So, we all know that getting referrals is a great source of new business. If someone is referred to you there's a bunch of inbuilt trust and credibility that makes it much more likely they'll become a paying client (and you don't have to go out hunting for them either!).
The problem is: few of us get enough referrals.
The biggest cause if this, in my experience, is that the people we'd love to refer us are often hesitant to do so. They like us. They trust us. They think we do good work. But there's something that holds them back, even if you ask them directly.
I explain what it is and how to get over it in this week's 5 minute marketing tip video…
This is a guest blog post by David Ackert of Ackert Advisory, founder of the Practice Boomers e-learning business development program for service professionals that helps them get more clients and grow their practice.
I've just joined the faculty over at Practice Boomers and will be contributing a number of articles and resources. Here's a short and sweet article and video from David on a (still) much underused marketing approach.
Whenever I speak to groups, I ask for a show of hands to this question: “How many of you regularly ask your clients or referral sources for business?”
Consistently, only 10-15% of the audience raises their hands.
The other 85% confess that they aren't very proactive when it comes to growing their practice. They wait for their clients to think of them, then they react and provide service, then they wait for the next email or telephone call.
When I ask them why, they ultimately give the same reason: They don't know exactly how to ask their clients and referral sources for business without offending them.
That’s understandable. No one wants to jeopardize their client relationships. If common sense keeps us among the ranks of the 85%, so be it. Better to play it safe until some better alternative presents itself; a simple, a clear technique that generates referrals without compromising our clients’ good will. Perhaps at some point in the future you’ll have such a technique.
Perhaps six minutes from now.
This short video shows you exactly what to say, how to say it appropriately, and who to say it to.
Put it to work and you'll enter the 15% who ask for the business they want without risking the clients they have.
* As a faculty member, if one day you join the Practice Boomers community I'll get a referral fee.
Almost all professionals say their main approach to get new clients is Referrals.
But sadly, what they're often talking about is Passive Referrals. Referrals where they've been recommended by a previous client or contact without taking any active action themselves.
While it's great to get these types of referral it's not really a sustainable business model. A sustainable business model needs to be influenceable by the professional.
In practice, a great many professionals have a psychological barrier when it comes to asking for referrals. They hesitate – and don't ask for anywhere near as many as they should.
There are three main reasons for this:
They're not convinced asking for referrals works
They're worried that asking for a referral might damage the relationship they have with a client or contact
They're embarrased asking for referrals: it “feels like begging”
Does Asking for Referrals Work?
In their 2009 Benchmarking Study How Clients Buy, RainToday.com looked at which methods buyers of professional services were most likely to use to initially identify and learn more about providers.
The top 2 methods? Referrals from Colleagues and Referrals from Trusted Service Providers.
Take, for example, the experience of one of my newsletter subscribers who recently emailed me to say:
On a visit to a client, where I had done a good job and over-delivered on client's expectations; we were waiting on someone returning to his office with a bit of information we needed.
For something to say I asked “Can you think of anyone else who might be able to use my services?”.
He immediately opened his address book and started giving me names and numbers, even ringing a few there and then to warm things up.
I've since made contact with most of the nine names he gave, and seven are happy to meet with me.
In future I'm going to make “asking for more” a part of my after sales follow-up!
Does Asking for Referrals Work? Absolutely – if done right.
Will Asking for a Referral Damage your Relationship with a Client?
There's an element of truth in this – if you do it wrongly.
The best referrals are to people the person doing the referral knows well. After all, we're far more likely to act on a referral from someone we know and trust than from someone we barely know.
By introducing you to someone they know well, your clients and contacts are putting their relationship and reputation on the line. Before the do this, they will need to be sure you're going to do a great job for the person they introduce you to – and that you'll be thinking in their best interests.
So you must wait to ask for a referral until you've proven you can do a great job and that you aren't just being self-centred.
The best way to do this for clients is to ask after you've over-delivered on your engagement for them. Or if it's a long project, after you've delighted them during the process of delivery.
And your relationship must have progressed so that they've come to trust you and see that you aren't just in it for yourself – that you always act in your clients' best interests.
The language you use when asking for a referral can help here too. Don't just ask if they can refer you to someone. Ask “can you think of other accountancy firms who I might be able to help?” or “I believe my services would be really valuable to Jones & Co., if you were me how would you approach them”.
Is Asking for Referrals Embarrassing? Will it seem like Begging?
Again, the answer to this is that it can be – if you do it wrongly.
Part of this is mindset. If you really are just asking for referrals to help yourself – then clients and contacts often pick up on that.
But if you've thought through who it is you can really help, and you truly believe you can do a great job for them: then your sincerity will show through.
