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One of the critical parts of generating a large number of quality referrals is, of course, getting quality referrals, as opposed to just getting names and phone numbers.

Often, when a sales professional asks clients for referrals, clients respond that they either cannot think of anyone or that they do not know anyone who wants or needs the salesperson's products or services.

You can assure yourself of getting quality referrals if you take the time to learn who your client knows prior to asking for referrals. If you know who your client knows, or probably knows, you can suggest potential referrals to your client.

How do you discover who your client knows? During the course of the sale you need to be aware of everything you can learn about your client. Does he or she have signs of membership in organizations in their office or home? Are there bumper stickers on their car? Photographs that might indicate involvement in organizations or clubs? Has the client referred to a meeting or some other indicator of involvement? Can you gather information about past employment, other vendors, or customers?

These are relatively easy ways you can investigate who your client might know:

  • Memberships: If you meet your clients in their office or home office, you will often have the opportunity to discover their memberships by simply looking around the room. Do they have plaques from the Lions Club or Chamber of Commerce? Membership directories from an industry association on the bookshelf? Photos of with a vendor or customer?

  • Bumper stickers: Some people advertise their political or social associations on their car. If you notice a bumper sticker, it is often (though not always) a sign of commitment to the organization or movement related to the sticker.

  • Vendors/customers: Simply investigating who clients deal with can give you great insight into whom they might be able to refer you to. Does your client or the client's company sell to or buy from someone you are interested in getting in front of?

  • Emails: Some clients will put you on their social email list and send copies of articles, jokes, and the like that they think are of interest. Often these lists are sent to many individuals and all of their email addresses are visible. Most people simply delete such emails without a thought. Don't! Examine the names of recipients—sometimes you'll find some amazing names.

  • Family: Are there photos of the client's children playing sports? What school or team do they play for? Has your client mentioned anything about his or her spouse having to do something with an organization or association? Who does the spouse work for?

  • Past employers: This can be a particularly lucrative area to investigate. Most people have worked for several companies during their lifetime and often they will still have contacts at their past employers. Your client may once have had the contacts you want, so take note.

If you take the time and effort to do a little investigation, you should have at least a few areas to investigate further. Once you have your list of associations, vendors, past employers, and other potential sources, explore those organizations to determine who within the organization you would like to be referred to by your client.

If your client is active in the chamber of commerce, make a list of several chamber members you'd want to meet. If the client is a member of an industry association, what other companies would you like to sell? Who in that organization do you need to be referred to in order to have the best shot at selling them? Are any of your client's past employers of interest? How about your client's spouse's employer?

When you meet with your client to ask for referrals, you should have a prepared list of 15-25 potential referrals for your client to consider.

Of course, you want more referrals from your client in the future. Start preparing for your future referrals during your referral-acquisition meeting. Note during the meeting how your client reacts to each of the people you bring up on your list. If, for example, you have three people, each from three different organizations, but your client really doesn't know or is not comfortable referring you to any of the people from two of the organizations but is willing to refer you to all three of the people from the third organization, make a note to approach your client about more individuals from the third organization at some point in the future.

Also note where the referrals your client had prepared came from. Were they all family and friends? All business acquaintances your client only knows casually? Are they all vendors? All people within his company? Who your client refers you to will give you a strong indication of both how well he trusts you and where you might be able to make future suggestions about people you would like to be referred to.

Do not under any circumstances contact any of the people on your list by using your client's name without his or her explicit permission. Trying to manufacture referrals is a surefire way to lose credibility with both your client and your prospect.

By paying close attention to your client during the sales process and doing a little homework, you should be able to acquire a number of quality leads from every client.

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Paul McCord is the author of Creating a Million Dollar a Year Sales Income: Sales Success through Client Referrals (John Wiley and Sons) and the upcoming Planning Your Success: The Ultimate Guide to Creating Your Personal Marketing Plan. He is president of McCord and Associates, a sales-training and management-consulting firm. Reach him at or via