The story of how I met Joanne Black began the way most of these relationships (should) begin:

With a referral.

When I was looking for an interesting, insightful interview subject for the next edition of our Expert Series, a mutual friend of ours – hi Jill Konrath! – suggested I link up with Joanne, one of the top authorities and authors on referral selling in sales today. An introduction email and some coordination later, and I was scheduled for an engrossing conversation with Joanne. With referrals treated like manna from heaven by sales teams – customers from referrals deliver a 16% to 25% higher lifetime value – I couldn’t wait for this interview.

And what an interview! Over the course of the hour, I picked Joanne’s brain on a wide variety of subjects, including the challenges and opportunities for women in sales, the “death” of cold-calling, the wealth of sales technology today and – of course – referrals and referral sales.

1) We’re in an interesting time when buyers have more access and power, yet salespeople still wield tremendous influence. How do you reconcile this paradox, of buyers having more power and salespeople having more impact than ever?

People try to make this paradox complicated, but it’s really not. Bottom line: We need to get in before buyers even realize they have a need. When we do that, we get to shape the solution and build the relationship. There are some misinformed statistics, being passed around sales circles, that say 65% of buyers have made a decision before they even talk to the salesperson. If you believe that, you’ll sit back and wait…just like every other salesperson.

Buyers have all the information they want – what they don’t have are insights.

- Joanne Black

It is true that buyers have more information about our companies and products – they can get all the information they want online. What they don’t have are insights. They want a valuable conversation that’s worth their time, so that when they leave, they’ve learned something new. And when we get in the door early – before prospects know they need us – we get the chance to help them diagnose their problems and suggest solutions. So, how do you get in the door early?

With referral introductions.

Just recently, I was referred to Mark, an SVP of Worldwide Sales, by his recently retired predecessor, Mike. When I went into the meeting with Mark, I teed it up by saying, “Mike introduced us and said we should talk. I have some thoughts on what we should talk about, but what would you like to accomplish during our time together?”

His response: “Anybody who Mike introduces, I meet with, and we don’t need an agenda.”

This is what happens when you get a referral introduction. You get in early, tee it up properly, and have an opportunity to build a relationship. Referred prospects already trust you and know they’re going to have a valuable interaction with you.

2) Referrals are treated like gold, especially in the B2B space. What can sales leaders do to tilt their selling strategies and place more emphasis on gaining referrals?

Emphasis is important, but action is what matters. No one disputes that referrals are the best way to get new clients, but many sales managers have what I call the “point-and-tell” syndrome. They point at their teams and tell them to go after referrals, and then they wonder why it doesn’t work.

When we receive a referral introduction, we’re pre-sold, which shortens the sales process, and referred prospects convert into new clients more than 50% of the time! No other sales or marketing strategy comes close to these results. But when I ask people if they have a disciplined, strategic, measurable referral program with accountability for results, the answer is almost always no. Here’s what needs to happen:

  • Referrals need to be a sales team’s #1 priority for outbound sales. That doesn’t mean scrap everything else – marketing automation, lead generation and nurturing, social media – that’s the foundation of sales. What changes is that instead of sitting back and waiting for referrals to happen, we’re making it our #1 outbound priority.
  • Sales leaders need to create metrics for referrals. How many people did you ask? How many meetings did you schedule? How many referrals did you receive? Track the time it takes until conversion and the number of new clients you close. Define metrics that you can log into your CRM. Referrals should become an integral part of your sales process.

Learn More About Sales Metrics»

3) A top-down referral program – like a Channel team or advocacy marketing – can be effective. But what can individual sales reps do to drive more referrals?

I am a proactive, focused salesperson so I generate my own qualified leads. If you’ve been in sales for a while, you should have a lot of clients and contacts. Current clients are the best source of referrals for new business. Ask everyone! When you close new clients, ask them for a referral, and you’ll get a new prospect that goes straight into the top of the funnel.

I was talking to a client recently who hadn’t asked anyone for a referral in two weeks, and really need accountability. We talked about the great clients he has and built a referral plan together. He wrote down every client he worked with in the past year – not just companies but people within those companies –  and organized them by the ones with whom he had the best relationships. We’re going to work through the top ones and practice asking for referrals. I’m going to hold him accountable to asking a certain number of people each week.

That’s how referral selling works. It requires focus and planning. Referrals don’t just happen. Tap into your networks of current or recent clients, especially those with whom you have great relationships. But before you ask for an introduction, make sure you can clearly describe your ideal client and the business value you provide.

4) So why do so many sales organizations continue to not have a targeted referral-selling program?

Referral selling is a lot easier than being on a treadmill for an hour, and much more rewarding.

- Joanne Black

Referral selling is simple…but it’s not easy! Intellectually, sales leaders understand that referrals are dynamite. I know I need to work out – I’ll feel better, it’s good for my health, my clothes will fit better, I’ll feel confident. But how often do I actually get to the gym or go on a hike? It’s like walking past the gym and seeing people on treadmills and saying, “I’m glad they’re doing that, but it really seems like a lot of work.”

Well, I can tell you that referral selling is a lot easier than being on a treadmill for an hour, and much more rewarding.

