Sales and Sales Management Blog

June 15, 2009

Boost Your Sales series: “Laying the Foundation for Referrals,” by Ian Brodie

It’s Referrals and Word of Mouth week at the Boost Your Sales blog series. 

We start off with Ian Brodie’s advice on how to prepare your clients to give quality referrals

Tuesday it’s Bill Cates with “Make Sure You Get One Great Referral”

Wednesday Joanne Black is here with “There’s No Such Thing as a Warm Sales Call”

Thursday Dr. Martin Russell discusses “Marketing Is What You Do When Your Product Is No Good”

and finally, on Friday I up with “Your Connections are Your Key to Your Success”


Stay tuned in next week as a great list of experts—Jeb Blount, Nigel Edelshain, Cindy King and Ardath Albee give great guidance on “Prospecting and Social Media”


Laying the Foundations for Referrals
by Ian Brodie

A lot of what’s been written on Referrals over the years has been on the practical strategies and methods for getting them. And there’s no better source for the best thinking on these topics than Paul’s book: Creating a Million Dollar a Year Sales Income: Sales Success through Client Referrals (Wiley: 2007).

But I want to take a slightly different slant in this post. Assuming you know how to prepare and ask your clients and business partners for referrals in an effective way – how can you increase your chances of a strong referral occuring?

I’m going to cover three topics: 1) What motivates people to give referrals in the first place? 2) How you can help your referrers get better at giving referrals and 3) How to attract referrals without having to ask for them.

Motivating Referrers
What motivates someone to actually give a referral? What’s in it for them?

In my experience across multiple professions, I’ve found that clients and business partners are actually very generous when it comes to giving referrals. Their main concern is less one of self interest, and more one of helping their own clients, colleagues and friends.

But what they are concerned about is risk. They will want to be absolutely sure you will do a good job before they refer you to people whose relationship they value. They simply can’t afford to take the risk of you doing a bad job and their reputation and relationship suffering.

Your current and recent clients should have the confidence in you to know this won’t happen. But for business partners (and also perhaps for ex-clients from a while back) you will need to invest time to make sure they are fully confident in your capabilities and your intent to do a great job for whoever they refer you to. And you must be able to demonstrate this – not just claim it. Far better to invite a referral partner to a seminar you are running where you showcase your expertise than to simply tell them you have it.

The other risk for business partners is that you may attempt to “steal” the relationship from them (perhaps unintentionally in some cases). It’s advisable to set out clearly how you would proceed should they refer you – and emphasize that you would ensure they retained the primary relationship.

After these risks have been dealt with, you can increase the urgency and dedication with which your referral partners go about referring you. The prospect of reciprocation (if genuine) can obviously help. But sometimes referral relationships are by nature one-sided.  Accountants, in particular, are often able to give more referrals to lawyers than they get – simply by nature of the number of long-term business relationships they have. So making sure you are “going the extra mile” and visibly doing whatever you can to get high quality referrals back to them helps. In addition, you may be able to help them in other ways: introducing them to wider circles of contacts, giving them specialist advice on their own affairs, allowing them to showcase their expertise as guest presenters at your events.

Helping Your Referrers Get Better at Giving Referrals
In some cases your contacts would like to give referrals to you – but are simply not good at spotting referral situations and making the initial contact. Sometimes they just need a little help.

This is particularly important when the need for your services is not immediately apparent from outside. Companies contemplating layoffs and in need of employment advice don’t often advertise the fact in advance, for example. A close confidante may be privy to discussions that would alert them to these sorts of needs – but often most people don’t see the signs until it’s too late to act.

One method to help referrers identify situations where your services would be of value is to educate them about the externally visible “trigger events” which cause a need for your services. An obvious example would be the hiring of a new general counsel – often presaging a change in retained law firm. News of a potential new product may break well in advance of hiring a marketing consultant to help with the launch.

By thinking through (preferably with the aid of some of your clients themselves) the events that triggered the need for your services you can compile a simple list of “things to look for” which can help you and your referrers steal a march on your competitors.

In other situations, it may be that the referrer can spot the need – but struggles to find the words to discuss it with the potential client. In the case of divorce law for example, it may be very clear to your referral partner that someone needs professional advice – but they may be too embarrassed or uncomfortable to broach the subject with the person they are trying to help.

In this case, you need to help them by firstly educating them about the right time to intervene in the person’s best interest – and giving them some examples of words they can use to gently introduce the subject without the risk of damaging their relationship.

Becoming a “Referral Magnet” – How to Attract Referrals Without needing to Ask for Them.
Most of our discussion so far has focused on how to get more and better “outbound referrals”. In other words, referrals where the referrer reaches out to the prospect to recommend you.

However, the same lessons apply to “inbound referrals” – where the prospect themselves contact your referrer and ask for a recommendation. These types of referral can be incredibly valuable – as they are to highly qualified prospects – ones who are essentially saying “I have a need and I need help now”. Being able to attract these sorts of referrals will pay huge dividends.

The challenge here is that since needs for many products and services arise fairly infrequently, by the time your referrer is contacted by the prospect you won’t necessarily be “front of mind”. So they may not give you a particularly strong referral. After all, how many other lawyers does that accountant you count as a partner know and refer to? How many other printers does that consultant you met at the chamber of commerce pass referrals to already? Usually quite a few.

In order to get these referrals – often 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 the chances are that you will be the only one referred. Or if you are part of a “leads group” then members of that group will automatically refer to you. But these situations are in the minority for most referral situations for most people. In order to maximize 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.

It’s exactly the approach you would take with a high potential client: you would log them on your contact management system. You would invest in the relationship to secure future business. You would schedule regular events with them, send them clippings or news items of interest, proactively offer advice and guidance for free. Doing the same thing with high potential referral partners can have just as high a payoff. If they are regularly being contacted to give recommendations in your field then you must make sure you have a plan to stay front of mind with them.

You can’t do this with all your potential referrers – but you should be able to identify who are the ones with the most potential to refer business to you and to focus on them.

At minimum, you should be reviewing the list of your top referral sources weekly and your next tier monthly, in order to keep them front of mind for you and ensure that during the week you are awake to possible ideas and resources that might help them. Connect with them on Linkedin and monitor their status updates. Track them and their company via Google Alerts or other tracking methods.  Make sure you keep in touch and maintain your relationship by phone and face to face, not just by email.

Above all, if you are genuinely interested and concerned for them as human beings, then the right sort of nurturing behavior will follow.

Ian Brodie works with professional service firms – consultants, lawyers, accountants, surveyors, architects and coaches – to help them attract more clients and win more new business.  Ian has just launched the Rainmaker Network which is a worldwide free to join network focused on helping partners, marketers and business developers in Professional Service Firms to attract new clients and win new business.


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  1. accountants

    […] Accountants, in particular, are often able to give more referrals to lawyers than they get simply by nature of the number of long-term business relationships they have. So making sure you are going the extra mile and visibly doing … […]…

    Trackback by Accounting Centre — June 15, 2009 @ 1:02 pm | Reply

  2. I really liked your perspective! look forward to more insightful info.

    Comment by ruben snider — September 21, 2009 @ 10:25 pm | Reply

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