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How to Get More Referrals with Steve Gordon

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I believe that the best leads are those that come through referrals. However, getting referrals by directly asking your clients is not the best way to generate leads. There’s a better way, and Steve Gordon has the answer for you.

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How to Get More Referrals with Steve Gordon:

Full Transcript

Liston Witherill:
Welcome to Modern Sales, a podcast for entrepreneurs, business owners, and salespeople looking to have more and better conversations with your perfect clients. You’ll get a healthy scoop of psychology, behavioral economics, and sales studies to help you create win-win relationships. I’m your host, Liston Witherill, and I’m pleased to welcome you to Modern Sales.

Liston Witherill:
Hey there, it’s Liston Witherill here with the Liston.io Show, and I am very excited about today’s guest because I’ve been thinking and writing about referrals for professional services, high-end consultants, high ticket consultants, people like you, dear listener. And what I came to realize through one of my readers who tipped me off to my guest today was that there’s someone who’s already been doing this much longer than I have, and so when I found that out, I thought that I should have him on here to share all of his wisdom with you. So today my special guest is Steve Gordon with the Unstoppable CEO. He’s the Founder and that website is unstoppableceo.net. Steve, welcome.

Steve Gordon:
Hey, Liston. Great to be here.

Liston Witherill:
Awesome. I’m so happy to have you. Now, I will ask you to put yourself on the spot, be comfortable basking in the limelight and tell us a little bit about yourself and how you came to found Unstoppable CEO.

Steve Gordon:
Yeah, I’d be happy to. My journey started in 1999, I was about four years out of college and got asked to take over from the founder of the firm that I worked for at the time. It was an engineering consulting firm. He asked me to step in and become the CEO of the firm. And great opportunity. I was 28-years-old, but I had no idea what I was doing. And so, I ran that company and grew that company for about 12 years. And then just decided that I wanted to focus more on marketing and sales, and really it was something that I had become passionate about and would become good at. Particularly, in the professional services space. It’s a different kind of sale than what you read about in the sales books and in the sales seminars and all of that, it takes such a high degree of trust developed over time that a lot of the sales processes that are taught don’t fit well in professional services.

Steve Gordon:
And so, we, over the years had perfected some things and had some success with it. So I then went out and began consulting with other firms and other firm leaders and helping them develop marketing processes and sales processes. We kind of stumbled on this referral thing. Obviously, referrals have always been an important thing for professional firms. Probably if you ask most firm leaders, it’s the number one source of new business. And one summer we started teaching these workshops on referral marketing. And I had gone out, I researched, I read a bunch of books and kind of got the conventional wisdom nailed down on referral marketing and we taught that in these seminars. And we did that for I guess about three months. We had about 300 business owners come through those seminars and everybody loved them. It was great. We had a great response and again we were teaching them sort of the conventional wisdom, which boils down to two things and that’s ask for a lot more referrals.

Steve Gordon:
So ask every client in every interaction, and then follow up with them for a really long time. And if you do those two things, you’re going to get plenty of business, probably all the business that you need. The problem with that I discovered was that about six months after we did all those seminars, I went and met with about 20 of those business owners who had been through our seminars and asked them, So hey, how’s it going? What’s happened since you went through all of this? You left fired up wanting to go implement these things. How’s it going so far? And I got to tell you, Liston, these are the most disappointing conversations I think I’ve ever had in business, because none of them had done anything. I mean, not one of them. And I thought, well that’s interesting cause they all walked out really excited about what they were going to do.

Steve Gordon:
They still in the conversations were like, yeah, we got to do that. I know it’s the thing we need to do, but there was a block. And I just started asking questions, and we finally kind of dug down into it after I talked to a number of them and really tried to explore why they weren’t doing the things that they admitted they needed to be doing. Really boiled down to the fact that they weren’t comfortable asking their really, really valuable clients for, yet again, something else.

Steve Gordon:
It’s like they’re already getting paid. They’ve already got this relationship with the client. Now, they’re going to go back to the well again and ask for referrals. And for all of these 20 that I’d talked to, that made them a little bit uncomfortable. And so, we realized that there may just be a problem with this traditional advice. While it works, if you do it, it’s not really very effective advice if most of the people who get it aren’t going to do anything with it.

