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Management Handling referrals: Tips to improve your conversion rate

Also in this compendium: Three questions to begin every meeting and seven questions to handle a loss

The secret to improving your selling is improving your referrals. And silence.

While getting a referral requires skill, sales consultant Jeffrey Gitomer notes on the StrategyDriven blog that handling that gift also takes skill.

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You must approach the contact with care, not moving too quickly. "Timing is everything. Don't appear to be too anxious to get the sale (money). Proper set up will breed a long-term relationship (more money) instead of just a sale," he writes.

Prepare by getting personal information about the prospect, using Google and LinkedIn. Don't just look for information. Seek similar interests and people you both know, to establish common ground and positive rapport.

Arrange a three-way meeting with the prospect and the current customer who shared the referral. That customer will sing your praises in front of the referral and help to make the sale. "You don't have to sell at the first meeting if your customer is with you. In fact, the less selling you do, the more credible you will appear. You only have to establish rapport, gain confidence, and arrange a second, private meeting where you can get down to business," he says.

Follow up by connecting through social media if you can, such as LinkedIn or Facebook. Try to get the prospect to prepare information for your private meeting that will help you understand the situation but just as importantly get the prospect invested in you and that session. Limit what you send the individual by e-mail, however. E-mail is not where the sale is made, so just pass along enough to inform and maintain interest.

After the meeting, write a personal note within 24 hours, brief but positive, indicating you are looking forward to the next meeting. And throughout – before and after the sale – deliver what you promise. "Failure to follow up and deliver as promised makes you and your customer look bad to the prospect. Failure to deliver also eliminates any chance of another referral," he says.

In meetings with the prospect – and existing customers – you may also want to keep in mind a guiding principle of entrepreneur Penny Herscher: Silence.

"There are a thousand B2B sales training classes and self-help books you can read but they all basically say the same thing. Do discovery, qualify your customer, understand the org. chart, understand their needs etc., etc. And yet, despite what we know, the simple concept that the power is in the silence gets lost and sales teams talk too much. They talk more than they listen," she writes on her blog.

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A talented salesperson who mentored her said: "Ask a question, shut up, and the first one who speaks loses." Since people are uncomfortable with silence, they fill it, giving you valuable information.

Listen. It shows respect. "I'm always astonished at how often salespeople talk over the customer or interrupt them. There is respect in silence. I am giving you the respect to fully express your needs and interests before I jump back in and tell you how great my mousetrap is. People buy from people and showing respect is a critical step to establishing trust," she says.

2. The three-question meeting check-in

A simple three-question check-in at the start of your meetings may promote empathy, collaboration and trust, Insead Professor Loic Sadoulet and Robobank former chief resources officer Gerlinde Silvis suggest.

The process, which helped to revitalize Robobank employees after a scandal, involves asking:

– How are you feeling?

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– Is there something distracting you from being fully present at this meeting

– What is your intention for the meeting?

"Although a positive result was expected, the extent to which the three questions changed both the culture of the bank and the way it operated were vastly underestimated," they write on the Insead blog.

"The process of checking in created a communal focus amongst employees and a willingness to co-operate. More people were open to exposing the difficulties they were facing, both personally and in the workplace; they felt able to show their vulnerability and to seek and offer help."

Bankers reported more energy, a reduction in competition and readiness to help colleagues, and greater trust and empathy. It also provided a moment of reflection, allowing people to be more fully present in meetings.

The writers note that managers used the check-in in different ways. Some checked in once a week – first thing Monday morning – while others at the beginning of every meeting, even a few times a day. In some cases, the language of the questions was customized to fit the team. Over all, a survey found 63 per cent regarded the check-in as a valuable tool.

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3. Seven questions for losing well

While in question mode, you may also want to consider seven questions to pose when your team loses a bid for a contract or some other venture, shared by consultants Karin Hurt and David Dye on the Let's Grow Leaders blog:

– What are we feeling now and why? Obviously not feeling that great. Certainly you can allow emotions to flow. But try to model a calm exploration and discussion of feelings.

– What are we most proud of? Celebrate what went well.

– What must we do to show up as gracious losers? Don't be bad sports. Have your team brainstorm what they can do to be gracious, whether a congratulatory phone call or an offer to help in whatever way possible.

– What can we learn from here? This is a vital question but it should follow the other questions – don't leap right into it.

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– How can we invest in and build bridges to the winner? The consultants say the political arena offers examples of how to do this well – and how to mess it up.

– How do we stay focused on our most important thing? "You may have lost a battle but don't give up on your bigger vision," they stress.

– What's next? How do you move forward from here?

4. Quick hits

– Create a distraction list. When your mind gets captured by a stray thought, write it down immediately in a simple text file on your desktop, Paul David Lozano suggests on the Dumb Little Man blog. That should clear your mind for the moment.

– Giving people bigger jobs with fancier titles and larger salaries won't make them better employees. More complex assignments will, says executive search consultant Claudio Fernandez-Araoz.

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– It's important to practise a speech or presentation, but doing so quietly in your mind, reading it over, is insufficient. Presentations skills trainer Bill Steele says it's vital to practise out loud, since that will reveal the inevitable rough spots that need to be improved.

– If the new people you hire leave the organization in greater numbers than your colleagues' hires, HR consultant Tim Sackett suggests taking yourself out of the hiring process since you probably have bad internal filters that predispose you to pick people who don't fit with your organization or management style. "Don't take it personally. I suck at technical stuff. I shop that part of my job off to someone who's better. You might be an exceptional manager of your business, but you suck at hiring. Shop that out to someone who's better!" he writes on his blog

Channel the counterintuitive, consultant Suzie McAlpine says, since often that will lead to success. Face what you fear. Stop when it seems logical to move faster. Do the exact opposite of what you have always done.

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online column, Power Points. E-mail Harvey Schachter

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