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There is nothing scarier than looking into the next quarter and realizing that you may not have enough money to make payroll or pay the bills. Too many businesses find themselves in this position, operating quarter to quarter.

Without a consistent yearlong sales and marketing approach, every company will eventually reach a place where their pipeline is near empty, stress is building, and the future seems uncertain. Getting out of this hole will take a herculean effort, and the margin for error is tiny. Based on my experience, one of the most effective ways to break out of this unfortunate cycle is to use what I call the “three-tiered pipeline builder” strategy. Execute it correctly, and you’ll rapidly see real opportunities entering your sales pipeline.

Tier one is called “reference to referral.” Reach out to all of your clients and ask them for a reference letter supporting the work that you’ve done for them. Once they’ve indulged your request, thank them for their support, and then ask them for their participation in a brainstorming meeting to find potential customers they might be able to refer to your business.

Referral programs often fall flat because they don’t open a collaborative dialogue. A one-way transaction in which a customer hands you a list of leads rarely produces the best results. Before your brainstorming meeting, research your clients’ network—connections, affiliations, past employers, vendors, and so on. Once you’re in the room, share the names you’ve uncovered, and ask if they would make a good prospect based on your client’s knowledge of that person and their business. Before you part ways, be sure to confirm when and how your client will facilitate the new connection.

Tier two is called “friendlies,” and is designed to generate leads from people who know you and can vouch for your character. Approach your vendors, past colleagues, friends, and peers, and again request a meeting to brainstorm potential referrals. Unlike tier one, this group will need assurances that your work is as good as you say it is before they will risk their credibility recommending you to people they know. That’s where the references you collected in the initial stage—take them to your meeting along with the names of people you would like to be introduced to. The letters will help build your credibility and their confidence in you.

After executing the first two tiers, you will very likely be booked up with meetings that could turn into opportunities. But those conversations aren’t the end of this particular lead-generation strategy—there’s still tier three. At the end of your meetings with referrals, tell them you have a practice of always asking one final question: “Who do you know that I should know?”

This very simple query has generated many a referral for me. I’ve used this very simple, tiered strategy for a number of years now, and its consistently generated high-quality opportunities in short order. Apply it yourself, and your pipeline will soon be full of promising prospects.

Ryan Caligiuri is an SME growth strategist that brings his unique innovation systems experience to crafting meaningfully unique marketing and sales strategies. Ryan is also the host of one of iTunes’ top business podcasts: Cut the Crap Podcast, a weekly show that makes entrepreneurs, professionals and business students smarter, faster, by condensing leading business books down to a handful of core ideas, stories, and strategies.


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