Where Referrals Fit in Your Sales Strategy

What are your growth goals for the year?

And next year?

Do you know the exact plan you will follow to hit your target goals? Is that plan based on the results of what has worked before? And do you know what your options are if you have to tweak, adjust or pivot that plan?

On some level – as business owners – we have a general idea of what we want to accomplish. It is hard to get through the year without that general idea, even if it only exists in our head.

50 new clients.

Hit the $100,000 revenue mark.

$200,000 in revenue from a new service launched.

90% retention of existing clients.

$1M in total revenue.

Most of our goals focus on how much we want our business to grow…the number of new clients, revenue generated, etc.

Which means we need a client growth or sales strategy in place to hit our goals. A sales strategy – sometimes called a business development strategy – consists of the activities you do with action plans to fill the pipeline with prospects, and includes individual metrics for tracking success.

Those pipeline-filling activities include networking, cold calling, attending trade shows or conferences, direct mail, advertising, free presentations, referrals, one-on-one networking, publicity, joining leads groups, SEO, online leads, and more.  (Not an exhaustive list of course.)

The general thinking is that business owners need a well-defined sales strategy made up of these different pipeline-filling activities.  But ultimately what business owners need is an understanding of which activities work for them and then laser focus on the execution of those activities.

First, let’s look at what business owners shouldn’t do when it comes to their sales strategy. Second, we’ll look at what we should be doing by understanding the three parts of the sales strategy, including where referrals fit. Then we will assess your strategy.

SECTION 1: What Not To Do When Building a Sales Strategy

SECTION 2: Three Parts of a Functioning Sales Strategy

SECTION 3: Assessing Your Sales Strategy

SECTION 4: Defining Sales Lingo


There are two traps that small business owners fall into when it comes to how they go about generating new clients. They either fall into the “spray and pray” method or the “singular focus, hope it works” method.  Neither are the right method, but without a planned approach to how you will generate new clients, we become susceptible to falling into one of them.

Spray and Pray

I can almost guess with complete accuracy that a business owner is operating under the “spray and pray” model when have this exchange…

THEM: “Hey, Stacey – here are all of the things we are doing to generate new clients, can I run them by you for your opinion? I’m curious if I should be doing more?”

ME: “What are the results you’re expecting in terms of prospects and clients from each of these?”

THEM: “Um…more clients.”

As a business coach with a focus on business growth, it is an exchange I am used to having.  When they start listing off all of the activities (or things as they call them) they are doing and haven’t taken the time to qualify them, or talk about the actions they take for each activity – and why, I know they are just spraying and praying.

Meaning they are doing many different activities – usually more than 10 – which is effectively “spraying’ their effort, time and focus in many different directions and then “praying” one or some of them will pay off in filling the prospect pipeline. It is the haphazard method of their approach – not necessarily the number of activities that makes the spray and pray method ineffective.

They typically don’t have a process to identify what they should be doing – based on where they are likely to be exposed to their ideal client or people who know their ideal client.  They just grabbed a bunch of activities, threw them up on the wall and is looking for what will actually stick. They aren’t measuring as they go against their expectations.  And then they haven’t taken time to assess what is working and what is not.

It is a trap because it makes us “feel” like we are busy, “feel” like we are doing the right things, “feel” like we are making progress.

But that feeling is just us hiding from acknowledging what we need to do or that we don’t know what to do.  We need a laser targeted approach. Our approach may include a number of activities, but we can always answer why we are doing it and the outcome we are expecting.

Singular Focus, Hope It Works

The opposite of “spray and pray” is the singular focus approach…which means we focus in on one may two activites that we are willing to do and dig in hoping it works.  Typically, this activity is something we really enjoy doing…hence why we focus in on it.  Think about the person who attends just about every networking event they can every week. Or they produce tons and tons of blogs every week hoping people see them.

But we are still just “hoping” it works.  Which is actually more dangerous than “spraying and praying” because at least we stand a chance that one or two of those activities will actually work while we are spraying and praying.

Just like the spray and pray method though, we are hiding from reality when we have a singular focus and hoping if we dig in enough, do it enough…that it will start to work.

But neither of these two methods are how you should be growing your business or filling your pipeline.

Let’s look at what you should be doing to have a focused approach that will work to help you increase your prospective client pipeline. Then I will walk you through an activity to assess what you’re currently doing so you can make informed decisions on what to do moving forward.


