Referrer management: How can I increase the strength of my relationship with referrers and intermediaries?

Posted on: December 21, 2006

Accountants, lawyers, surveyors, bankers and brokers can be a good source of work referrals for other professionals. However, it can take a lot of time and effort to implement an effective referrer management programme and develop the relationship before any work is generated. For this reason, it is important that you deploy a range of easy (and cheap) techniques to remain in touch with people and to develop strong and lasting (and productive) relationships.

Whilst some people think the best strategy is to have a broad and varied number of referrer relationships, others think it is best to concentrate on just one or two. Either approach can work although those at the start of their career may find it better to keep a wide number of contacts and more experienced professionals may find it more efficient to maintain close relationships with just one or two who they know generate a reasonable level of referrals.

When selecting referrers on which to focus efforts, please consider the following:

  1. Are they of a similar size to us? – Referrals are more likely if they are. Sometimes, smaller firms may feel they can safely refer their clients for specialist expertise.
  2. Do they share a similar culture? Are their people like us? – Once a relationship between two individuals is established the similarity between others will become the focus.
  3. Do we have any mutual clients? Working together is most likely to generate trust and provides a way for us to demonstrate our competence and way of working
  4. Are there several areas of common interest/work? The more areas there are then the easier it will be to add others to the relationship and refer work to/from each other
  5. Do they offer competing services (e.g. private client, personal taxation)?
  6. Are we or they leaders in a particular area? We will be more attractive to those trying to get into markets where we are strong and less attractive to those where we are relative newcomers
  7. How many other members of the firm or their organization have relationships? The more productive relationships we have, the more likely we will receive work in the future.
  8. Are they currently close to another firm of accountants?

Manage your expectations – it can take time to develop a relationship with a referrer that has the necessary degree of trust and knowledge to make a work referral occur. So be realistic and accept that it may take many months (sometimes years) before all the time and energy you invest in a referrer relationship generates any work.

The basics

    • After meeting someone for the first time, make sure you do a fast follow up (no more than two days after meeting) – a simple email, a copy of a relevant article or newsletter or the name of some contact they might found useful is all that it takes
    • Add the name of your contact to your database to ensure that they receive regular newsletters from the firm. If your database allows it, note down their particular areas of interest so that they receive relevant information and invitations.
    • Advise your marketing team of the name of the individual and their organization. Often marketing will keep a list of all the firm’s referrer relationships and can tell you which other members of the firm have links with that organization. It also enables the firm to co-ordinate and measure all referrer relationships.
    • You need a personal filing and reminder system to help you a) keep together all the information about the individuals and their referrer organization and b) keep a log of past contact, topics discussed and work referred in or out. It doesn’t have to be a computer based system, but there must be some mechanism to remind you to stay in touch and to measure the effectiveness.

Plan

    • Analyse your client and contact base, and your portfolio, to see where the majority of your work was referred from. Some people find that they generate most referrals from existing clients, and others from intermediaries such as banks, lawyers and brokers. By analyzing your data you may find clues as to how to focus your referrer management programme in the future.
    • There will, of course, be some referrers that you just happen to meet and get on with and stay in contact with. However, you might need to seek out suitable firms proactively with whom to establish a relationship. Your marketing team should be able to help you review your portfolio, talk through your aims, put together a plan and help you research suitable organizations and opportunities to meet them.
    • Be very clear about the types of client and types of work you are seeking. The more specific you can be the easier it will be for referrers to know when to refer people to you. Of courses, the temptation is to say that you can do everything for everyone – but then all professionals say that – so make it easy and offer just one or two key services that will be of particular interest to the sorts of clients that particular referrer will deal with. They will come to associate you (and your firm) with a few key areas and it will be easier for them to remember.

Advisers to your key clients

    • Ask your clients which intermediaries and professional advisers they use. Where you think there may be referrer potential, ask the client to facilitate an informal meeting of some kind. Alternatively, suggest that your client brings their other advisers along to a meeting or reception of some kind.

Grade your relationships

    • Whilst there is potential value in all referrer relationships it is necessary to prioritise them in order to focus your efforts on those most likely to generate work and to avoid spreading yourself too thinly. You may need to meet with your initial contact a few times and learn a little about their organization before you can assign a high, medium or low priority to them. Then decide what you will do for the different levels of priority so, for example, low priority referrers may simply receive a copy of the annual newsletter, medium priority may get a call from you three times a year and high priorities may actually meet with you several times over the year.
    • Every six months or so you should set aside some time to review all your referrer relationships and consider which are proving valuable (and should be further developed) and which are going nowhere and should be given less time/attention. As part of the review you might identify gaps and areas where you need to develop new referrer relationships – see the section on plan.

Research

    • Have a good look at their web site and seek areas of common interest and/or mutual clients.
    • If they are lawyers, check out legal directories such as Legal 500 and Chamber to assess their expertise and to see some of their most recent and important cases. For surveyors, use Propertymall web site and/or RICS. For corporate finance referrers there are various directories such as Hemmington Scott and Insider Dealmaker Directories.
    • Ask your marketing team to prepare a research pack for you so that you have all the readily available information at your fingertips.
    • Ask marketing to arrange for news updates about the organization to be sent to you so that you have ongoing reasons to contact them and renew the acquaintance. Some firms subscribe to news services that do this automatically for you.
    • Regularly scan the relevant media (legal, accountancy, property and banking) to keep track of the major developments in the relevant referrer market so that you can ask them about their market and demonstrate your interest and knowledge.

