One key feature of selling many professional services and other high value business-to-business products and services is that they are bought relatively rarely.
As I detailed in Three Painful Truths for Business Developers this means that whenever you make a proactive sales outreach to a potential client, the chances are very, very high that at that point in time they will not be actively looking for your type of services. In fact, they will most likely not even be aware at all that they have potential problems or needs in the areas you can help them with. And no matter how memorable your interactions with them, the reality is that a few short weeks later they will struggle to remember you.
Smart professional firms and sellers adopt a variety of tactics to overcome this with the core principle being to nuture the relationship with high potential customers over time. Each interaction – be it a call, a meeting, a useful article clipped and sent, or an email newsletter – is designed to add value to the customer/prospect and to strengthen the relationship. Done well, these approaches have a huge payoff.
But few firms adopt a similar approach to their referral partners – be they clients, ex-clients or network contacts. They may adapt the best practices of preparing for and asking for referrals – timing the request for when they have delivered value to the partner, being very specific in who they are asking to be referred to, clairfying the value the referrer and referred-to will get, etc. But these are all “outbound referrals”. A one-off contact or approach by the referral partner to introduce you to someone you want to be referred to. They suffer the same challenge as a proactive sales outreach you do yourself – the chances are that at the time of contact the prospect will not be aware of a need in the area you can help with.
By far the best sort of referral is what I call an “inbound referral” – when someone contacts your “referral partner” looking for a recommendation and you are referred then – at the point of need.
In this case the prospect is actively looking for help in your area – and the referrer's opinion is clearly respected because they were called rather than initiating the contact.
The problem, of course, is that just like with your sales prospects themselves; you aren't necessarily front of mind for your “referral partners”. So they may not give you a particularly strong referral. After all, how many other accountants does that lawyer you count as a partner know and refer to? How many other printers does the marketing consultant you speak to at the chamber of commerce know? Usually quite a few.
In order to get these referrals – the most valuable ones – you must be front of mind with your referral partners when they receive the call.
Now, if they are a current or recent client you have done great work for then chances are that you will be the only one referred. Or if you are part of a “leads group” like BNI – then members of that group will automatically refer to you. But these situations are in the minority for most referral situations for most professionals and sellers. In order to maximise the number of referrals you get, you need a wide network of high potential referral partners, and you must be front of mind with them despite them not being recent clients or part of a “club” with you.
How do you do this? In the same way you stay front of mind with high potential clients. You invest in and nurture the relationship. You may not be able to work with them daily or meet them every week – but you can keep in touch and you can add value to them with every interaction.
A great example of this approach comes from Paul Halliwell, the Business Development director for the Urquhart Partnership in Manchester. Paul is a great networker and keeps in contact with a wide range of professionals from allied industries – all of whom could be potential referrers at some point.
In order to build his relationship with this network (and in addition to all the normal pracitces good networkers do), Paul produces a monthly “Take 5 Minutes” newsletter. It's the referral partner equivalent of an email newsletter to clients. Because it's to partners it's very relaxed in tone and just done in simple Word format manually emailed to a distribution list, rather than using HTML and an email management system. It doesn't feel at all like a sales document. It includes some personal news, Paul's views and reviews of local networking events he's been to (really useful information for his contacts to know which netwokring events are going to be valuable for them) and a couple of really bad jokes.
It's fairly simple stuff – but does involve an investment of his time. The end result is worth it though. I know many firms who provide the sort of training & recruitment services that Urquhart do – but none that keep in touch and nurture their relationship with me the way that Paul does. So when anyone asks for a recommendation for HR services, training or recruitment – guess which firm is at the front of my mind?