The opposite of “spray and pray” and “singular focus” is becoming crystal clear on what your sales strategy needs. And to start, we need to unpack the 3 buckets or plans within a sales strategy. The reasons for the three plans is because your mindset is different when you approach the activities within each plan. By mindset I mean the expected ROI (return on investment), time it takes for results and even the approach you take or language you use within each plan.

The three plans are:

  • the prospecting plan
  • the marketing/branding plan
  • the referral plan

Most businesses start with one or maybe two of the plans – the prospecting plan and marketing plan – but rarely all three.  I believe the reason for this is that referral generation is typically lumped in with marketing which means we execute on it with a marketing mindset which dilutes its power.

Let’s dive in to understand what each plan is and why you need it.

Three Sales Buckets

Prospecting Plan:

This plan is your high activity plan meaning you typically need a number of activities happening in concert with each other to produce any measurable results. The goal is to create short term success by finding those interested in your service and turning them into clients.

I describe this plan as the plan you need if you “want to eat tomorrow.” For example – heading to the networking event where you hope to meet one or two prospects who will agree to coffee to discuss the possibility of working together.

This is the “pound the pavement or phones” type of plan that can produce results but take a huge commitment of activity in an ongoing and consistent manner. When starting out, you will deploy many activities in this plan – aim for 5 to 6 – and the goal is to decrease your reliance on these activities over time.

But remember, the activities themselves won’t produce results – it is how you plan to execute on the activity that matters most.

Activities in this plan include:

  • Direct mail
  • Networking events
  • Cold calling
  • Joining a leads group
  • Cold emailing
  • 1-on-1 networking (coffee, lunch, etc.)
  • Buying leads
  • Attending trade shows or sponsoring a booth

Marketing/Branding Plan:

The brand-building and marketing plan focus on establishing name recognition, building credibility and gaining awareness. Different companies deploy this plan in different ways.

Almost all have some kind of an online presence but the other activities you deploy with this plan will vary.  A smaller budget may focus on a website and a few social media accounts and a more robust budget may include advertising (online, print) or earned media through publicity.

The goal is to build and maintain presence so if a potential new client is searching for a company like yours, they will find you. And remember, how you execute on this plan – the action plans for each activity – matters most.

Activities in this plan include:

  • Advertising
  • Public relations
  • Website
  • Content marketing
  • SEO (search engine optimization)
  • Speaking engagements
  • Social media marketing

Referral Plan: 

The holy grail of new client generation is referrals…where new clients just show up in your inbox because someone connected them to you because you can help solve the problem.  Now growing a sustainable and consistent referral plan doesn’t happen overnight and there are no silver bullets but following the right steps can produce consistent results.

The best part of a referral plan is it allows you to lessen your reliance on the prospecting plan and marketing/branding plan to fill the pipeline with new prospective clients.  My ultimate goal is to allow clients to eliminate as much activity from their prospecting plan as possible because they are experiencing consistent results with referrals.

Now, the referral plan is different from the other two plans because there are not individual, stand alone “activities”. The referral plan is a process to follow and effectively execute on. The basic process is:

  • Identify who are your referral sources (referral source = a person who refer you)
  • Build relationships with referral sources
  • Know how to plant referral seeds so you never ask for referrals
  • Follow a process to turn “soon to be” referral sources into referral sources

I wanted to provide an overview of the 3 plans because in the next section we will assess what you are doing now and you may need to add or substitute some activities. You will be able to use the examples of activities in this section to help you build a better sales plan.


Before you jump into creating your customized version of your 3 plans and activities we need to step back and assess how your current sales strategy or activities are performing, meaning how are you filling the pipeline with prospects.

An easy way to understand your sales pipeline is to consider an actual funnel with a top, middle and bottom.  Now the steps inside the funnel may differ from one business to another but effectively all funnels work the same way.  Your prospects come in the top through sources which are the activities you do and then the prospect works its way through your buyer’s journey, sales process, (the middle) to the bottom of the funnel, the close, hopefully by becoming a client.

sales funnel

It is crucial you understand where your clients and prospects are coming from, meaning from which sources.  Once we know the sources of your prospects we can then map the sources back to the activities to assess which are working and which are not.  But first we need to assess current sources providing prospects, then judge that against the activities we are doing.

Assess First

The first step is to list out your clients and where they came from.  If you can, include the prospects that did not become clients and where they came from too.  So, you would write down Client Susie who you met at a networking event and Prospect Tom who saw your advertisement and called but did not become a client.