Again, the language you use can help. Don't just ask to be referred. Tell your client or contact why you believe you can do a great job for the person you're asking for a referral to.
In my blog post of a few months ago: How to Get More Referrals Using Offers I showed how creating tailored offers (free, or entry-level) makes it easier for clients to refer you and feel comfortable they are adding value to their contacts. Having these offers also makes asking for referrals less embarrasing. You're able to name something specific of value the person you're being referred to will get – rather than just asking a favour.
Could You Get More Clients by Asking for More Referrals?
Have a look at the 3 factors. Do they apply to you?
My experience is that we all suffer from at least one or more. Myself included.
We've not fully convinced ourselves that asking for referrals really works. Or we're embarrassed to do it, or worried it might hurt relationships.
Whichever negative belief you have, think about whether that belief is really true.
Think about whether holding that belief is helpful to you.
Then think: if I suspended that belief, just for a week, and asked for more referrals, might that help me?
One of the biggest challenges I find clients have when trying to get more referrals is that their referrers (the people they've asked to introduce them to someone) struggle to make the introduction sound attractive to the potential client.
For example, let's say you're an employment lawyer and you've asked an accountant to introduce you to small manufacturing businesses in your area. Or perhaps you've been smart and used Linkedin to name some specific people and organisations you know he knows.
How is he going to make that introduction sound attractive to the potential client? Chances are they don't have a specific need for your services at this point in time. And even if they did, the accountant might not know that. So although a recommendation and offer of an introduction from a trusted partner like an accountant is more likely to succeeed than a cold call – it still might not seem attractive.
And it may also be embarrassing or uncomfortable to the accountant too. It may feel a little too much like he's simply selling for you with no real benefit for his client.
Now of course, you're going to try to inspire your referral partner by demonstrating what a great resource to his clients you're going to be. And of course, you're going to be “courting” that referral partner to keep yourself top of mind for when the time comes to give recommendations.
But still, 1-on-1 with his client he's going to have to pop the question. So maybe he'll wait until the client's in a good mood. Or maybe until a related topic comes up. Or maybe….
But what if the accountant had something to offer the client on your behalf? Something that was valuable to them without relying on them having an immediate need.
It could be a report you've prepared on the key facts manufacturers need to know about employment law. Perhaps an invitation to a monthly seminar and Q&A session your firm runs on new legislation which impacts small firms. Perhaps some kind of related checklist or spreadsheet tool.
Then there's no embarrassment or difficulty.
The accountant will feel they're adding direct and immediate value to their client. They're not just suggesting a meeting with you which might lead to value for the client. They're giving it straight away.
And the client will feel much more disposed to meet with you and much more confident that you're going to be a useful resource.
The whole situation has changed from the referral partner doing you a favour – to them doing themselves and their client a favour.
So not only will the accountant be recommending you when the time is right and when the client's in a good mood. Since your offer adds value to his clients, he'll be recommending you whenever he can to get “brownie points” with them. He'll be actively looking for opportunities to make recommendations and raise the status of his relationship.
So what resources do you have that your referral partners can offer?
To some degree, succeeding with referrals is something of a numbers game. More referrals equals more business. However, for busy professionals who need to balance business development with billable hours, it's rarely wise to sacrifice quality for quantity. Better to go for a smaller number of high probability referrals and devote enough time to convert them to sales.
So what makes a high quality referral?
Referrals work because of transferred trust. Obviously I am going to put more credence in a recommendation from a colleague or business partner I know and trust and who I know has experience in the area than from a casual acquaintance or someone I bumped into at a networking event (although it's surprising how much credence we do give to those more distant referrals). The higher the level of credibility of the referrer, the higher the quality of the referral.
In addition, the level of endorsement we get in a referral can be crucial. This is why referrals from clients can be so valuable. Referrals from clients are more credible because they have actually experienced our work. And if we have performed exceptionally well the referral will be much more complimentary than a referral from business partners who know us but have never worked with us ever could ever be.
Finally, a high quality referral is a targeted referral. We are far more likely to get a sale from a prospect who we know needs our services right now and has the budget to pay for them than from a random, unqualified “name and number”. This is one of the frequently overlooked strengths of referrals. In many professional service businesses, client needs are often difficult to detect from the professionals perspective. Businesses considering a takeover don't like to make their intentions public by announcing they're looking for M&A advisors. Couples with marital problems try to show a united face in front of strangers. Companies planning to make major layoffs and needing HR and employment law advice rarely want the news to leak out until after they've had that advice. As a result consultants, lawyers and other professionals rarely see these opportunities on their radar screens until it's too late. However, an insider or current advisor in frequent contact is often alerted to these opportunities well in advance. That's why accountants, who are in frequent contact with their client businesses, are such sought-after partners by lawyers and other professionals. They can give highly targeted referrals to clients with pressing needs.
