Expand your client base by NOT asking for referrals
By Paul Shrimpling, reporting for our sister site, AccountingWEB.co.uk 
It’s a given that referrals are the most important source of new clients for accountancy firms, but when it comes to growing your firm from recommendations, it pays to do the opposite of what a salesperson would do. It might sound counter-intuitive, but hear me out.
When discussing the process of systematically asking for referrals with an accounting firm recently, the firm embers expressed a ‘sliminess’ associated with asking for referrals, and indicated they were were uncomfortable doing so.
“If someone is going to recommend us they don’t need me badgering them for a referral, it feels almost dirty. I’d feel uncomfortable being asked and so I don’t ask my clients for referrals,” was the resounding opinion.
I have made it my business to ask as often as is reasonable for referrals from my client firms of accountants, and this strategy has resulted in new clients representing more than 40 percent of my current fees and profits. It works. Or rather it has worked for me, so far. So I asked:
“So when I have asked you for referrals have I been making you feel uncomfortable?”
The response was: “YES!”
Oh no! I apologized immediately and promised never to do it again, but I was confused.
On further investigating the whys and wherefores, the discussion generated two solutions which this firm is testing to see if they and their clients are comfortable with it.
The sensitive approach
The first script goes something like this:
“Like most businesses we rely on positive word of mouth as the main source of new clients. You’re probably the same? Tell me, would you feel at all uncomfortable, offended, or disconcerted if I were to ask you to recommend [our firm] to other business owners you know?”
The ‘badge of honour’ request
With certain clients, flattery will get you everywhere, but make sure you really mean what you say.
“Over the next six months we are looking to work with just seven more ‘platinum clients’, clients who look just like you – established businesses who want to grow, businesses who see their accountant as a small but important part of their business.
“We are only asking for referrals from 12 of our customers because it’s important we invest our time carefully, identifying the right people to work with. You’re one of the 12 we’re asking and I was wondering, would you feel at all uncomfortable, offended or disconcerted if I were to ask you to recommend [our firm] to other business owners you know?”
These two approaches are the opposite of what a salesperson would do because they’re seeking a ‘no’ rather than a ‘yes.’ It protects your trusted adviser status and shows your respect for the client by being sensitive to their feelings.
My current strategy revolves around the use of a feedback process to ensure the client gets value from every meeting we have. If I get a good score it prompts me to ask for a referral. I’ll now be adopting the scripts above to see if it works any better or creates a better conversation.
I’d value your thoughts on this vitally important subject and would love to hear your experiences about asking for referrals. Please add your comments below.