The next step is to compile a list of the activities to find clients you are doing currently.  List out the networking events you attend, the associations you belong to, if you have repeat clients, do you receive referrals, do you invest in advertising, attend trade shows, sponsor community or sports events?

Remember, guessing isn’t the right strategy – you need to look at the data and understand where your clients / prospects are coming from and match that against the activities you are doing.

Which brings us to the third step. We need to compare the sources of your clients and prospects with the list of your current sales activities.

Judge Second

To make this measuring and assessing (judging) process easier for you, I created a free resource you can download called the Sales Strategy Activity.  It is only two pages so you can complete it quickly.  It will walk you through the three steps I just gave you above and then allow you to judge your results.  The Sales Strategy Activity provides a simple ratio to consider when determining the success of an activity and allows you to capture your top 3 to 5 sales generating activities.

Once you go through the activity, your results will produce one of three outcomes. They are: “Fantastic”, “Not Horrible, But Not Great Either”, and “Houston We Have a Problem”,

If your results produce either “Houston, We Have a Problem” or “Not Horrible, But Not Great Either” then you should consider how you are attempting to bring on clients. You need to assess if you are spending time in the right areas.  If there is a disconnect between the activities you are doing to generate clients and the results of where your clients are coming from…then you need to get to work fixing that problem. The good news is this is totally fixable.

Another concern to consider is if you can’t tell me where your prospects or clients come from…this is something you need to track because it provides clarity on how your prospect pipeline is filled.

Houston, We Have a Problem…

After going through the Sales Strategy Activity, you will know – based on data – if you need to eliminate an activity from any of your three sales plans.  You may decide to eliminate the activity because it is performing poorly but it is important to be clear on the reason it is not performing well.  It is either because you aren’t putting enough effort in you really don’t know what to do, or because you have limited capacity to make the activity successful.  Truth is, not all sales activities we attempt will work.

Based on this process you can assess the activities that should be a part of your overall sales strategy and group them by each of the three sales plans – prospecting, marketing and referral.  Remember the reason to group them by the three sales plans is because your mindset and approach is different when executing on the activities within each of the plans.

Here is a word of caution though…there is a good chance your referral plan is not working as you would prefer.  Whatever you do, do NOT eliminate this plan.  You need it but you need to know how to execute on it correctly so it works for you, produces the results you want.  The ultimate goal is to increase the success of your referral generating plan so you can decrease your reliance on the other two plans – prospecting and marketing – and all of the activities that make up those two plans.

I find following my referral plan to be one of the most enjoyable parts of my sales and business development strategy because it allows me to generate referrals without asking, without manipulation and leverages my time.  My referral generating plan provides around 90% of my clients for my coaching practice.

Keep in mind, when you don’t have a plan in place to specifically grow referrals, they don’t grow. Click To Tweet Sure, some referrals may happen haphazardly or sporadically but to truly generate consistent referrals so you can be less reliant on a prospecting plan or a marketing plan you need to treat your referral growth like an actual standalone strategy with a plan you follow and track results.

To learn how to generate referrals and build your referral plan, click here. Now that you have assessed your sales strategy, from the prospective or the 3 plans, you need to be crystal clear on what a referral is in comparison to the other sales lingo, or terms, to describe the type of prospects that will be generated by the activities in the prospecting and marketing plans.


But if we look a little closer, there are other terms often confused with referral. The definition of a referral has become extremely diluted today.  Most sales lingo generalizes different types of prospects and unfortunately groups together terms because they seem similar.  Terms like introduction and word of mouth buzz are explained to be the same as a referral.  But nothing could be further from the truth.

Being introduced to someone is not the same as being referred to someone.  And even though someone spoke really highly of you to a friend yesterday (word of mouth buzz) it doesn’t mean it’s a referral. I see people confuse and misuse these terms all the time.

So how do you know the difference?  How do you know what is a real referral?  Let’s take a look.

Definitions & Examples

Let me break down for you what a real referral is and what it is not by starting to define and provide examples of the three sales terms often-confused with referrals.

Warm Lead

Definition: When someone tells you a company may need your service or product but doesn’t make a connection for you.  Yes, it is still a lead even when they tell you to use their name.

Example: “Hi. I know that XYZ company could really use your help and services/product.  The contact is Tom and here’s his number.  When you call him use my name.”

Word of Mouth Buzz

Definition: When people tell you they have mentioned you or talked about you.  They may even share what they said…like how awesome you are.

