According to CSO Insights, only 53 percent of salespeople made their quota in the last year. Stop and think about that for a minute. In a time where we have every technological advantage--programmatic advertising, instant messaging, video conferencing--how is it possible that selling is getting harder, not easier?

Joanne Black, author of Pick Up the Damn Phone! How People, Not Technology, Seal the Deal, says the answer is simple. "We aren't having conversations," she says, adding that she's seen a trend of sales leaders looking for easy fixes in technology rather than KPI's that are tied to behavior. 

"The prevailing attitude is 'Let's just put in a new technology, and everything will be fine,'" says Black. "This seems less risky because if things don't work out as planned, we can just blame it on the technology."

Hiding behind the technology curtain.

In my own work with clients, I run across a phenomenon that Black calls "hiding behind the technology curtain." Often the prevailing attitude is "Why should I talk to someone when I can just email them?"

So much initial pitching today--be it to a producer for PR, an agent for a book deal, or a potential client--happens online. And while there is undoubtedly a great upside to using technology to reach out, the downside is that it creates a more transactional connection and can even lead to message confusion.

I venture to guess that there is not a person reading this who hasn't received an email where your head tipped to the side like Scooby Doo and you went, "Huh?" Since email and written social media have no body language or tone of voice, the meaning of the message can become skewed.

In the sales (and service) process, this is especially critical since the ability to understand and solve the customer's problem is at the heart of getting hired.

"We're not taking the time to really figure out what the problem is," says Black, "and unless we can solve the customer's problem, the technology really doesn't matter."

The solution? Pick up the phone and start having "consultative" conversations. But how do you do that when you don't know the person you're calling? Black says the simple magic is in cultivating referral sales.

Breaking through the technological noise with referrals.   

In a world where hyper-networking online is all the rage, old-fashioned referrals are turning out to be a powerful way to break through the noise and increase sales.

"When you get a referral introduction, the sales process shortens significantly," says Black.
"You already arrive with a degree of trust and credibility because you have been sent by someone that person knows. If there is competition, you have the inside track."

Black's research shows that a conversion rate from prospect to client soars to greater than 50 percent when a referral is involved. For many people, asking for referrals can feel awkward, but fortunately it's a sales skill you can develop and learn to get comfortable with.

Begin with the end in mind.   

How many times have you been asked (or asked someone else), "If you know anyone who could benefit from my services, could you please let them know about me?"

Most of the experts with whom I spoke agree that this half-hearted, generic way of asking for business isn't an effective way to get a referral. Instead, craft your request around the specific outcome you'd like to achieve. For example:

  • Ask a specific person for a specific type of referral. "Bob, who do you know whom I should be talking to in your department (company, business industry, etc.) about what I offer?"
  • Find a common connection on LinkedIn and ask for an introduction. "Betty, I see that you are a first connection with Larry Jones. I'd love to talk to him about what I do. Could you make an introduction?"
  • Ask a client or colleague for an introduction to a specific person. "Barry, I know you work on the executive team with Barbara. I'd love to talk with her about the work I do. Would you make an introduction for me?"

If this all sounds a bit overwhelming, try creating a simple written plan for referrals and spending time weekly updating it, adding new people to the list, and of course, picking up the phone to reach out and make a connection.

Who knows? Your next big sale might just be the one who says "hello" on the other end of the line.