Referrals: How to ask for them without putting your buyer on the spot
  • sales
  • Blog post

Referrals: How to ask for them without putting your buyer on the spot

You’ve done a great job for your customer. You know because she told you so.

But when you ask, “Is there anyone you know who could benefit from what we offer?” your customer starts to fidget like a fourth-grader who’s been called into the principal’s office.

Many salespeople underestimate the risk that buyers feel when they’re asked to supply referrals. A referral represents a new type of risk, different from the risk of buying. You’re asking customers to put their personal credibility on the line.

What’s more, your buyers may not know who might want what you’re selling. They have a hard enough time recognizing their own needs, let alone guessing at someone else’s.

You can reduce these barriers and generate more and better referrals. Here’s how:

Ask at the right time
Conventional wisdom says to ask for referrals when the sale closes. Customers have just said yes, and they’ve just chosen to do business with you rather than anyone else, the theory goes. But there’s a big problem with asking for a referral as soon as you get the business. You haven’t delivered value to your customer yet. You’ve only delivered a promise. So how can the buyer give an unqualified endorsement?

There’s another problem. When you’ve just closed a sale, your customer is feeling vulnerable. That’s when they need you the most, and they want to be sure you’re focused 100% on them. Asking for a referral at that moment could suggest that you’ve moved on to the next conquest.

So when should you ask? When sales value has been achieved. That could be, for example, after delivery of the first order, after you’ve reached a significant project milestone, or after an annual review. Of course, you want to make sure your customers are satisfied before you request the referral.

Ask in the right way
Rather than asking customers to recommend you, simply ask whom you might speak to next. That takes the psychological burden off the customer. A “recommendation” asks buyers to put their reputation on the line. And it unfairly shifts the selling burden from you to the referral source.

When you ask your buyer who might be able to use your product or service, you relieve the buyer of those burdens. Yet you achieve the same effect: When you call the next prospect, you simply say, “Mr. Jones suggested I contact you.”

Do the heavy lifting
The same principle that wins sales also wins referrals: Make it easy for buyers to do business with you.

Don’t ask them to come up with potential names. Do the research yourself. Develop a list of possible prospects. Bring it to your buyer and ask, “Do you see any names here that you recognize?”

This approach offers three benefits:

  1. It respects your buyer’s time.
  2. It shows you’ve done your homework.
  3. It lets your buyer off the hook. They’re not “naming names.” They’re simply confirming information you already have.

Make references specific
Many salespeople routinely solicit reference letters from satisfied customers. Great idea – but all too often they all sound the same: “Dear Joe: Great job! Your people are the best!”

Unfortunately, these letters don’t tell prospects why they should buy from you. Seek letters that serve a specific purpose.

Try this: Make a list of objections that prospective customers raise, whether they buy from you or not. Then solicit recommendations from satisfied customers that address the most common objections. These letters became a valuable tool for winning over new customers.

Source: Kevin Davis, president of TopLine Leadership and author of “Getting Into Your Customer’s Head,”from Times Books/Random House.

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