Liston Witherill:
Yeah, and I can tell you from firsthand experience, so I didn’t realize you came from an engineering company. I was the Director of Business Development and Marketing at an environmental consulting company. So we worked with a lot of engineers and you and I were basically in the same space, and I had this exact experience with the people that I worked with. We said, “Well, Hey so-and-so, you have this one client who brings in $400,000 a year in revenue. They must know someone who can use our services.” And yet, that person, and I think, this is my bias, is a lot of consultants feel like they’re given this wonderful gift by clients, which is a check. And I hate that mindset, but I’m curious, how were you able to solve this problem or at least get closer to solving it for more people?

Steve Gordon:
You can deal with the mindset part of it, which is what you alluded to there. That’s the hard way to try and fix it though. You have to have people who are willing to actually change the way that they think and what they believe. We started looking at it a little differently and re-engineered the process. And the old kind of model of referrals, if you come to me and say, “Hey Steve, can you refer me to someone?” Then I’ve got to stop and my brain starts spinning, the little Rolodex in there starts going round and round and round, and I’ve got to come up with a name of someone that I know that is qualified and has a need for what you do. And has the need now. And I’ve got to be aware of it. That’s asking an awful lot of any of your clients.

Steve Gordon:
And even if I come up with somebody then I’ve got to go and have what’s probably an uncomfortable conversation for me as your client. I’ve got to go convince them to go and meet with you. And that meeting is a sales meeting, and we all know it. I always joke when we do webinars and we talk about this, I say, “I sell for a living and I don’t even like going into a sales meeting unless I’m the one doing the selling.” I don’t want to go buy a car because I know the car salesman is going to sell me something, right? Nobody wants to go into that sales meeting. And so, because that’s sort of the destination in the old model of referrals and we all know it, it creates this kind of hidden sales pressure that prevents you from getting all the referrals that are out there for you.

Steve Gordon:
Your happy clients probably want to help you and it’s too hard for them right now. You’re asking them to do too much of the selling that you should be doing. And so, when we looked at that, we said, “Well, okay, how can we change that first step so that it’s not such a difficult kind of a high bar to get over and still do it in a way that moves the sale forward?” And my marketing background is really in direct response marketing. And in direct response marketing there’s this concept of two step lead generation.

Steve Gordon:
In other words, you offer someone something that’s really easy for them to say yes to that actually benefits them. That is probably free and most of the time it takes the form of information. And you get them to say, “Yes, I’m interested in that. I have that problem.” And then once you’ve done that, you use that information to educate them and move them into the next step, which for most of our clients is then into that sales meeting or initial consultation, whatever you want to call it. So that’s how we kind of re-engineered that process. We put something else in between and lowered that barrier.

Liston Witherill:
Meaning your advices for the service provider to or consultant to go to an existing client and say, “Hey, we have this new market report,” or whatever it is. Some piece of valuable information for them. And then how do they opt into, okay, now I want to give you a referral. How does that work?

Steve Gordon:
We encourage our clients to create what we call a referral kit. And the referral kits really just packaged up information that would be really useful to a prospect. Oftentimes, it’s the same kind of information that you’re sharing during the sales process to educate a potential client and it’s got to be really focused on a few key things. It has to be focused on the problems that your prospects face and more importantly, the consequences of those problems.

Steve Gordon:
Then kind of give them a hint at what the solution to the problem might be. You’ve got to hopefully show them some proof testimonials or case studies of other clients that have had success with that solution. And then it’s got to tell them what to do next. So if they go through all of that, whether it’s in presentation format or a written format, or an online video or however it’s done, once they’ve gone through that, you don’t want to leave them hanging.

Steve Gordon:
You want to tell them, here’s how you go deeper and take a next step to get that solved. And so, you package all of that up. And we have clients that package it into short reports or short books. We have clients that do it as, package it all up into a webinar or a live presentation that they give, in maybe a seminar setting, all kinds of ways to do it.

Steve Gordon:
And then you go to your client and you say, “Look, I’m glad to have been able to serve you and solve this problem. And I know that you know people that are faced with this problem as well. And I’m on a mission to help more people like you solve that problem. And the way that I’ve come up with to do that is I’ve created this referral kit, this information piece, this webinar or this short book. And it’s going to take somebody who’s in your situation through all of the different things they need to think about and kind of get them on a path to solving it. And I need your help on that mission.”

