Expert Commentary

Can You Swim?

Does drowning sound more appealing than asking clients for referrals? Referral Aversion Sales Call Reluctance prevents salespeople from asking for referrals even when they know how to do it, intend to do it, and want to do it. It is entirely a learned behavior and is easily curable once recognized.

Eradicating Sales Call Reluctance
June 2003

"If you cannot ask for referrals, you had better learn how to swim!"

That was the advice I had received from a sales manager eons ago when I was still learning how to sell. He compared referrals to bridges—bridges to the next sale. I can still remember him drawing circles on a blackboard (yes, that's how old I am!) and calling the circles "sales." He then drew bridges from one circle (sale) to the next.

"Guess what these are?" he would ask, pointing to the bridges. We would all dutifully answer, "Bridges from one sale to the next."

"Right!" he would yell out, "and if you don't build those bridges, you had better learn how to swim. And how do you build those bridges?"

"By getting referrals!" we yelled back triumphantly.

At that point, he would draw the little squiggly lines that indicated water between the sales (circles) and glare at us as if to convey a message of some dire importance. We got the message. I certainly did. I had better ask for referrals or I would surely drown because I knew I could not swim.

He then went on to teach us how to ask for referrals. I thought it made perfect sense. We were fast learners. He had hardly taught us how to do it when we could teach it right back to him through our role plays. He taught us that satisfied clients were only too happy to give referrals and even unhappy ones would give us referrals just to get rid of us. We learned that there is no good time to ask for a referral, and there was no bad time either.

We should ask for referrals anytime we felt like it. The worst that could happen was that the client or prospect would say no. We learned all the techniques from "who do you know?" to "the person I am looking for is…." By the end of that day, we knew everything we would ever know about asking for referrals. We went out determined to ask everyone for referrals.

I Drowned

My first opportunity came the very next day. I had just closed a deal and my new client was happy with my work. I braced myself to ask for the referral. As I looked into his eyes, something in my stomach told me not to ask just yet. I must have shown some confusion because he asked me if anything was wrong. This gave me my second opportunity to ask for that golden referral but again I hesitated. Before I left that day, I knew I had blown at least four opportunities to ask him for a referral.

After I left, I kicked myself mentally. I was puzzled. Why was this so difficult to do when yesterday it had seemed so natural? I also did not ask any of the other people I spoke with that day.

The next day, when my sales manager asked us how many referrals we had gotten the day before, I lied and told him eight. Everyone else had gotten their referrals too. From their responses, I gathered that my eight might have seemed like an exaggeration and I determined to say four next time. He beamed his approval and never discussed referrals with us again. He just assumed we now knew what to do and how to do it. He was right. We did. But some of us did not do what we knew how to do and said we wanted to do.

Some of my fellow salespeople had learned how to build bridges. Some had learned to swim. I had drowned.

It Gets Worse

Even though I did not have to lie about it after that first time, I still felt guilty when I did not end a day with referrals. However, I'm human, and I soon became accustomed to living without those pesky referrals. It wasn't that I was not getting any. After all, I was a good salesperson and my clients did some referring without even asking my permission. That made up for the referrals I didn't ask for. While other salespeople got into the habit of asking for referrals, I got into the habit of not asking. We were both successful in getting what we wanted.

When I started training salespeople, I found that teaching salespeople to ask for referrals was one of the easiest classes for me. After all, it made logical sense, and every salesperson told me they knew they should ask, and they wanted to ask, and they would ask. Like my previous sales manager, I would beam my approval and bless them for their efforts. And my stomach would turn because I knew a whole bunch of them would pay lip service but not do it.

Then I met George Dudley and Shannon Goodson, authors of The Psychology of Sales Call Reluctance, and I understood why.

Referral Aversion Is a Call Reluctance

I would never have guessed that not asking for a referral would be one of the call reluctances, but it is. What surprised me was that I did not have a severe case of it. When I took the Call Reluctance test, it showed that I had some—but not at toxic levels. I remember wondering what it must be like to have really high doses of it. Would you actually turn down a referral?

