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How to Persuade Consultants to Sell

The 3 Step Referral System

How to Persuade Consultants to Sell: The Problem

I recently helped a professional services company transform their revenue forecast by building a pipeline from scratch, based wholly on referrals. They were already a successful consultancy with plenty of sales, but those came from a dedicated business development team selling. Now, they wanted their consultants to sell via referral. Why the change?

Why ask Consultants to Sell?

Usually, sales are left to salespeople. However, this presents a problem. Few people like salespeople. In Dan Pink’s To Sell Is Human he uses the below visualization to show what people think of salespeople:

Salespeople have a bad reputation.

Salespeople also suffer from low status. Unlike the consultant they’re not empowered to deliver the solution to the client’s problem. Consequently, clients perceive salespeople as at best a necessary evil, at worst a waste of time.

Consultants do not have the same bad reputation. If I take my ill mother to see a consultant surgeon my shoulders don’t drop. I sit up, I’m happy because it’s an opportunity to see the ‘expert’ and get answers to questions. Consultants are perceived as experts and we therefore trust them (politicians and economists aside). Add to this the value they create by solving our problem and it’s easy to see why consultants, not salespeople, are ideally positioned to sell.

The Importance of Referrals

In the world of consultancy there are three ways to sell, as outlined in How Clients Buy by Tom McMakin & Doug Fletcher:

  • Relationship
  • Reputation
  • Referrals

A small consultancy’s reputation is unlikely to be widely acknowledged. Therefore, most consultancies rely on existing relationships and referrals to generate sales.

Getting a Referral is Not Easy

Going out and getting references (as opposed to just passively receiving them) requires a request to be made to a client/prospect. The request is for the client to put you in contact with someone they know who may be interested in your product/service. For this to happen the client needs to take time out of their busy day to benefit someone other than themselves (you) and, put their reputation on the line. Effectively you’re asking someone to not only buy from you but sell for you! Sounds almost cheeky.

Why Referrals Are Worth the Hassle

Referrals are terrific because they come loaded with two benefits:

  • They have something all sales need, social proof, evidence others have bought or desire what’s being sold. Referrals automatically provide social proof because someone else is recommending your product/service.
  • Referrals are pre-qualified. Referees only go to the hassle of making an introduction if they think there’s a good chance of a sale, otherwise they look silly.

Referrals are a high-quality route to sales.

The Best Referrals

Not all referrals are created equal, they differ in quality and impact.

The following statement sounds like a great referral:

“I was blown away by XYZ consultancy, transformed my company, I guarantee you’ll not be disappointed”.

However, imagine you’re working in a global tier one organisation and you receive the above referral from an SME. The power relationship between an SME and the global player means you’re not as likely to respond positively to this recommendation compared to if the relationship was reversed. A lot of a referral’s power comes from who’s giving it.


The 3 Step Referral System

Asking anyone to do something new is asking them to change their behaviour. To ask consultants to sell is to ask them to perform a new behaviour.

Back in 2012, when I began selling software, I came across my first behaviour challenge. I discovered people were not using our software as we had planned. This led to an appreciation of why software applications such as Facebook have such success: they understand behaviour change.

Years of research led me to the work of BJ Fogg from Stanford.  

To achieve behaviour change Fogg suggests three factors need to be addressed. If any one of them is ignored behaviour change will not occur:

  • Motivation
  • Ability
  • Trigger


What motivates a person to keep going, stop doing something or start doing something new?

BJ Fogg suggests people are motivated by six drivers:

  • Fear / Hope
  • Pain / Pleasure
  • Social inclusion / Social exclusion

With the consulting company in question I decided social inclusion/exclusion were not relevant, all the consultants felt like they belonged in their company.

Fear / Hope

I suspected the consultants feared asking for a referral and didn’t understand what management wanted from them.

“Nothing is to be feared, it has only to be understood”. Marie Curie

Action: I devised a workshop to put at ease the consultant’s fears.

Pain / Pleasure

Most people respond well to the prospect of financial reward. However, cash itself isn’t motivating, rather what it represents:

Money itself is not the most important thing in life, but it is the perfect measure for anything that we do consider important.” William Davies

The prospect of money is an obvious way to stimulate the pleasure sensors.

Action: The consultancy agreed to introduce a new incentivization scheme for the consultants.


How easy is it for the desired behaviour to take place?

Technology has value because it can enhance our ability to get what we want, whether that be a date, taxi, or holiday. As the founder of Twitter Evan Williams points out:

“The internet is a giant machine to give people what they want.”

Asking for a referral from a client is not hard.

Action: The consultants didn’t recognise they already had the ability to ask for referrals. My workshop included role play and scripts to help the consultants seize the opportunity.



BJ Fogg defines triggers as:

“Something that tells people to perform a specific behavior. It typically goes by the name of call-to-action, notifications, prompts, etc.”

Triggers can be internal or external. For example, when I step through my front door if I smell coffee, that’s an external trigger for me to go and pour a cup of coffee. An internal driver might be me resisting the consumption of coffee past 2pm because I know it impacts my sleep.

A trigger to prompt the referral request needs to be carefully selected. If one asks a client for a referral half with through a product demonstration it is unlikely to be successful; it’s incongruous and will likely jolt the client away from you.  Alternatively, if a discussion covers personal networks and collaborations this could be the ideal time to ask for a referral.

Action: We identified a reliable and distinct trigger that formed part of client preliminary discussions.


 The Result

Working with my client we aligned the three factors of behaviour change: motivation, ease of action and triggers. These came together to form a powerful behaviour change model.

Over the next three months the consultancy achieved:

  • Referral pipeline with a conversion ratio 100% greater than its traditional salesperson pipeline.
  • Pipeline consisting entirely of new prospects, none of which were on the radar of the sales function.

It is easy to think all that’s necessary to get someone to do something new is a change in motivation. However, as Fogg’s extensive research shows, behaviour change is not simple but it is achievable.


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