer you.


I don't know if I've mentioned it before, but I've been working with [salesperson] for a few months. The other day, I was talking with him about some of the things that he and I have done, and I realized that I should put you two together. So...

[Referral], meet [Salesperson, with a LinkedIn profile URL].

[Salesperson], meet [Referral, with a LinkedIn profile URL].

Can I leave the rest to you guys?

Talk to you both later.

Note that the customer isn’t asked to explain to the referral what the salesperson does. It's not their job to sell the referral.

Phrasing it in this manner (without a lot of explanation) builds on the mutual respect between customer and referral by implying that the referral can give the salesperson the benefit of the doubt. Also, since both the customer and the salesperson are on the email, it would be appropriate for either to follow up.

After sending this referral template, I usually check in a week or two later with my customer and ask -- gently -- if they sent it out. If they haven’t, I reply that it’s no problem, and then I do not ask again.

If, on the other hand, they have sent it, and I have not been included on a reply, I ask if the customer got a “no, thank you” from the referral. If that’s the case, I cross that referral off my list. If there was no reply at all, I ask if they would like me to reach out directly.

This approach to getting referrals has worked for me, and it will work for you. Don’t wait for referrals to trickle in -- formalize your process, and launch it today.

If you'd like to ask me a question about referrals not covered here, feel free to send me an email at therainmakermaker@gmail.com.


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