Resources  >> Referrals: What To Do Once Your Foot’s In The Door

About Vickie Sullivan

Vickie Sullivan is internationally recognized as the top market strategist for thought leaders, professional speakers and B2B professional service firms. Specializing in brand and message strategies in crowded markets, she has helped thousands of talented people outsmart their competition since 1987.

Written by: Vickie Sullivan  |  June 01, 2007

Referrals: What To Do Once Your Foot’s In The Door

Originally published for

To many professional service firms, referrals are precious. They come with rave reviews from a trusted third party. In some cases, they have already helped establish a need. Just close the deal and celebrate, right? Not so fast.

While referrals are great, they don’t clinch the deal like they used to. These buyers are open and interested but still need to be convinced of how your value applies to them.

You’re Not The Only Referral

To start with, there are two kinds of referrals.

  • One is when your champion introduces you to someone they think needs your services. This scenario opens the door; the rest of the conversation is similar to a cold call: find the need, show your value, etc.
  • The second, more valuable kind is a buyer who is looking for a resource, was given you name and has called you.

For the purposes of this article, let’s focus on the second, more valuable kind of referral.

Buyers who are ready to move begin their search with their network. They will go to trusted colleagues and ask, “Who do you know that does…” They will gather a variety of recommendations and one of three things will happen: some will be dismissed immediately; some (such as those given by a superior) will get top billing; and some look good but are unknown.

So, even if you’re on the top of the list, you are just one of many options. Here are three things to keep in mind when talking to referrals that will help you rise above the competition and turn your referrals into future clients.

1) Do Some Homework

Unlike cold calls, referrals are contacting you and willing to return your call. When you first talk with them, you have a short window of opportunity to convince them that they should talk with you further instead of with their other options.

To make your first impression count, find out as much as you can beforehand. Checking out the company is too easy thanks to the Internet. The two best starting places on a company’s website are the “About Us” page and the media section. Do this when you get the referral, so you’re not caught off-guard when they call. If you didn’t know about the referral and the call is unexpected, then schedule a time to talk.

Talk with the person who referred you to get the inside scoop. The are the one who has the relationship with the referral, and they may have valuable insights to offer.

After that, call the referral and begin your conversation with the strongest connection. If you’re an industry insider, begin with a comment about industry trends or dynamics. If you’re not, that’s OK. The strongest connection doesn’t necessarily have to be about business. Even the most task-oriented person will take a moment to root for their favorite sports team or chuckle about the person who connected you.

Now is not the time to narrow in on specific logistics or how you work. You want keep a flowing dialogue about ideas and you don’t want to set up a yes/no construct that can prematurely kill the conversation and a budding relationship.

2) Talk Shop

Sales 101 says, “ask plenty of questions.” That’s still true with referrals. But these buyers expect different questions from you. They already assume that you have a basic level of competence, or you wouldn’t have been referred in the first place. They are curious about your services; you have their attention.

The biggest mistake you can make here is to make the same inquiries everyone else does. Buyers with several credible options will judge you by the quality of questions you ask them. If all the conversations begin with the basic questions about needs, then all of the professional service providers sound like the same vendor.

Think about it: how would you feel if you had ten, fifteen interactions, all with different people, that sounded the same? Tedious would be an understatement. And when we’re bored, the mind blurs. It’s difficult to remember which vendor said what.

The purpose of the questions is then two-fold. First, it’s to set up a conversation that convinces them of your uniqueness. It is with these conversation starting questions and in the ensuing small talk that you can establish the inside track.

Second, is for the referral to see you as a peer instead of a “hat-in-hand” vendor. You want to create a platform that sets up stories that demonstrate your approach, your thinking and your prominence without appearing obnoxious.

To start out strong, don’t use the usual “What is your biggest challenge?” opening. Instead, come armed with questions that will spur conversation. Ask about the impact the latest trends have had on their business. Ask about their views on some of the industry’s challenges. Talk shop. Compare notes. Trade war stories.

When the buyer gets that you have fresh new thinking, you become the benchmark. The buyer will see the questions other sources ask as “too basic” and therefore not as good. You are now on top of their list.

3) Listen, Learn, Connect

Another great thing about referrals is that they make buyers more willing to talk candidly. Referred prospects feel that you’ve been vetted, so they are more comfortable in going beyond the party line once you have proven yourself. And this “inside scoop” of information is critical on two fronts.

First, you can often hear about their possible objections. Any heads up on obstacles will allow you to answer their question before it becomes a concern.

When you get a whiff of a stumbling block in the initial conversation, you have the perfect opportunity to preempt the concern. You can do this by trading war stories about clients who had the same possible objection to moving forward with you or another provider, by explaining what made them go forward anyway and by showing that their story had a happy ending.

Importantly, at this stage, the prospect’s objection hasn’t been linked to you. You don’t have a dog in this fight, so it’s easier to distance your work from their concern. Addressing the objection before it gets connected to your project prevents the concern from gaining momentum. Once their concern has been linked to you, it can be set in stone. And you’re rolling that rock uphill.

The second way you can use the inside information you gathered is to link your work to a needed solution. The mistake here is in what gets linked. It’s very tempting to jump in and provide your solution to the prospect’s problem. Don’t. If you’ve already provided value from talking shop, it’s not necessary. Referred buyers are not looking for instant solutions; they are looking at how you would approach their problem.

Instead of offering a solution, help them diagnose where they are. If you have any distinctions between point A and point B, now is the time to bring them out. This will create a link between what you do and what they need, without solving the problem. Prospects need to see the mental picture of how your work will impact their priorities. Then they are open to working with you on logistics: how your project will unfold, the timelines, the investment, etc. Logistics come last.


Referrals are still good as gold. They trump cold calls. They allow us to focus on a specific situation instead of searching for interested buyers. However, the referred prospect has more options; we can not mistake curiosity for commitment. By talking shop and applying this approach, we can narrow the buyer’s alternatives to one–us.

Filed Under: Sales

About Vickie Sullivan

Vickie Sullivan is internationally recognized as the top market strategist for thought leaders, professional speakers and B2B professional service firms. Specializing in brand and message strategies in crowded markets, she has helped thousands of talented people outsmart their competition since 1987.