The only referral system that always works

Sept. 1, 2005
Looking for a way to find new business? Here’s a way to do it without alienating your current clients.

Looking for a way to find new business? Here’s a way to do it without alienating your current clients.

By Doug Carter

Most referral systems work, but people won’t work them! Why? Because asking for a referral, in most cases, throws the relationship out of balance.

Let’s say you sit down with prospects and ask your questions. You describe what you do and why it works. That is, you offer what’s called a “performance promise.” They ask you, “How much does it cost?” You tell them. They think the price is fair and they accept your promise. Your relationship is in balance. But, you throw the relationship out of balance when you ask a question like, “John, there’s one more thing. To whom could you refer me?”

Any question like this invokes the “Law of Reciprocity.” This states that if I give something to you, I have a right to expect equal or greater value in return - at a time of my choosing. We instinctively understand this, which is why most salespeople have a problem asking for referrals. We know we’re asking for help that is all about us, and that tends to create an uncomfortable sense of obligation.

Luckily, there is a solution. First, let’s change the desired outcome from just getting names to strengthening your community. By community, I mean those people who know you and know of you.

Here’s how to do that. Think of your favorite, ideal client - one who not only buys multiple products and services, but who is also the kind of person you like, admire, and respect. What do you like about this person? What do you respect about him or her? Are you looking for another client just like this one? Then just tell the truth!

Why not tell your most ideal clients, “I’m looking for another you!” You can continue, “I realize no one is exactly like you, but I also realize there ARE people who are similar.” Then describe your client’s strengths, characteristics, and traits. For example, you might say, “Who do you know who is open-minded and progressive? Who is the kind of person who is deeply involved with family and community? Someone who has the initiative and drive to get things done but still has time to make the people around him or her know how important they are? The kind of person who not only has a great sense of humor but also makes you feel like you’re trusted and respected when you’re with him or her? Who do you know who’s like you?”

This is a “no lose” situation. Your client is going to feel better about you whether he or she gives you names or not. If they do give you names, ask if anyone else comes to mind. Then find out if it’s ok to ask a few questions about each person, such as:

What caused (the person’s name) to come to mind?

What do you like about him or her?

What else do you like about him or her?

What do you most respect about him or her?

Minimally, I ask my clients if they will call the prospect and suggest that we at least have a conversation. If they decline to call ahead, then I don’t follow-up.

Let’s say that your client is Joseph Smith, and he has referred you to Felix Jones. Mr. Smith has called and suggested that Mr. Jones talk with you. Your follow-up call might go like this, “Felix, this is (your name). Joseph Smith suggested I give you a call and I promised I would. I’ve looked forward to talking with you because Joseph told me what he thinks of you. He said that you’re an open-minded person who is always interested in finding new ways to become more involved with your family and your community. He said that when he’s with you, he always feels respected, trusted, and like you’re a part of his family. Am I talking to the right Felix Jones?”

Normally...they’ll laugh! Then they’ll either “downplay” the compliment or they’ll make a small joke about it. It’s normal to have a short conversation about your client.

When it’s appropriate, continue with, “Has Joseph ever talked to you about the very special way we help him with his business?” Felix will either say yes or no. If he says yes, ask him what he’s heard, then proceed with the rest of the conversation. If he says no, then proceed with the rest of the conversation. “Let me make this easy for us. I don’t know enough about your situation to know whether our company’s very special way would work for you or not. But it only takes a few minutes to find out. What do you think?” Now you just “walk them through” the process you use to determine if there is a match.

Describing what your client likes, admires, and respects about the prospect enhances all three relationships, strengthens your community, and helps to provide a solid foundation upon which to build your new relationship.

Doug Carter, with Jenni Green, is the author of “Clients Forever: How Your Clients Can Build Your Business” (McGraw-Hill), and is the brainchild behind seventh-generation selling. He’s taught his cutting-edge approach to more than 1 million businesspeople around the world through customized trainings and interactive speaking programs. A sales professional and trainer for more than 25 years, he is the founder and CEO of Carter International Training and Development Company. Learn more at or send an email to [email protected].