My favorite story about referrals has to do with a very successful salesperson I know named Bill. Every year he vacations in some exotic locale like Fiji or the Cayman Islands or Hawaii. Often these vacations come as result of company bonuses for his performance or industry awards. So about once a year, this agent sends a letter to his customers and qualified prospects announcing his return from Paradise, where he received the XYZ award for outstanding sales achievement. The purpose of the letter is to thank the salesperson’s clients for their business, and to make it perfectly clear that the only way the salesperson has been able to attain his goal is by helping his customers attain theirs. Classy, yes? At the end of the letter is the paragraph that runs something like this: “As you know, my business depends upon referrals. I would very much appreciate it if you would take a moment now to jot down the names and phone numbers of three or four people in the industry you feel might benefit from talking to me. Of course, if you do not wish me to use your name when contacting these people all you have to do is indicate this in the space I have provided below. Again, thank you for your business, and here’s to continuing success for both of us.”

Call me crazy. But I have a feeling there may be some cause-and effect connection between letters like that and all those expensive vacations and impressive sales awards.

Playing the Numbers Game

Let’s play a little multiplication game. Suppose five people give you five referrals each, for a total of twenty-five. And suppose that of those new referrals, 60 percent turn around and give you five referrals, too. That’s fifteen times five, or seventy-five new prospects. Now if of the seventy-five, 60 percent give you five referrals each. . . you get the picture. If you are out to build your client base exponentially (and why shouldn’t you be?), there is no better place to start than asking for referrals. Referrals are the lifeblood of a successful career in sales. And yet salespeople are usually terrified to ask for them. Often, they feel it will somehow threaten the relationship they have built up with a customer to ask if there are other associates of that customer who might benefit from their product or service. Perhaps the customer really doesn’t like using the product or service, after all, and asking for a referral will only intensify that feeling or bring it to the surface. This is paranoia. If you have got a customer who is benefiting from what you do, you should find out whether he or she has people that you should be talking to.

Follow your instincts.

You should be able to tell without too much difficulty whether or not you have a satisfied customer or an enthusiastic prospect. If you do, what that really means is that you have established the foundation of a productive mutually beneficial relationship. Why on earth would your customer not want to share that kind of relationship with his friends and associates?

How can you make referrals work for you? Let’s say your goal is to get five new prospects for the week. Carry with you at all times a small pack of 3″ x 5″ index cards. After you are done meeting with one of your customers or a good quality prospect, simply say something like this. “Mr. Jones, I am willing to bet there are people in your (industry, area, related business) who could benefit from my talking to them about this (product/service).”

As you say this, you take out five index cards, hold them in your hand, and let the prospect or customer see that there are five of them there. Then say, “Do you know of five people I could talk to?” Help your contact along. It will be easier than you think; the fact that there are five separate index cards will make the task comprehensible and immediate. Your confidant, professional attitude will guarantee that your request will not be seen as inappropriate.

Put the cards on a row on the desk as you fill them out, writing names only. Then, after you have identified the five referrals by name, go back and ask for the company affiliations, addresses, or other contact information. You do this because you want to make the first and most important job, identifying the people you can talk to, as easy as possible.

Ask for help

Another great technique for getting referrals from everyone you know and strangers alike is to ask for their help. When you say “I’m planning to make 2007 my best year ever. Will you help me”? The other person will often reply with “sure, how can I help you”? At this point you say ” I’ll bet you know a lot of people I should be speaking with about (product/service). Would you mind sharing their names with me”?

Taking the Direct Approach

I know of one salesperson who actually asks his contacts at this point of the meeting, “Frank, how would you feel about calling these people for me?” Of course, in some cases the contact says, “No,” and says the salesperson should make the call. Then the salesperson says, “Yeah, you’re right. I probably should call them. You don’t mind if I use your name, I hope?” He has never yet been turned down on the second question-which is the one he wanted a yes answer to in the first place. Yes, that is an assertive approach, but it illustrates the point that you can profit enormously by asking directly for referrals. After all, aren’t your customers and future customers better off working with you rather than the competition?