While I teach a very specific process to help salespeople acquire new clients through referrals and introductions, there is no one way to do it. There’s no one way to engage with your clients. There’s no one way to ask for referrals. And there’s no one way to get introduced.

Let's bust some misconceptions and commonly held truths about the "right" way to approach and win referrals. I call these the 10 un-commandments of referral selling.  While the title is a bit tongue-in-check, I hope you find my perspective useful.

1) Great client service is enough to create referrals.

Some people, erroneously, think that if they serve the heck out of their clients, their clients will give them plenty of referrals. This is only half true. We do have to service our clients well and provide exceptional value to become referable. But a 2013 study from Advisor Impact demonstrates that only 20% of satisfied clients give referrals. So to get abundant referrals, we have to create not just satisfied clients, but engaged clients.

2) The person who will work a referral should be the one to ask for it.

I believe the person that has the best relationship with the referral source should be the one to ask for referrals. With this said, I’ve seen a number of situations where someone else has done the asking with some success. My financial advisor, for instance, often brings in his business partner to do the asking. He’s just not comfortable with it (try as I might to help him), and they’ve learned that his partner asking is better than no one asking.

3) You can’t ask for referrals anymore.

This is an idea currently being touted by so-called sales and marketing experts. To quote my high school basketball coach, “Horse manure!” Influencers that hold this view are right in the fact that you should not ask for referrals with the old, you-centered methodology, but they are not right about not being able to ask for referrals at all. Frame your ask from a client-centered perspective, and focus on the value you bring. In addition, when asking for referrals from current clients, favor the word “introduction.” After all, what you really want is a good connection to a new prospect.

4) You must be the one to contact the new prospect.

It’s definitely more effective to have you make that first contact with the new referral prospect. In most cases, your client is referring you, and not someone else on your team. However, it might be enough for you to call (or email) the prospect as the first contact and leave a message, telling them that your assistant will be reaching out to set up a phone appointment.

5) You have to ask for referrals in person.

It's best to ask for referrals in person, but not by any means necessary. In person, you can see body language and you usually have more time. Second best is over the phone and can work nicely if you’re only looking for one specific introduction. Email or LinkedIn is least desirable, but can work if you have a really good relationship with your referral source. Try to ask for referrals in person as much as possible.

6) Your first meeting has to be in person.

Not at all. I suggest your first “meeting” with a new prospect be a short phone or webcast appointment. Build some rapport and value on this call and your prospect will be more invested in the next appointment. If you aren’t using webcasts, I urge you to consider this increasingly popular strategy. If affords a way to provide great value and foster better connection because of the visual component. But note that I don’t mean web video (I hate the way I look with a webcam) -- I’m talking about the use of slides or a website. Most people learn faster and remember more with a visual aid.

7) You can’t ask for referrals/introductions early in a new relationship.

Mostly wrong. I think you should be mindful of your initial process and the personality of your new client. If you have a highly valuable initial process, you could be becoming referable quickly. If the prospect or client has a very open personality, then they may be willing and excited to introduce you to others. Don’t assume that you can never ask early. This false assumption will limit your awareness of when you can ask early.

8) You have to take asking for introductions dead seriously.

Not quite! I advise you to treat the request with importance, so you come from a place of confidence and your client recognizes the ask's significance. But having fun in the process has proven to be a very effective strategy. Let me give you an example. Doug is a financial advisor in Omaha. Using my brainstorm method, when Doug brings up the topic of referrals, he says, “We’re just brainstorming here. First of all, do you know any lottery winners?” His clients laugh. It breaks any tension. And he gets introductions almost every time he asks for them.

9) Clients will give you referrals to help you.

Advisor Impact’s 2014 Rules of Engagement study determined that 61% of clients who provided referrals did so to help a friend or colleague. Thirty-seven percent who gave referrals did so to help their advisor (the salesperson). So almost twice as many people give referrals to help someone else rather than help you. But the desire to help you should not be ignored, and as engagement increases, clients become increasingly willing to want to help you in addition to helping their friend or colleague. Personally, I think we should endeavor to harness both energies.

10) You don’t need to thank clients for referrals.

No, this is not a must, but I strongly urge you to do so. It’s not about the money. It’s the gesture of saying “Thank you.” If you have someone who gives you referrals frequently, you don’t have to send a gift every time, but always keep them in the loop. Let them know you’ve followed up with the prospect and will pursue the opportunity, appropriately, to its logical conclusion. 

As you can see, there's no one right way to go after referrals. But there is one rule of thumb I use time and again -- if it’s legal, ethical, moral, and creates a good result, then go for it!

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Originally published Mar 5, 2015 9:00:00 AM, updated July 28 2017


Referral Sales