Like most people, once the behavior had become a habit, I had stopped thinking about it. Like most of the call reluctances, you don't know you have it until it hits you between the eyes. It hit me between the eyes when I had to answer all those questions on the test about asking for referrals. I know it made me uncomfortable because it highlighted the need for good salespeople to ask for referrals, and I knew I did not. Although I think I even lied a few times on the questionnaire, it still pegged me accurately.

Referral aversion, it seems, prevents salespeople from asking for referrals even when they know how to do it, intend to do it, and want to do it. When the opportunity presents itself, they conveniently forget. The mantra of the referral aversion salesperson is, "The time was not right." The time is never right. It is entirely a learned behavior and is easily curable. In my case, I fixed it when I took the test and read the book on it. That's when I decided I had too many other problems and didn't need this one too. I fixed it through sheer disgust with it.

My referral aversion was mild. I had simply let it get out of control and had developed a bad habit. Once exposed, it was relatively easy to cure.

How Much Will Your Company Spend To Fix It?

Since my "born-again" experience with referral aversion, I have been able to help many salespeople overcome this pesky call reluctance. I have always found it to be relatively painless for the salesperson and myself to tackle.

One thing that continues to amaze me is how huge companies who should know better spend thousands and thousands of dollars on training their salespeople how to ask for referrals and then assume they will.

It does not take one or two days of training to teach salespeople about referrals. It can be covered in one 2-hour session. You don't have to sell salespeople on the logic of asking. They already know that. You don't have to spend hours teaching them how to ask. That's pretty simple too. The problem is not knowledge of how to ask for a referral. The problem is actually doing it. These companies would be better served dealing with this problem as a habit-level behavior rather than as a skill.

Manage the Behavior

Here's one thing my previous sales manager could have done even with no knowledge of sales call reluctance—he could have required that all the salespeople collect at least one referral each day for 4 weeks and prove to him weekly that they did. If he had followed up his workshop by requiring us to perform the behavior and then managing us to make sure that we did, he would have quickly uncovered those of us who had referral aversion call reluctance. Back then, he probably would not have known what to do about it except to tell us that we did not love our company, but at least he would have known that there was a problem of execution, not one of knowledge.

I always recommend testing for sales call reluctance. That is the surest way to determine exactly how much and what type a salesperson has. However, when it comes to referral aversion call reluctance, it is an easily observable call reluctance. If sales managers detect this in their salespeople, they can confirm it by managing the behaviors. I believe that managing the behaviors will also eradicate mild cases of referral aversion call reluctance.

Other Sales Call Reluctance articles include the following:

Article Topic
Who's Afraid of the CFO? Social Self-Conscious
Did Your Mom Intend You To Be a Wimp? Yielder
The Most Difficult Salesperson in the World Oppositional Reflex
The Telephone Bug Telephobia
All Dressed Up, Nowhere To Go Low Goal
Am I Adequately Prepared To Sell? Overpreparer
The Secret Shame of Selling Role Rejection
Look at All My Friends! Separationist
Appearance Is EverythingHyperpro
A Fate Worse Than Death Stage Fright
You Can't Pick Your Family Unemancipated
The Doomsayer The Doomsayer

Call Reluctance, the Fear-Free Prospecting and Self-Promotion Workshop, and all related terms are copyrights and/or registered trademarks of Behavioral Sciences Research Press, Dallas, Texas. Sales Academy, Inc., is an Advanced Authorized Dealer for the Call Reluctance® Program. Frank Lee is an international expert on Call Reluctance®. He can be reached at (800) 898-3743 or at

Opinions expressed in Expert Commentary articles are those of the author and are not necessarily held by the author's employer or IRMI. Expert Commentary articles and other IRMI Online content do not purport to provide legal, accounting, or other professional advice or opinion. If such advice is needed, consult with your attorney, accountant, or other qualified adviser.

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