Steve Gordon:
And so instead of going and saying, “Hey, Liston, I really need some clients this month. Can you refer some people to me?” Because that’s really what people hear when you ask for a referral.

Liston Witherill:
Wait, wait, wait. So are you saying you don’t recommend approaching your clients like that?

Steve Gordon:
No, not at all.

Liston Witherill:
Naturally.

Steve Gordon:
Instead, you show up, I mean you got to make this about something that’s bigger than just them helping you. It’s got to be about them helping the people that they know and care about.

Liston Witherill:
So this is sort of like a start with why kind of idea, right?

Steve Gordon:
Absolutely.

Liston Witherill:
Yeah.

Steve Gordon:
And if you think about it, especially if you’re selling business to business, every business person you’re selling to has a network of people that they want to help because it’s in their interests to help those people. And so if you can go to that client of yours and say, “Look, I know you have clients, you have partners, you have contacts that are faced with these problems. I have a solution.” I wrote down the solution or I’m presenting the solution next Wednesday and you know what? I’m on a mission to help them. I think you know these people and let’s get together and let’s go on this mission together.

Steve Gordon:
Nine times out of 10, they’re going to jump at the chance because it gives them a chance to do something they need to do anyway. Which is help the people that they know. And do it in a really low risk way because if, for example, we use books a lot, I wrote a book in 2014 that describes this whole process called Unstoppable Referrals. That was our very first referral kit that we use kind of massively, and we just wrote another one in January and if I came to you and said, “Hey, Liston, I’ve got 50 copies of my brand new book and here’s the problem that it solves. And I know you know people that would benefit from it. Let’s send this out as a gift from you.”

Steve Gordon:
Why would you say no to that? It’s in your interest. It’s going to be perceived as a gift by the people who get it. There are no strings attached. There’s no pressure, particularly none of the pressure that comes along with trying to get two people scheduled into a meeting where we know selling is going to happen.

Liston Witherill:
Right. Now, I do have a question for you because I read on your website and it looks like unstoppableceo.net is your focus now, but I read something about how there’s a lot of providers feel like they’re really good at the thing that they do, engineering, right? I’m a great engineer or I work with a lot of tech folks, so I’m great at IT. I’m great at analytics, but I suck at selling. You’ve heard this many times, right?

Liston Witherill:
Now, I am curious though, so once you get your referral kit together, this may solve your lead problem. I’m not having enough conversations with people who might work with me. However, you still have to engage, in my opinion, in sales conversations whereby you’re better positioned at least. However, you still need to know what to do because one of the questions that I get asked by my coaching clients and my consulting clients is always, what’s next? I did X, Y, and Z. Now what? The deal stalled. What do I do now? How do you talk to people about how to advance sales forward or is that something that you even address?

Steve Gordon:
We do. Most of the time when a business owner comes to us, as we talk with them through where their challenges are and growing the business, it’s almost always around lead generation first.

Liston Witherill:
Yeah, of course.

Steve Gordon:
In other words, they’re just not seeing enough people. In fact, that’s the way it sounds when they talk to us. They say, “Well, we’re just not seeing enough people. I’m pretty good when I’m in front of a prospect.”

Liston Witherill:
Right.

Steve Gordon:
For some reason the magic number of seven out of 10, I don’t believe it at all, but people tell us again and again and again, they close seven out of 10 prospects if they’re in front of them. Their problem is that they might not be in front of 10 prospects in a year.

Liston Witherill:
Right.

Steve Gordon:
I mean, we’ve talked with people, I had one guy who was interested in getting some help and he admitted to me he was only seeing about two prospects a year and had been that way for the last several years. That’s a business that’s in trouble and that’s operating as a business owner as if you’ve got a gun to your head every time you walk into a new client meeting or a potential new client meeting, because you’ve got to sell that person.

