How To Win The Sales Referral

Woman (Samantha McKenna) smiling in a blue faded background

Samantha McKenna of #samsales fame joined us on a recent episode of the Predictable Revenue Podcast to share with us how exactly a sales rep should handle a referral to give themselves every chance of winning the deal and of getting more referrals in the future. 

Let’s break down how to win a few of the most common types of referrals like they’re episodes of the hit TV show Friends (heard of it?). From the perspective of the salesperson:

Episode 1: The One Where Someone You Know Introduces You to Someone They Think Could Benefit from Your Product/Services

This is perhaps the most common type of referral a salesperson will encounter in their career. The referrer could be a past customer, a past colleague, or just about anyone in your network. Either way – this person has stuck their neck (and their reputation) out for you to make that introduction, in hopes that you will take it, run with it, and make them proud. 

More often than not, however, what Sam McKenna sees from salespeople in these scenarios is a tragic lack of urgency. Sam explains that urgency is one of the 4 central tenets of her sales methodology, honed over many years in sales with Fortune 500s down to startups. Urgency matters so much because most sales reps don’t act with urgency. Sam sees sales reps waiting for 2, 3, 11 (seriously) days to follow up once they’re given a referral. 

This is a lead on a silver platter – you need to respond that same day.

Build this into your sales process: if this, then that. As Sam puts it, if she’s about to push back from her desk at the end of the night, then she thinks “is there anything I’ve missed today? Have I missed responding to a referral?”

Next, after urgency, you employ the 2nd of Sam’s 4 pillars: show me you know me. Who is this person you’ve been referred to? Ask the person doing the referring, or do your own research, and demonstrate what you’ve learned in your response, which could look something like: “Sam, thank you so much for the referral. Sarah – lovely to meet you! I see you’re in Vancouver, etc., etc., etc.” Go above and beyond your stock, templatized response.

Finally, when that prospect responds, the last thing Sam wants you to do is send them your calendar link. Time and time again, she sees sales reps respond, “Thanks for the referral, Sam, and great to meet you, Sarah! Here’s a calendar link for you to book time with me.” 

You’re courting the prospect, and this is your opportunity to make a great first impression. A calendar link is not it. Rather say something like, “I’d love to find some time to chat. If you can send over some times that work for you, I’ll find a time that works on my side as well and send a calendar invite accordingly!”

And whatever you do – save your referrer’s inbox by moving them to bcc after the initial reply lest you bombard them with emails about coordinating schedules.

Bad example: At a previous company, Sam bumped into someone who had been a past customer. That person shared that while they didn’t have a great experience the first time around with her company, they’d be willing to give it another shot. Sam quickly made the intro to one of her sales reps and reached out to that sales rep separately letting them know that if they played their cards right, the company could win back this business. The rep waited 11 days to reach out.

Episode 2: The One Where a Cold Prospect Tells You They’re Not the Right Person

Things can go a few different ways here. Some prospects will point you in the right direction. Others will be an impenetrable fortress. And a small percentage can be convinced to give up the oh-so-valuable referral – if you play your cards right.

The important thing to do when a prospect is A) nice enough to pick up the phone and B) nice enough to point you in the right direction is to ask their permission to share their name when you reach out. Speaking as a leader, there’s nothing worse than when you give a cold caller your colleague’s name, and that very same cold caller rats you out. All of a sudden Julian isn’t opening any emails with the subject line “Collin sent me.” Lots of people will answer, “no,” when you ask if you can mention your name – and that’s okay. 

Lots of people will even be hesitant to give you the name of the right person at their company for fear that their name could be besmirched by subjecting their colleague to your 5-minute product dump and flaccid CTA. You can attempt to reverse this sentiment by taking Sam’s approach. Ask, “Do you mind sharing with me who the right contact is? I promise not to use your name or even mention where I got the information from if you’d be so kind as to share it with me.” Or, you can say, “I’ve done some research. Does the right person happen to be so-and-so? I promise I won’t spam them or tell them who confirmed they were the right person – I just want to make sure I have my ducks in a row.” In Sam’s experience, the transparency and honesty in this approach can make people open up and share. 

When you eventually have the go-ahead to reach out to your new prospect and mention your referrer’s name – put it in the subject line of your email: ie “referred by Sam”. Getting people to open your emails can sometimes be the hardest part of your job, so don’t bury the lead.

