How referral selling saved the day when in-person was no longer an option

Posted April 14, 2021

By Scott Barker

Head of Strategic Engagement at Outreach

This article is part of our Outreach on Outreach content series, in which we showcase our own revenue team’s use of the Outreach Sales Engagement Platform to help you drive success at your own company. We share workflows and strategies, backed by original research and data from the results of our own experiments and customer base.

Sweaty handshakes. Crappy hotel bars. Endless small talk over warm beer.

Let’s face it: in-person sales… wasn’t always the greatest experience.

Few people are going to miss long nights on the road and having to bunk with coworkers.

But what about the good parts?

Talking to customers and partners who share the same passion.

Building relationships that span entire careers.

That’s another story.

Selling is about trust. Building trust means understanding your buyer’s business, empathizing with their challenges, and educating them on where you can help.

When you’re chasing massive Fortune 500 companies, it’s tough to truly build trust over a video call.

Having face-time with those types of buyers was essential. It was table stakes.

Or so we thought.

After the pandemic ripped up the strategic sales rule book, we needed a new way to build trust and establish rapport, one that worked in our new work-from-home reality.

We found it in referral selling.

By leveraging existing relationships in — and, more importantly, around — our business, we could get into our top accounts without relying on in-person interactions.

Leads with a trusted referral were 82% more likely to SAL than ones that did not come through the referral network.

If you want to know how...

Read on.

Step #1 — Identify

Referral selling is resource-intensive, so it doesn’t work for smaller deals. Our first task was working out where to use it. We worked with Outreach’s sales and marketing teams to build a list of our top hundred accounts from our ICPs and key account lists. We were essentially picking the best of the best — the deals that would make or break a quarter.

Once we knew who we were targeting, it was time to take stock of our referral opportunities. In other words, who knows who?

We searched for existing relationships across three categories:

  1. VCs and board of directors: We asked for a list of their portfolio companies and grabbed a copy of their LinkedIn connections.
  2. Internal employees: We downloaded a copy of their LinkedIn connections.
  3. Partner and ecosystem: We built a list of our closest partners, especially ones that are already vendors of our target account companies. (Bonus points if they use Outreach themselves, which most tech vendors in our ecosystem do.)

For most accounts, these three categories generated dozens of potential referral opportunities for each account. But for a handful, we came up blank. When that happened, we turned to our fourth option — creating new relationships.

With this option, you’re creating connections from scratch. But you don’t focus on the sale (at first).

For example, we decided we wanted to go after a huge legacy tech company. Let’s call them Wayne Enterprises. Everyone at Outreach knows the name… but no one actually knew anyone senior at the company.

Instead of cold emailing their executives, we invited their Director of Sales Development onto our podcast. We had a great conversation, discussing effective SDR leadership, the role of technology, and common mistakes. Just like that, we had a connection to one of their best sales leaders.

For other accounts, we’ve hosted C-suite lunches and invited their sales and marketing executives. A few times, we’ve offered folks speaking slots on a webinar.

The trick to creating ‘curated’ relationships is making your offer mutually beneficial. They get a promotion or learning opportunity, and you get a new contact in the account.

After exhausting all four categories, we had a massive spreadsheet of relationships. But as we’ll discuss in a moment, while all relationships are important, some are much more beneficial than others.

Step #2 — Prioritize

I have thousands of connections on LinkedIn. But that doesn’t mean I can introduce you to all every single one of them.

Some are strong business connections: current colleagues, collaborators, and mentors.

Others are peers from other companies: CMOs, CROs, and other executives.

But most are complete strangers: people I’ve never met and haven’t ever spoken to. With them, an introduction from me is just as valuable as a cold email.

Before you can use your database of connections, you need to understand how strong each relationship is. The bad news is that there’s no easy way to do this.

We got everyone in our three referral categories to manually rate their relationships.

We used a simple checkbox. If it was a strong connection, our VCs, internal employees, or partners would use a cross. If it was weak, they left it blank. If you want a more granular approach, you could use a three- or five-point scale. But what you gain in specificity, you lose in efficiency.

Once we had our connections prioritized, we could begin piecing together outreach strategies.

Step #3 — Communicate

Referral selling gets complex quickly. If you have a dozen key accounts, each with a dozen referrers, that’s 144 conversations to manage. Even the best Account Executive would break under that pressure. You need a coordinator sitting at the heart of your referral selling machine. That’s where I come in.

When an AE needs support with an account, they come to me and ask what we can do with referrals. Although we got our referral selling game started informally on Slack, we’ve since systemized it.

AEs submit requests through Google forms or drop in during our office hours. And they don’t just come to us with a vague request for help. They build out account plans, detailing:

  • The potential opportunity
  • Why we're a good fit
  • Who we want to get in front of

With the research done, it’s quick for me to look through our database and work out if we’ve got people there to help.

In one instance, an AE came to me with a request for a high-growth tech company. She had the story fleshed out, the value prop nailed, and a list of high-level execs she wanted to talk to. I looked through our database and saw that Max Altschuler, our VP of Sales Engagement, was on a panel with their CRO a few years back.

I took the request to Max and said, “Hey, we want to talk to this CRO. How well do you know him? Would you be comfortable making an intro?"

Turns out Max plays golf with the guy!

So I went back to the AE, and we formulated a game plan. What’s the intro? Who is Max introducing the CRO to? What’s our messaging?

With each deal, we’re looking for introductions to all three of our personas: marketing, operations, and sales development, ideally at varying levels of the organization.

Once we’ve got the referral requests sketched out, there’s nothing left to do but execute.

Step #4 — Execute

Referral selling gets you high into accounts — but these are busy people. If you get a CRO-to-CRO referral, you only get one shot. It needs to be white-glove service all the way through.

Outreach is invaluable for this. We create individual email templates and longer sequences for our referrers. All they have to do is click send, and the introduction and follow-ups happen automatically.

Where trust and relationships allow it, we even borrow email accounts. Using aliases, we can send emails from other people within Outreach. That lets us borrow the referrer’s authority and network without inconveniencing them.

The last part is creating a feedback loop. Some referrals will fall flat. Others will deliver outsized results. You need a way to distinguish between the two.

After every positive introduction, we report back to the referral source and thank them. After a few cycles, it became a flywheel.

Think about the VC firms with money in Outreach.

When they introduce us to their portfolio companies, we’re able to improve their sales performance while adding some great logos to our business. That’s money for our VCs. Every deal means two of their investments are performing better.

Adapting is key

The traditional sales process is no longer an option and we don’t know when it’s coming back. At the same time, everyone is running the same stale plays on the same channels as before. Their clogging up and becoming saturated. Attention is harder to get than ever before.

When in-person selling does come back, coupled with the new processes you’ve created during this time, you’ll have turbocharged your ability to penetrate accounts and accelerate deal cycles.

Referral selling lets you cut through the noise and skip a lot of early steps.

Instead of spending time prospecting the way everyone else is, you can jump straight into a conversation with the CRO, the CMO, the VP decision-maker you’re looking to connect with. It’s not just quicker, either. Referrals build stronger relationships because you’re not starting from scratch.

Instead of climbing the mountain one step at a time, you’re taking a helicopter straight to the top.

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