Steve Gordon:
You know you’re not going to see another one for a while. And so that’s one of the reasons we focus first on lead generation. And you’re right, this solves the lead generation problem and then you’ve got to make sure that you’ve got the other processes in place after that to close them. But what we found is that there’s no point in even worrying about any of that until you’ve got enough leads coming in that you can actually get some repetition, have those conversations. It’s really hard to get good and having a really natural sales conversation if you’re only doing it like once a month.

Liston Witherill:
Right.

Steve Gordon:
So you’ve got to get that frequency up.

Liston Witherill:
I totally agree. It’s amazing how if you look at anything people get really good at, right? Chess, sports, drawing, design, whatever it is, it involves tons and tons of practice. And yet, when I talked to business owners, the most direct path for them to make money is sales and they don’t practice at it at all.

Steve Gordon:
I know.

Liston Witherill:
And when you point that out, they go, “Oh yeah, I never really thought about it that way.” Well, and it’s like, okay, well let’s address that. So, one question I have for you about referrals is I think you and I are in 100% alignment on the idea that referrals and word of mouth business are the highest quality of all leads that you could possibly get. There’s just no doubt about it.

Liston Witherill:
The problem that I see, and it depends on someone’s business model and what their client value is and how they’re set up to serve their clients, but the one issue that I see with some people is referrals alone will not fill the gap in terms of new business and hitting their growth strategy. So you may need to go outside of referrals, but I’m curious about your experience in how you’ve built your business. Do you find that referrals alone and leveraging your referral kit has been enough or do you also need to seek outside ways of generating leads?

Steve Gordon:
So much of that depends on the business. What I will tell you is that our approach to referrals scales, it scales a lot farther than the old approach to referrals. We’ll typically see our clients go from getting a referral or two here or there, maybe a couple of month, to 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 a month if they’re following the process and executing on a weekly basis. And it doesn’t take that much time. So it does scale a little bit, but what we tell all of our clients is this is a ladder you’re climbing, we call it the attention getting ladder.

Steve Gordon:
You start at the bottom and start with referrals. And the reason we recommend that most businesses start there is because it gives you a very forgiving playground to perfect your messaging to clients. A referred prospect is referred in and they come with a lot of trust because someone that they know is bringing them in. And so if your messaging is off just a little bit, it’ll be okay because you’ve got a little bit more time to sort of develop that relationship.

Steve Gordon:
When you then go up to the next rung on the ladder, which is usually paid acquisition, whether it’s direct mail or online ads or traditional ads even, at that point, if your message isn’t really dialed in and your targeting isn’t really dialed in, you’re going to lose a whole lot of money in a hurry figuring out that it’s really not dialed in. We look at referrals as a great playground to tune that message. Then you can take all of those things. You can take the referral kit, you can take the process, everything that you’ve done at that point that’s successfully working and then put it into paid media as sort of a second growth step.

Liston Witherill:
Yeah, I was wondering if you do any sort of direct outreach, sort of scaled one-to-one, sort of this outbound model that you hear about from the software industry.

Steve Gordon:
We actually have had a great deal of success doing that through LinkedIn. And we don’t do a lot of cold email outreach, but we do direct outreach through LinkedIn and then we’ve got a process that we follow there that warms those prospects up. But again, it builds on all of the things that we pulled from the referral process.

Liston Witherill:
So I want to ask you a slightly different question. It’s going back to the first thing that you said when you said you took over as CEO when you were 28 and all of a sudden you have all of these plates to spin and all of these people to feed and you quickly realize that sales for professional services is just different than what they teach in books. And I was wondering what’s your take on that? How is it different and why does so much of the sales literature not really apply to people selling professional services?

Steve Gordon:
I think it doesn’t apply because it was really written by and for people who are selling products. As you go up in terms of the price scale with products, they actually, the two become very similar, but a lot of the sales literature out there is for somebody who is pounding the ground trying to sell copiers or life insurance or something like that, where their number one job is selling. In professional services is a little bit different because for that person who’s selling that product, they’re going to sell it and they may have some involvement in the servicing, but they’re not the product themselves.

Liston Witherill:
Yes.

Steve Gordon:
In professional services, you’re selling yourself literally, you’re going to win that client and then you’re going to turn around and you’re going to be the trusted advisor for that client most of the time. And if you use a lot of the sales tactics, then you kind of turn around and have to be this really deeply trusted advisor. That’s a hard switch to flip. And you can erode the authority that you need and the trust that you have to have to be able to deliver the service after the sale is made, if you do some of those other selling processes.

