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Life Health > Running Your Business > Marketing and Lead Generation

Your referral network is larger than you realize

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Have you ever played the game, “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon”?

Or perhaps you’ve seen the Kevin Bacon Visa Check Card ad from 2002? The concept is simple: We’re all connected … sometimes in the most absurd and unbelievable ways.

Finding those connections is key to lead generation and getting referrals.

“Six Degrees of Separation” is a theory posited by psychologist Stanley Milgram in a 1967 study, for which 296 volunteers from Boston and Nebraska attempted to get a document to a Massachusetts stockbroker using only their acquaintances. Sixty-four of those letters reached their target after going through six connected people.

But in the digital age, we don’t need six people to connect us to Kevin Bacon or anyone else. More recent research shows it now takes fewer than five. A 2011 study by Facebook and the University of Milan, which mined data from the social media site’s 721 million active users, found that the number of intermediate links between two strangers — or “degrees of separation” — is now only 4.74. Researchers summarize: “When considering another person in the world, on average, a friend of your friend knows a friend of their friend.”

This is great news for referral sellers! We’re connected to any decision-maker we want to reach by just a few people.

How to unlock unexpected referral networks

Your clients — current and former — are your best, most logical source of referrals. They know how you work, what your ideal client looks like and how your team adds value.

But while customers make up the top tier of your referral network, there is untapped potential for lead generation in every area of life. Your team is connected to more referral sources than they even realize. Just consider the following connectors:

The affinity connector

Your “affinity network” includes your natural, everyday cultural, geographic and special-interest connections that boost lead generation and increase sales. Think about people you know, with whom you share the same cultural background (or geographic area or country). There is an affinity — a connection — among those with a common custom, perspective or manner.

In the United States alone, the South, the Midwest, and New England each has its own social, business and historical culture. People from these locations often share a certain manner of speech, approach or perspective. What about others who share the same political agenda or passion for travel or sports? You feel an immediate connection to them — a natural liking, inclination or feeling of identification.

The cultural connector 

Cultural connections can also be a way to generate new sales leads.

Think of a British salesman working for a company in the U.S. The company has important sales leads in the U.K. Who would this company send to explore the new opportunities? Given the choice, it wouldn’t be someone from Texas, Asia or Latin America. Smart sales execs would send the Brit, because he would more likely be perceived by these prospects as “one of them.” The sales approach, conversation and tempo of new business development would more likely be in keeping with the client’s culture. Familiarity breeds comfort, trust and sales opportunities.

The travel connector 

No matter what your nationality, if you are traveling in another country, you immediately gravitate to people “from home.” My sister and I travel together every year, typically on great outdoor excursions.

During a recent trip to Patagonia, we stayed at a fabulous lodge and went on organized hikes twice a day. On our last day, we hiked with a couple from New England. It turned out that I am familiar with the man’s industry and am good friends with one of the key leaders in his professional networking association. We exchanged cards (yes, I always carry business cards), and I continue to stay in touch. In fact, I might hear from him when he reads this blog post.

The sports connector 

Sports aren’t just a “guy thing.” Before I visit clients in any city in the world, I find out how the local professional sports teams are doing. We can exult if they’re doing well and commiserate if they’re doing poorly. Football, basketball, baseball, soccer, cricket … there’s something going on all year long. And if you’re traveling in the Midwestern United States, know your college ball!

These are just a few of the unexpected referral networks you and your sales team can tap into. What about the parents of your children’s friends? People you know at your place of worship? Commuters who ride the same train to work with you every morning? These people know people, who just might know the people you want to meet. Ultimately, lead generation starts with building relationships through networking.

The role of social media in referral selling

Social media is a great way for sales reps to find out which of their various referral sources know the prospects they most want to meet. But while LinkedIn is a gold mine for referral selling research, it is not the place to ask for referrals.

A LinkedIn connection is not a relationship; it’s a contact name. Granted, everyone’s connected to people with whom they have actual relationships, but many people accept every LinkedIn invitation, even those from perfect strangers.

That’s why sales reps should always conduct their due diligence before asking for referrals. Until they actually talk to potential referral sources, they don’t know how those people are connected to their prospects. Even if those referral sources do have strong enough relationships to provide referrals, reps still have to make the business case for why referral sources should introduce them.

Without personal introductions to prospects, sales reps are cold-calling — reaching out to people who aren’t expecting their call and probably don’t want to hear from them. That’s a doomed sales strategy.

So, by all means, use LinkedIn to learn more about the networks of your referral networks. Then pick up the damn phone and ask for referrals.

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