Givers gain

    • This is a principal used in networking. The idea is not to focus on what the referrer can do for you but to think about what useful information and/or contacts you can provide to the referrer – even if there is no benefit to yourself. By dropping people a quick email saying that you noticed an article that might be of interest to them or that you gave their details to someone who expressed an interest is all that it takes to trigger the “reciprocal” rule – ie they will feel indebted to you and feel compelled to repay the kindness in some small way.

After client or business meetings

    • Instead of trying to arrange a lunch or dinner to get to know new contacts better, at the end of a business meeting (perhaps with a mutual client) arrange to go for a quick/informal cup of coffee or – if nearby – to pop in and see their offices. This is much lower commitment than a lunch or dinner and if you visit their offices there is a chance you will be introduced to their colleagues.

Regular contact

    • Try to make contact on a regular basis – at least every three months. A short email or a telephone call to catch up will be sufficient.
    • When reviewing your list of clients and contacts to invite to seminars or other events, consider whether any of your referrers might be interested in attending – and possible encourage them to bring one or two of their clients or colleagues.

Third party events

    • Show that you are keen to be invited to their events – whether these are simply receptions or technical seminars. Ensure that you say hello to them when you attend and ask to be introduced to other members of their team.
    • Ask if you can bring a colleague along to any of their events that you are invited to – that way you extend the number of relationships between the two organizations.
    • Identify which associations – whether these are professional, commercial or technical – they belong to and assess whether you might accompany them as a guest or join as an associate member
    • If you are attending key industry events – such as an awards ceremony – call to see if they are attending and whether you might meet at the event.

Training

    • All professional firms will have training programmes for their trainees and for their CPD (Continuing Professional Development). Ask them if there are any topics on which we could provide a 1-1.5 hour lecture or workshop
    • Similarly, identify if there are any topics on which they could provide a training session for your trainees or young professionals. Or even more experienced members of the firm.
    • An alternative might be to suggest that you ‘exchange’ young professionals for a short period – say, a week – so that the relevant individuals develop a deeper understanding of each others’ organizations and forge a wide range of relationships with numerous people at the referrer organization.

Joint marketing

    • Where opportunities exist, offer to provide a short presentation at one of their client seminars. Have a list of topics on which you are prepared to speak and which would integrate well with their speakers and be of interest to their clients to discuss with them.
    • Invite them to present a session at one of your seminars or conferences.
    • Offer to write a short article on some technical development in their client newsletters or on their web site. Ask them to contribute an article to one of our newsletters.
    • Suggest that you co-write an article for a trade publication reaching an audience of mutual interest. You may need some help from your marketing team to get a magazine to commission/accept the article.

Lunch etc

    • Once you have established some common ground it might be a good idea to arrange a lunch – but don’t organize this too early in the relationship as there may be insufficient to talk about and it is a high commitment of time. Make sure you have identified three or four topics of mutual interest to discuss and make sure you keep a note of the agreed actions – and follow up!
    • Rather than a one-to-one lunch you might consider taking along one or two other partners and encourage the referrer to do the same. Again, prepare some agenda items and keep a note of agreed actions.
    • Where the relationship is developing well and some clients/work have already materialized, it might be worth organizing a lunch at your offices or theirs where around six from each side are present. You must select the people carefully to ensure there is likely to be areas of common interest. You are urged to agree an agenda in advance and take care with the seating plan. You might also encourage each ‘team’ to provide a short introduction to their organization and have each individual provide a 2-3 minute introduction to their area of practice and clients. To focus attention, you could set the goals of the lunch as “To find three good opportunities for each firm to pursue after this discussion”.
    • A further development of this idea is where two partners from your firm and two from the referrers organization each bring around four other guests – a combination of clients and useful contacts and a ’roundtable’ discussion of some kind is organized. A good roundtable will have a ‘guest of honour’ who is prepared to provide a short opening speech and a good agenda (circulated in advance) or around six topics for discussion. A good chair is required to ensure that everyone contributes and that the debate keeps moving. Sometimes – although care must be taken – a journalist is invited to attend with a view to writing about one or two of the issues discussed.
    • An alternative to having a six a side lunch is to invite a group of their people from different levels of seniority (trainee to partner) to come over to our offices at the end of the day (around 530-6pm) for an informal drinks reception. This only works where a) there are a few people at your firm who know a few people at the referrer organization or b) there is a clear list of topics to discuss or c) you have some form of speech or presentation at the start to help break the ice

Hospitality

    • Some sectors (e.g. corporate finance, property) thrive on the social networks of corporate hospitality entertaining . Although many of these events are very expensive and time intense (e.g. opera, major sports events etc) and should be used sparingly there are lots of other events that are less expensive and often more popular with some referrers – for example, go-karting, table football games, softball leagues etc
    • A development of this approach is to have the referrer organization bring along one or two well known clients to a hospitality event where you have taken along a couple of your clients – the key being to have clients who are likely to find it useful to network/meet with each other.
    • Regardless of how informal your social/hospitality event, you should make sure that you make a note of any actions/connections that arise and follow them up.

Say “Thank you”

    • Sorry if it sounds obvious (but many people don’t do it!) but if they refer a client or piece of work please express your thanks.
    • If a referral turns in to a client, without breaking confidences, keep them informed of how the work and/or relationship is progressing. Ask them if the client has commented on the service you are providing.

Remember – After all referrer contact: DEBRIEF, NOTE ACTIONS and FOLLOW UP FAST

 

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As always, if there are particular topics you would like me to address in the future, please let me know. You will also find a source of more and up to date information on a broad range of management and marketing issues in the professions by checking out the blog where I also post regular reviews of books that might be helpful.

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