It’s a case of knowing vs. doing. We know referrals are great, and we need to invest in developing skills and implementing a proactive, intentional referral program to deliver results.

5) “No More Cold Calling” is both the name of your first book and your company. How difficult is it to steer your clients away from cold calling? Why do modern sales teams still hold on to this seemingly archaic sales practice?

If a company’s culture is cold calling and that’s what they do, we just don’t have a fit. If cold calling – contacting someone who doesn’t know you and doesn’t expect to hear from you – works for you, fine. Absolutely keep doing it. I’m not battling the status quo. I am advocating that you ask yourself if you’re open to trying the one prospecting strategy that works, the only one that gets you conversions more than 50% of the time.

I know I’m never going to eradicate cold calling. Some salespeople love and thrive on the challenge of getting past gatekeepers, and the victorious feeling of finally reaching a contact. But they don’t have any skin in the game. It’s not an affront to them if they don’t get through or get hung up on. They just keep dialing.

Here’s an example of the archaic nature of cold calling. I was recently quoted in a company white paper. I downloaded it from their website and shortly after, I got a phone call from one of their sales reps, trying to sell me. He had no idea I was featured in their content! I was just another number to cold call. If he had taken 10 minutes to do some research, he would have saved us both an unproductive conversation.

Companies have established cold-calling metrics. They know if their reps make 100 calls, they’ll reach 20 people, set eight appointments, and might close one or two deals. Might! If you want your salespeople doing that mindless activity, that’s up to you.

6) The title of your latest book – Pick up the Damn Phone!: How People, not Technology, Seal the Deal – might suggest you’re not a fan of sales technology.

The way to differentiate yourself is to actually talk to people. Do your homework, and then actually have a conversation

- Joanne Black

Let me set the record straight: I LOVE technology. I’m not against technology. The book is about how we use technology well. Salespeople hide behind their technology. Many have told me they hardly even talk to anyone anymore, and that technology can do most of their job for them.

The way to differentiate yourself is to actually talk to people. Do your homework – using LinkedIn or online research for trigger events – and then actually have a conversation.

Referrals are very personal, and you should never ask for one online. Many people accept every LinkedIn invitation and referral they receive. Before I accept an invitation, I want to know what your relationship is to me or the person you’re referring, what that person is like, and what’s your business reason for an introduction. You can automate marketing, but you can’t automate relationships.

7) You were part of a Dreamforce panel – with other sales all-stars like Jill Konrath and Trish Bertuzzi – that focused on “The #1 Competitive Edge in Sales Today.” What is that number one competitive edge?

I know this might come as a big shock to you…but it’s referrals! When we get that referral introduction, it’s a huge differentiator, because it’s just not happening on a widespread level. Everybody else is busy typing and dialing away, and we’re out here meeting people and getting into the C-Suite through referrals. That’s the biggest competitive differentiation. It’s always been this way, but I think it’s even truer today because of the overwhelming reliance of salespeople on technology.

8) Women in sales – and especially in tech sales – continue to be a huge minority. What do you think are the biggest obstacles preventing more women from breaking through in the industry? What advice would you give to aspiring female sales executives and professionals?

Women are not men, and we should not act and sell like men.

- Joanne Black

I spoke about women in sales at Dreamforce 2014, and then created “Big Deals and High Heels: Why Women are Naturals at Selling.” Women think they have to sell like men. That’s not an accident. For women who’ve been in sales for more than a decade, that’s all we used to know! But we are not men, and we should not act and sell like men. When we try to do so, we don’t tap into the inherent advantages we have as women.

For example, we have remarkable intuition and we should trust it. We always regret it when we don’t. Years ago, I was a guest on a podcast interview and I asked the host what his intuition told him about a specific question. He said, “Oh Joanne, men don’t have intuition.” Now, I don’t agree with that, but women definitely have great intuition, and  we are more successful when we trust it.

The next advantage we have is that we love to ask questions and tell stories. Women are very natural storytellers. Everyone knows it’s really stories that drive sales, and the better we are at conveying those stories on the phone or in person, the more deals we’ll close. We’re also great at building relationships, and when we build our networks, we have all these fabulous relationships that we can tap into for referrals.

While we have a lot of advantages, we also have a lot of challenges. For instance, family challenges. Sales is more than a full-time job, with no set hours and potentially lots of travel. It’s difficult for women to juggle that with raising a family. Many choose to leave the workforce altogether. I had a friend who left technology sales for seven years; look at all the changes in sales and tech in that time!

My advice to young women aspiring to get into sales is to find mentors, make your opinions known and be the one who contributes fresh ideas. That will help you establish yourself and get ahead.

9) Finally, what is the most dangerous thing you’ve ever done?

I’m not averse to risk, but I am averse to getting injured. So I guess my answer would be the time I went parasailing. This was years ago, and the technology wasn’t the same as today. I pulled the cord to land on the beach and I was in the water before I knew it. Obviously I was safe, but I was scared!

Have any further questions for Joanne? Post them in the comments section below and we’ll get them answered! Also, don’t forget to connect with Joanne on LinkedIn or Twitter, and pick up her new best-seller “Pick Up the Damn Phone! How People, Not Technology, Seal the Deal.” 

[contentblock id=18 img=html.png]
Recent Posts