Steve Gordon:
And the other thing that it tends to do, because it lowers your positioning, you end up being perceived as a salesperson rather than as this authoritative trusted advisor. It can really suppress fees. Most of the time when I talk to professionals, the number one thing they want to do is figure out how they can increase their fees and get more clients. And so, our approach with any of our clients is we’re always looking at, okay, how can we take you and elevate the position you have in the mind of your prospect and make the sale happen and do it in a systematic way.

Steve Gordon:
And most of the time what that means is even if they do some direct outreach, we try and create it so that we’re not taking people directly into a sales conversation. We’re always taking them through some content that positions that person as an authority first. So that might be a seminar or a webinar or like I said, the short book, so that someone walks away, a prospect walks away thinking, wow, this person is the expert. They are my expert.

Liston Witherill:
Right.

Steve Gordon:
And if you can get to that point, you’ve already done a lot of the selling that has to happen here.

Liston Witherill:
That kind of hearkens back to this referral kit idea, which I think if you’re listening to this is a absolutely wonderful idea and something you should focus on now. So Steve, what steps would you recommend someone should take to get closer to creating their referral kit?

Steve Gordon:
The most important thing is to look at all the marketing material you have right now and most of it probably lists, if you’re in professional services, it lists all the certifications you have and the degrees you have. It wouldn’t be complete without the combined years of experience. I remember we had, one time we were, we added it up. We were like 132 years of experience in our firm, right? You’ve got to have all that, take all that and look at it one last time. And then throw it in the garbage because nobody cares.

Liston Witherill:
I love that. Continue.

Steve Gordon:
Then I want you to sit down and think about the real problems that your clients face, and then take it a step further and think about the consequences of those problems. How do those problems actually manifest themselves? Because we all have problems in our lives that aren’t worth a dime to solve, but there are consequences in our lives that we cannot live with another day. And if you can begin to communicate with your potential clients about those consequences and start the communication there because that’s what they’re interested in, and then walk them through the solution. And you don’t have to give them the whole solution. Everybody always in professional service is like, Oh my God, if I tell them all of that, they’re never going to need me. Well, that’s nonsense because, first of all, you couldn’t tell them everything that you spent decades to learn and discover and master. Even if you could, your real clients don’t want to do it themselves.

Liston Witherill:
Right.

Steve Gordon:
So tell them what the solution looks like. They need to know that there’s hope and that there’s a path for them to follow and then the last piece of that is that for them to move from this referral kit into the full solution goes through you. We call that the next step offer, and that’s where you offer them the opportunity to have a discovery session with you or an initial consultation or sales meeting. Whatever you call that, where you can sit down with them one-on-one and really understand their situation specifically. And if you can put those three things together, then you’ve got a really dynamite referral kit.

Liston Witherill:
Wonderful. Well, thank you for being so open with everything that you teach. I think it’s been extremely valuable and if anybody wanted to follow up with you, is there any content or can they email you, link with you on LinkedIn? What should they do next?

Steve Gordon:
The best thing to do is they can go to our website. If they go to unstoppableceo.net they’ll find all of our content there. We host a podcast as well and they can listen to that there. We just, as we’re recording this, released a new book. In fact, this year I’m going to release four books. This is the first of the four, it’s called The Exponential Network Strategy and on top of everything that we’ve talked about here to generate referrals.

Steve Gordon:
Then the next thing people always want to know is, well, how do I expand my network so I can have more referral sources? And this book will take you literally about an hour to read. It’ll lay all that out and we’re giving it away right now. If you go to unstoppableceo.net/liston, L-I-S-T-O-N, you’ll be able to get the ebook for free and you’ll actually get a whole series of videos where I walk you chapter by chapter through the whole book. One of our clients actually interviewed me and explained the whole thing to you and it really compliments everything we’ve talked about here today.

Liston Witherill:
Wonderful. Well, I just signed up for my copy, so thank you for that. And thank you for sharing your experience and everything you know. I know it’s been extremely valuable.

Steve Gordon:
Thanks so much for having me, Liston. Great to be here.

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