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Trouble Generating Referrals? Look to Your Inner Circle


Juan’s sales numbers for the quarter were sharply down; lately, he felt he was struggling with his prospecting. He asked his manager Anita for help.

“There’s a lot we can talk about when it comes to prospecting,” Anita said. “But let’s start with the simplest question first. Are you asking your current clients for referrals?” Juan frowned and shook his head. “You know, I’ve never really been very comfortable with that,” he said. “I tried asking people a couple of times, and it always felt awkward. It never seemed to generate any opportunities.”

“Let’s think about who you’re asking and how you’re asking them,” Anita said, smiling. “I think you’ll find generating referrals can be a lot easier than you might think.”


If salespeople took full advantage of the relationships they have with their existing clients, most, if not all, would find cold-call prospecting to be unnecessary.

Don’t overlook existing clients and customers as valuable sources for new business. If you are providing them with exceptional (or even just very good) service, they should be comfortable referring you to others…assuming that you take the initiative to ask for the referral, and assuming that you ask in the right way.


Making a generic referral request such as, “Who do you know that might be interested in __________?” will likely prompt a pre-programmed answer that sounds something like, “I can’t think of anyone at the moment.” To avoid triggering a pre-programmed response, you should frame your question in a manner that is relevant to the client’s sphere of influence—his “inner circle.”

If you know that your client is an avid golfer, for instance, and his golfing foursome typically includes other local business owners, you might frame your request as follows:

Tom, I’m wondering which of your golfing buddies could benefit from an inventory control system similar to the one we implemented for your Westbrook facility. Who is the most likely candidate?


If your client comes up with a name, ask why he selected that person. Then find out as much as you can about the new prospect. The more you know about the prospect, the warmer the subsequent call will be.

Next, ask your client for permission to use his name when you make the referral call. For example:

Tom, would you be OK if I tell Art that his name came up during our conversation? Ideally, you want Tom to not only give you permission to use his name, but offer to let Art know that you’ll be calling…or perhaps make the introduction.


Even if Tom doesn’t set up the call, think about how much easier it will be to make. This is no longer a “cold” call. You know something about Art, his business and why he might be interested in your inventory control software. What’s more, Art is likely to be more comfortable and receptive to taking the call when he discovers that his golfing buddy, Tom—someone of equal business stature, another business owner—referred you.

Last but not least, think about how easy it will be to get past the gatekeeper. When he asks, “What’s it about?” you simply reply, “Art’s golfing buddy, Tom Beale, asked me to give him a call this morning.”

This “inner circle” strategy will also work with other potential referral sources, not just clients—even prospects with whom there is not a current need for what you have to offer. In that situation, you can still frame the request around a likely inner circle. Here’s an example: Jeff, based on our conversation, it doesn’t appear that I’m going to be able to help you this afternoon. Perhaps you can help me. Now that you better understand what I do, I suspect that you know another business owner, even a friendly competitor, perhaps, who could benefit from my company’s design services. To whom should I be talking?

This powerful referral strategy can be used with anyone whose sphere of influence encompasses people who fit your ideal prospect profile. You have nothing to lose by asking…and everything to gain.


By using an “inner circle” strategy, Juan was able to rely far less on “cold” prospecting calls, which he didn’t like making, and far more on calls generated via referrals from happy customers. These were much easier for him to make, and far more productive in terms of opportunity development. As a result, his personal bottom line improved, and he managed to hit his quota for the quarter… a goal that had seemed all but unattainable a few weeks earlier.