Example: “Hey I was talking to my client Dan the other week and mentioned you.  He’ll reach out.”


Definition: The person connecting you with a possible new client introduces you to each other (normally via email) but doesn’t state you should explore working together.  They typically use words like “synergy,” “great connection,” “get to know each other,” etc.

Example: “Ed meet Stacey Randall and Stacey meet Ed Smith.  You two are great people and should know each other.  Happy connecting.”


Definition: When you are connected with a potential new client by someone (the referral source) and they state the potential new client expressed a need (problem, pain point) and they know you can help them.

Example: “Stacey, I have copied Cindi on this email.  She and I were talking the other day about her need to get more referrals in her business and I instantly thought of you.  Please connect to schedule time for her to learn more about you.”

To help you keep these terms straight I have created a little cheat sheet for you, please download the Sales Lingo Defined Cheat Sheet.

Can you see the difference?

At the heart of a referral is the connection between you and the prospect by the referral source (the person referring you) and a problem identified in the prospect they want to explore solving which is why they would be open to being connected to you in the first place. How you are positioned and connected by the referral source is what makes a referral an actual referral.

What keeps a warm lead from being a referral?

A warm lead isn’t a referral because there is no connection to the prospect and we aren’t sure there is a real need.  While being able to use someone’s name is better than no name – the person who provided you with the lead didn’t make a connection which could be for a number of reasons (most of them not good).  Reasons like what they heard is a rumor and there may be no real need, they think the company needs you but the company doesn’t think that, or they won’t put their name on the line (in writing via an email). For those reasons, or others, no connection is made and a need isn’t identified.

What keeps word of mouth buzz from being a referral?

With word of mouth buzz, there is a need identified – it is why they were talking about you. But there was no connection using our example.  By not connecting me with Dan via an email so I can reach out removes me from the driver seat and significantly decreases the odds that Dan will reach out.  And not because Dan doesn’t want to explore working together…but Dan is busy and he’ll likely forget.  Just human nature.

What separates an introduction from being a referral? 

While the referral source has made a connection between you and the potential new client (Ed in our example above), there is not an expressed need to work together.  By not saying it – that we should explore working together – the intended referral just became an introduction.  Which makes it harder to set the first meeting and you have to do some extra work establishing why you are meeting. Positioning by the referral source is key.


I’m certainly not against introductions and word-of-mouth buzz but they aren’t referrals.  To be a referral the key that is needed is for the trust the referral source has for me – to take care of Sally or Dan – to be actually transferred to Sally and Dan and that can only be done by stating why we should meet and connecting us.

Now I’ve gotten pretty good with how I respond to leads, introductions and word-of-mouth buzz and my responses are now just part of my process.  But in the beginning I lost a lot of opportunities and wasted a lot of time on “let’s grab coffee and see where this goes” networking meetings because I didn’t have a strategic response to turn an introduction, warm lead, or word-of-mouth buzz into solid referrals.

If you would like to learn more about the language you use to flip a warm lead, introduction or word-of-mouth buzz into a referral, check out this resource called the Flip Scripts to help you take control of your prospects and turn them into referrals, making them easier to close and become your new clients. To flip an introduction, word-of-mouth buzz, or warm lead into a referral, you need the right language to say to the referral source in the moment to “flip” them into a referral. It’s easier than you think.

So now you know the difference between referrals, introductions, word-of-mouth buzz and leads.  You can download the Sales Lingo Cheat Sheet to keep the definitions and examples handy so you won’t have to guess if a prospect is a referral or not.

I look forward to hearing about the changes you make to your overall sales strategy so you can have the success you deserve!

Good luck!

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  1. Hello, is the Sales Strategy Activity resource still available? The link doesn’t seem clickable – I’d love a copy.
    Thank you.

    1. Hey Matt! Yes, we will get this link corrected. It may be the final link to correct from our website re-design and hosting change. I will also email you the link so you don’t have to go searching for it when it is ready! Thanks!! – Stacey

  2. Excellent information Stacey. My entire team has read your book. Looking to review and dive into next week on a team call. I personally have been enjoying your website, Facebook page, and podcast. The beginning of a new year is a great time for review and reflection. I look forward implementing your strategies. This year my goal is to be more intentional in and around the referral source. Having a plan of action in place that is focused on the referral experience, showing gratitude for the trust the referral source has placed within me.
    I look forward becoming a Referral Ninja Master.
    Thanks so very much.

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