If you’re not nurturing relationships, you’re throwing away good business and hot referral leads.

We all know “those” people—the ones who only reach out when they want something. The people who drop off the face of the earth until they need a referral or want an introduction to someone in your network. After a while, don’t you find yourself thinking, “What have you done for me lately?” That’s exactly what prospects and referrals think about you if you’re making requests without nurturing relationships.

You don’t want to be one of those people, not in the real world and not on social media. It’s easy to get so caught up in developing new sales relationships that we forget about the existing ones, at least until we need something from them. Big mistake!

Referral selling is, hands down, the most effective prospecting strategy, but far too many salespeople squander referral opportunities because they forget about nurturing relationships.  How do you nurture your business relationships and your referral network? And what should you NOT do?

DON’T Cold Call on Social Media

Please don’t invite me to connect on LinkedIn if you just want to sell me something.  Social media is a great tool for researching prospects and referral sources, and for positioning yourself as a thought leader. But it is not the place for a sales pitch. If you’re sending sales offerings to strangers on social media, you’re pretty much cold calling.

Melonie Dodoro, bestselling author of LinkedIn Unlocked, puts it this way:

The modern buyer in 2020 (and beyond) doesn’t want to be sold to via sales pitches, cold calls and cold emails. Modern buyers expect a great experience from today’s sellers—they are only interested in speaking with someone who is well-researched, informative and almost instinctively knows where the buyer is at on their journey and can speak to them at that level at the right time. … This means that for the modern seller, it’s about building relationships—NOT closing a sale.

Cold calling strangers on social media is bad enough. Asking for a referral introduction on LinkedIn might actually be worse. You’re jeopardizing the relationship. You’re assuming your LinkedIn connection (someone you might not have spoken to in years, if ever) actually wants to refer you, but most only refer people they know well and trust implicitly to take care of their connections as they would.

(Image attribution: Zen Chung)

Plus, unless you actually reach out and talk to your potential referral sources, you don’t know how they’re connected to the prospects you want to meet or if they even know those people well enough to make referral introductions.

DON’T Be the Life of the Party

Remember the days when people accepted every LinkedIn invitation? We felt special and included. It was like we were back in high school, vying for acceptance and popularity, and any invite was a good invite. We were finally going to the big party!

Well, sales is not a party, and business relationships aren’t something you collect like baseball cards. Selling is about building and nurturing relationships, not having the most LinkedIn connections. For social selling, you actually have to be social, which means getting off your computer.

DO Be a Valuable Connection

Once you’ve done the groundwork to earn someone’s trust and friendship, don’t waste that effort by neglecting to stay in touch until you want something. As Kevin Eikenberry puts it,

Like most anything of great value, strong relationships don’t just show up on their own. If you want relationships at all, let alone better ones, you must do something. You must do your part, take responsibility and do the things that will build relationships for mutual benefit.

Nurturing relationships means making an effort to reach out to all the people in your referral network on at least a semi-regular basis. This includes your current clients, former clients, and other people in your professional and personal networks.

(Image attribution: Labskiii)

Find out what’s going on with your clients. Ask how you can help. Share your insights. Send articles or podcasts of interest. Send a handwritten note to stay in touch. Make it personal. Let them know you appreciate their friendship, their help, and their trust in you. Relationship rule. They always have and always will.

DO Ask for Referrals (But Not in Writing)

While you’re at it, ask for their help in building your business by introducing you to someone in their network. BUT not in an email, not on social media, and not in your personal note. Schedule a call and ask for a referral in person. (Yes, Zoom counts.)

Why ? Two reasons:

  1. Referrals are personal. Period. We put our reputation on the line when we refer someone. We trust that person to take care of our connection as we would. When you ask someone to do that for you, the request should be personal. You also need to explain the business reason for introducing you, because that’s why your prospect will take a meeting.
  2. You have the opportunity to get “intel” that no one else is privy to—intel about what the person’s like, what’s going on in the company, who will be on your side, and who to watch out for.

So, never ask for referrals in any digital format—not email, not social media, or in a letter. Nurturing relationships earns you the right to ask for a referral.

Asking for help is not a weakness. In fact, it’s now cool—but only if you’re genuine. LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman put it best in his book, The Start-Up of You, in which he explained that the best way to strengthen a relationship is to ask how you can help another person. He writes, “The second best way is to let yourself be helped. As Ben Franklin recommended, ‘If you want to make a friend, let someone do you a favor.’”

Make nurturing relationships a priority. Keep reaching out and preserving your most valuable sales asset—your referral network.

For more on referral selling, tune into my new sales TV show—Back in the Black on The Sales Experts Channel. New episodes premiere on the third Tuesday of every month at 2:00 Pacific/5:00 Eastern. The first episode is available now on demand.

(Featured image attribution: Anna Schvets)

(This post was originally published on September 23, 2014 and updated February 9, 2021.)