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How to unlock your referrals treasure chest

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You work your way around to asking a client for a referral. After a bit of squirming, you make your request only to hear one of these evasive responses:

“I can’t think of anyone.” “I don’t know anyone.” “I never give referrals.” “Let’s see how things go for a while.” “Everyone I know is already working with someone.” “Everyone I know is broke.” “I can think of some people, but let me talk to them first.” “I never discuss finances with my friends.” “Give me some business cards, and I’ll pass them around.”

While a great deal of what I teach is how to discuss introductions in a way that trumps these evasive responses (such as asking to talk with specific people instead of the buckshot “Who do you know?”), objections will come, no matter how skillfully to ask.

Let’s break down what’s really being said when we get these “ANRs” (automatic negative responses). Over the years, I’ve found that the “I can’t think of anyone” objection just needs some direction from you. But most of the others are actually smokescreens for the four real reasons clients avoid giving referrals:

  1. They’re not sure how you’ll deal with the people to whom they might refer you. Will you stalk or badger them? Will you try to pressure them into buying?
  2. They don’t yet fully trust you. The old adage that clients need to know, like and trust you has much truth in it. This trust comes when clients feel you’re fully serving their interests and that you care about them.
  3. They’re not sure how their friends, family members or associates will respond to being referred. Even if they trust you to be the kindest and gentlest of professionals, they worry whether the people in their lives will resent it.
  4. They’ve had bad experiences with referrals in the past. There’s always a perceived risk that an unsuccessful referral will damage a friendship. If there’s already a story in which that was the case, the client will be very hesitant to make new introductions.

It’s important to avoid giving pithy replies to these objections. Instead, find out more about the underlying objection, in the following sequence:

  1. Ask permission to explore. “I’m sorry if my bringing this up has made you uncomfortable. Do you mind if I ask you why?” If the response is “I just don’t know you well enough” (which might have been expressed at first as “Let’s see how things go for awhile”), you can say something such as: “I would love to build the kind of relationship which would make you want me to help your friends and family members. What do I need to do to make that happen?”
  2. Explore. If the response is that your client has had a bad experience, ask her to tell you about it. If she has a concern about how you’ll deal with her friends or how they’ll react to you, move directly to the next step.
  3. Reframe. Point out the positive experience this client has already had with you. Then ask “Would it help if I explained to you how I would approach your friend or family member?” Explain your process, highlighting the help you’d provide and assuring her you would not apply any kind of sales pressure.
  4. Move ahead (or leave the door open). Ask if the explanation has helped. Depending on the response, either go back to asking about people who might need your help, or simply ask permission to talk about introductions again in a few months.

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Sandy Schussel is a speaker, business trainer and coach who helps sales teams develop systems to win clients. He is the author of The High Diving Board and Become a Client Magnet. For more information, go to


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