Consider the following scenario:

Your company comes up with the idea to ask your client-facing teams — those who are delivering service or project-based work — to generate leads for new potential projects. After all, they are in a unique position among your customers to encounter and anticipate problems your firm could help with.

However, when the concept is introduced, it’s greeted with cold stares, heavy sighs and resistance. Whether the employees voice their concerns or keep them to themselves, they sound something like this: “I’m not a salesperson.” “I didn’t join this company to sell.” “I don’t want my customers to think I’m trying to sell them more.” “The day you give me a lead target is the day I quit.” “I hate sales.” Sometimes it’s more subtle: “I don’t have time.” “I don’t know our products well enough,” or “I don’t want to ruin my relationship with the client.”

At this point, most companies do their best to convince their employees why this is a good idea and try to assuage their concerns. An incentive plan is shared with the intention of getting their attention, but the lack of enthusiasm is deafening, and it’s difficult not to abandon the idea altogether.

The truth is, this is a very good idea, but there are almost always two major issues that must be addressed in order for it to be successful.

One obstacle is that some people will think developing leads means selling. Generally speaking, people who think negatively about sales do so because it triggers thoughts of being pushy, insincere and mercenary. It’s the opposite of how they think of themselves.

In actuality, the most effective kind of selling is the opposite of that. Instead of pushing and pressuring people, great sellers listen deeply to understand the problems faced by the customer and help them assess the cost if they don’t get fixed. Only then will the customer become eager to find a solution, and if you can provide it, you provide a great service to them.

Generating a lead based on a problem to be solved, not a product you want to pitch, is an approach that your service and delivery people can be proud of. It is consistent with how they should think about their goal with customers — to provide excellent service.

The second common obstacle organizations face is the context of how the company thinks about and communicates the reasons behind pursuing the strategy. Without good communication, the initiative can easily be misinterpreted as: “Let’s find as many ways as we can to ask our customers for more money.” No one wants to be perceived as only caring about the bottom line.

Instead, the context needs to be focused on the customer: “Look at how these problems are affecting our customer — we could help solve them while saving them time and money.” But the important thing is for your company to mean it, not just give it lip service. Proudly share the mutual importance of serving your customers more thoroughly while at the same time helping your company be more successful. It’s clearly a win-win for both.

Try these strategies to successfully initiate an internal referral program:

  1. First, assuming your company has noble intent and messaging, meet with your people and introduce the initiative. Remember that service and delivery people (engineers, consultants, project managers, customer service, etc.) respond enthusiastically to helping people solve problems, so communicate this context. Be sure to acknowledge both the benefit to the customer as well as your company — the win-win.
  2. Ask for feedback from your employees to learn about what they think. Create an open space for honest dialogue by not immediately offering your own insights or responses. If they don’t raise the subject of selling, ask if anyone what reservations they may have about sales, and allow them to share their concerns.
  3. Now, share what you want instead: the kind of selling that provides great service. Their job is not to sell, but to spot problems that potentially are costing their customers a lot of time and money. If they are out of scope for the current contract, then turn them over to the sales team for further exploration. Great customer relationships are established when employees understand that effective selling starts with uncovering business problems and genuinely wanting to help solve them. It’s simply an extension of what they are already doing.
  4. Put the team into small groups of three or so and ask them to brainstorm some of the problems they currently see within their clients that they think your company might be able to help with. Ask them to roughly estimate what the problems might be costing the clients. Hear back from the teams and ask them if the cost of the problems outlined would be worth solving and what it would mean to their clients.
  5. Ask your team what they need from you. Be sure that people know how to advance a problem to the sales team, what is expected of them and what they will get in return.
  6. Follow up with each member of the team one-on-one to determine their mindset and address it if necessary. Celebrate wins with the entire team and ask those who have generated problem-oriented leads to share how they did it and what it means to them. And be sure to celebrate the reward they’ve earned.

We hope that our insights can help to unhinge some of the blocks that you may have encountered from skilled professionals and consultants in your company. Business development and developing leads needn’t be a daunting prospect. A mental switch can be flipped by focusing on a problem-led customer solution and positive internal communication in support of this customer-focused context.