As salespeople, most of us have had it pounded into our heads that, once a sale has been completed, we need to ask for referrals. All we need to do is a good job for our clients and then ask if they know anyone who could benefit from our products or services. If we follow this procedure, we will easily and rapidly grow our businesses.

Depending upon the seller, that referral question could take various forms. For example:

  • “Ms. Client, do you know anyone who could use my products or services?”
  • “Mr. Client, do you know anyone I should be talking to?”
  • “Mr. Client, do you know anyone who could use my help?”
  • “Ms. Client, if you happen to run across someone I could help, would you mind giving them one of my cards?”

But no matter the specific language of the question we’ve all been taught to ask, the results are usually the same: few high-quality referrals. All these questions — the ones that are supposed to rapidly grow our businesses — require our clients to do the work for us.

In virtually every case, we are asking our clients to come up with the names of people they know despite the fact that our clients don’t know who is a really strong prospect for us or all of our capabilities. We have put them on the spot by asking them to come up with great referrals for us with only seconds to think about it.

Not surprisingly, most of the “referrals” we get — usually nothing more than a name and phone number — prove to be no more qualified than if we had pulled them randomly out of a the phonebook. In short, they are time-wasters. Certainly, one here or there may turn into a client, but for most of us, the pickings are pretty slim.

So, if asking your client for a referral to someone they know hasn’t worked very well, it’s time to approach referrals differently. Instead of asking a weak question such as “Who do you know who might be able to use my products or services?” try doing the hard work of finding out who your client actually knows and then asking for a direct introduction to that particular person.

Yes, this method demands more work on your part, but it is far more powerful because:

  • You are making it so easy for your clients to give a great referral that all they have to do is say “yes.”
  • You have relieved your clients of an uncomfortable and unwanted burden.
  • You are far more likely to get a positive response from your clients because you’re asking for a specific and easy-to-fulfill action: an introduction to someone they know.
  • The introduction you get will be to a quality prospect because it will be a prospect you have chosen.
  • You will have a much greater chance of setting up an appointment with the prospect because you will have been personally introduced by someone they know.
  • Over time, you can get multiple high-quality introductions from each client. With this approach, your clients can become a never-ending source of quality referrals.

The primary goal now becomes how to discover who your clients know. That issue demands some detective talents, such as keen observing, listening and analyzing. Also, the question you ask will naturally change. Instead of asking for a name and phone number, you will first confirm that the client knows your intended prospect and then ask for an introduction.

Depending on the individual circumstances, your request might begin “Don, I’ve been trying to reach Janet Smith over at XYZ Company for some time and haven’t been able to connect. It occurred to me that you might know her. Is that true?”

If you have done your job well and earned your client’s trust and respect, there is an extremely high probability your client will readily agree to introduce you to Janet. Rather than asking your clients to do your prospecting for you — something they are ill prepared to do — take the time to do the work yourself. If you make the effort to get to know your clients and their contacts, you will unlock a major new source of business.

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Paul McCord is a best-selling author, speaker and leading authority on lead generation. He has more than 20 years’ experience coaching and mentoring salespeople. For more information, go to mccordandassociates.com.