Putting all that together gives us what I call the “Referral Formula” – a simple guide to the key areas professionals should work on to maximise the value they get from referrals:
Referral = Number of x Potential of x Credibility of x Strength of
Value Referrals Prospect Referrer Endorsement
Future posts will go into more details on specific aspects of generating more referrals
We all know that referrals can be the most powerful and profitable source of new clients. Yet most of us find that we’re simply not generating enough referrals of a high enough quality to reach our practice growth objectives.
What's the problem here? Are we mistaken in our assumption that referrals are such an effective business development method? Or is it an execution issue – we're simply not going about it in the right way?
For most professionals it's a bit of both.
While all the evidence highlights that our clients rely on referrals as their most trusted source of information on new suppliers; we've got to remember that not all referrals are created equal.
Unfortunately, some referrals can be little better than random cold calls. You get the name and number of someone who may or may not need our services, may or may not be able to afford them, and may or may not see the referrer as a credible and trusted source.
So it's our ability as professionals to work with our clients and partners to deliver the quality – not just the quantity – of referrals that will make all the difference to our success with them.
Do Referrals Work?
“Referrals from Colleagues” and “Referrals from Other Service Providers” were identified as the #1 and #2 method used by buyers of professional services to identify and learn more about providers in the 2009 RainToday.com Benchmarking Study “How Clients Buy”.
Because of the complex and intangible nature of professional services, buyers look for help to assess two critical criteria for selection:
“Can the provider do the job?”, and
“Can I work with them?”
They take clues from their personal interactions with the providers (at seminars, presentations and sales meetings) and from the experiences of people they know and trust.
And despite the increasing prevalence of online “relationships”, the people they turn to for recommendations are their colleagues and other service providers they have worked closely with. In other words: people whose judgement they respect.
For infrequent or “distress” purchases which are bought because of an immediate or unexpected need (for example, many legal and consulting services) the reliance on trusted third parties is even bigger.
Buyers won't invest in building a relationship up front with a provider of services they don't know they'll ever need. So instead, they rely heavily on the opinions of those they trust with experience themselves.
So do referrals work? The answer is a resounding “Yes” – if done correctly.
You've Got to Have a System
In his classic work Creating Rainmakers, Ford Harding highlights that although successful business developers are very diverse in terms of background, personality, style and approach – they all share one common factor: <u>they all have a “system” for generating business</u>.
That system may be hugely different between Rainmakers, with one relying on networking, another on cold calling, another on writing and speaking.
But all of the successful Rainmakers had developed a method which <u>worked for them</u> which they could employ repeatedly and effectively without having to think from scratch of what to do.
When needed, they were able to “switch on” their system and carry out the steps which would bring them more business.
In contrast, less effective business developers either tried to “wing it”, or had to spend so much time reinventing a system – gathering contact details, developing a script, identifying networking meetings, or writing an article – that the opportunity was lost.
It's the same with referrals. Although we all know how powerful referrals can be, how many of us take a systematic approach to generating them?
Not many in my experience.
Professional firms wouldn't dream of investing marketing budgets and non-billable time into advertising, speaking campaigns, seminars, website development or thought leadership without a thorough analysis and plan for how that investment would pay off.
Good marketing plans identify target clients for each approach, refine the firm's positioning and specify the messaging to be used.
They identify clear objectives for each area and the sequence of activities and critical success factors necessary to achieve those objectives. They carefully allocate non-billable hours and budget to each activity to try to maximise the overall returns.
Yet when it comes to referrals – potentially the most powerful approach of all – most firms simply leave it to chance.
At best, they encourage and remind partners to “ask for referrals”. But no thought is put into which clients to ask, how to ask, what to ask for, how to “earn” a referral, etc. At worst referrals are simply not mentioned at all.
These firms are hoping that their good work will result in positive word of mouth and spontaneous referrals. Sadly, research by TARP in the US has highlighted that referrals simply don't happen spontaneously.
When it comes to dissatisfaction:
An unhappy customer will share their bad experience with an average of 12 other people (in my case, when it comes to bad customer service at John Lewis, I share it with thousands via this blog)
Each of those 12 people will in turn mention it to 6 others.
Unfortunately, when it comes to a satisfied customer:
A happy customer will share their experience with just a few friends;
Those friends will not remember much and will not share that information with anyone at all.
Essentially, without further proactive work from the service provider, positive “word of mouth” ends with a few friends and colleagues of the satisfied customer.
So professionals and their firms who want to get more from referrals need to get serious in their approach.
They need to develop and implement a plan to proactively address all the key elements which influence both the number and the quality of referrals received.
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?