Episode 3: The One Where Your Current Customer Refers You to a New Prospect

When handling this type of referral, you want to follow all the great advice Sam gave about handling the ones above. In addition, you should send a separate note to your current client thanking them for the referral and keeping them in the loop. Sam usually writes something like, “thanks so much for connecting us, that was so generous of you. I’m going to have the first call, let you know how it goes, and keep you posted from there!” After a discovery call, Sam will reach back out, thank them again, and share whether it’s not the right time/fit, or if the deal is moving in the right direction. This lets your current customer know if they referred you to the right type of person for potential future referrals and, if it was the right type of person, they can share the joy.  

From here, keep your current customer up to date! If you have a long sales cycle, shoot them a note somewhere in the middle. After the deal closes, even if it is closed/lost, send a handwritten note and maybe a little gift as well. This customer has done something really nice for you and given you an opportunity you wouldn’t otherwise have, so let them know you appreciate it. And, a little tip: if you want to get their home address so you can send them a token of your gratitude, but don’t want to sound like a stalker, ask for their mailing address instead. 

Following the steps outlined above shows your referrer that you know how to handle a referral and are worthy of more. 

Episode 4: The One Where You (a Buyer) Introduce a Sales Rep to Someone You Think Could Benefit from Their Product/Service

Sam recently got a text from an old neighbour she hasn’t heard from in over 5 years. The text said, “Sam, I wanted to introduce you to Jenna, my Cutco Knives representative. She wants to give you a presentation, and I figured if anybody would be nice enough to listen to her, it would be you!” This is an example of what not to do in this scenario. 

As a buyer referring a sales rep to a new prospect, make sure you ask permission of that prospect first. Reach out to them and say, “Hey, I just started working with this company that I think could really help you guys out in these ways. Would you be interested in hearing more about them? Do you mind if I introduce you?” 

Just for the record – Jenna the Cutco Knives representative has yet to reach out to Sam.


If you’ve played your cards right and your referrers are happy to give you more referrals, you can be proactive about getting more. Don’t: Ask them if they know anybody else that could use your product/service. Do: Ask if you can look through their LinkedIn connections and find a few other people who they might know that could be a great fit for your product/service. They referred you before, their referrals had great experiences with you, they have had a great experience with you as a customer – ask them to connect you with a few of their connections of your choosing. 


We’ve touched on a couple of them already, but I’ll dive into more detail here. 

1. The Urgent Bird Gets the Worm. 

Sam knows the idiom actually goes, “the early bird gets the worm,” but in sales and in Sam’s experience, urgency and responsiveness are key. The first salesperson to get to a prospect wins. Urgency shows your prospect that they are a priority, and it will set you apart from your competition because most sales reps don’t exhibit urgency. 

2. Show Me You Know Me.

This element of Sam’s methodology should be used throughout the sales process. It started off, for her and her team, as a great way to stand out with a cold email. She and her reps look at a prospect on LinkedIn and craft a subject line that wouldn’t make sense to anyone but the prospect based on what they find. But Show Me You Know Me continues beyond the first email. Do your homework before the discovery call. Do your research before the 2nd or 3rd call where new attendees will be joining the conversation. Do some digging on a company before interviewing for a new job.

 3. The Question Behind the Question.

Sam’s first job was at Disneyworld in Florida. The first thing she was taught in her role was what to do when asked the #1 most popular question patrons ask: “what time is the 3 o’clock parade?” Ask your sales reps this question, and see what they say. In Sam’s experience, 90-95% will answer, “it’s at 3 o’clock.” Only 5-10% will think to themselves, “why are they asking?” and uncover the question behind the question. Sam implores you to ask people to tell you a little bit more about why they’re asking a certain question to unearth all the information that is critical to the situation, and then you can answer the true question. 

This strategy can be applied to statements as well. Listen for clues, listen to what your prospect shares with you, and dig in further to learn if the information is critical to the prospect and if it could be used to your advantage. 

You can even practice at home. Ask someone how their day was, and listen. When they finish talking, pick one thing from what you just heard, and dig deeper. For instance, if they say they had a really busy day, ask, “what made it so busy?”

4. Basic Sales Manners.

By adhering to all the advice shared in the first 3 pillars and throughout this article, you will demonstrate great basic sales manners. 


Salespeople, you put in all this effort grinding away on the phone, slamming out emails, and connecting and sharing content with your prospects until you finally get it: not the meeting, but the referral. But it doesn’t end there. You’ve been handed a lead on a silver platter and if you don’t have a great strategy for taking that referral and capitalizing on it, you’re going to lose it. Follow the steps outlined above to give yourself every opportunity to convert those referrals into meetings and deals, and to ensure that the referrals keep coming!


More tips on how to lose the bad sales manners: Social Selling and Reversing The Hatred of Salespeople

And on doing your homework before reaching out: How to Write a Cold Sales Email

The importance of being personal: How Workfront’s prospectors heavily tailor their initial email outreach


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