What's your professional firm's marketing strategy for cultivating referrals?

by Barbara Bix and Melissa Josephson Edwards

Chances are your accounting firm gets a lot of its business from referrals:

  • A current or previous client recommends your services.
  • Colleagues in a complementary field recognize a need that you can address for their clients.
  • A marketing consultant calls you because one of her clients heard you speak at a conference or read an article you wrote.

While these introductions are effective when they work, they are far too random to generate new business predictably.

How often do you miss opportunities because a prospective referral source fails to recognize a need that your company can address – or just doesn't remember you when he or she encounters an organization that could use your professional services? If this happens regularly, it may be time to develop a marketing strategy for systematically generating referrals.

How To Identify Effective Referral Sources

In crafting a successful referral strategy, the first step is figuring out who has – or is likely to form – relationships with your most promising prospects. Then, you'll want to systematically build relationships with these individuals, train them to recognize when your organization can add value, and stay high on their radar so that they remember you when a need develops.

The best referral sources are people who know your work. For this reason, it's important to maintain contact with colleagues and current and former clients.

Next, strive to augment your network with consultants and professional service providers who provide complementary services. These individuals are often the first to find out when a need for your services arise. Meet them through organizations to which they are likely to belong.

Examples include university alumni events, religious organizations, or affinity groups that professionals attend, such as women executives, minority business owners, or hobbyists. Pick a few that you will attend regularly because it takes repeated exposure to form strong relationships.

One example of successfully identifying referral sources is a web design agency that specializes in on-line fundraising for non-profit organizations. This company doubled its business when it occurred to the chief designer to cultivate relationships with marketing consultants, lawyers, and other professionals that were already working for these organizations.

After meeting a group of strategic marketing consultants at a professional conference for philanthropy, he developed ongoing personal relationships with them by keeping in regular contact and sending them links to web sites he created which were effective fundraising sites. Ultimately, several referred their clients to this web designer, enabling him to expand the agency's business.

How To Train Referral Sources

An important next step in cultivating referral sources is teaching colleagues how to recognize situations where your professional services company can add value. First, you need to ensure that prospective referrers understand exactly what you do.

Explain your services succinctly without using jargon and be as concrete as possible. Describe the types of situations where your company can add value and the types of companies and individuals who are likely buyers for your services.

One surefire way to help referral sources think of your company is to tell them what events trigger the need for your services.

A marketing communications consultant we know trains her referral sources to look for companies that sponsor a lot of events and therefore need a lot of mailings and sales collateral. An estate attorney always asks, "Who do you know that recently had a child or got divorced?"

Provide referral sources with short case studies that describe the successes you've had with your clients. These illustrative examples are often more memorable than mere descriptions of your skill set.

Specific examples will help referral sources think of clients in comparable situations that would appreciate similar results. For instance, a principal at a public relations agency reliably gets referrals when she tells other marketing consultants how her firm helped a high-tech client launch a new product – and then names the industry analyst and trade journals that covered the story.

How To Follow Up With Referral Sources

It takes multiple impressions to create an impact – and many more to build trust. Therefore staying high on prospective referrers' radar is essential.

Follow up with your referral sources frequently and remind them of your services. If your firm produces a newsletter, send it to prospective referrers as well as clients. If you've published an article, email a note and the link to that article to your circle of colleagues and clients.

In each, remind recipients of how you appreciate referrals and how to recognize situations where your company can add value. When they do refer you, always thank them for considering your company and making an introduction. Then, keep them informed of your progress.

Motivate referrers to think of you by thinking of them first. Email your referral sources information that may help them in their own businesses. Better yet, send a referral their way. Or, when you let them know how much you appreciate referrals, announce that you will provide an award, such as gift certificate for referrals that become clients.

While everyone values referrals, savvy professional service firms leave nothing to chance. Instead, they ensure success by creating a process to systematically identify, cultivate, train, and follow-up with prospective referrers. When they craft referral strategies to showcase the work – and the expertise of their professionals – they reduce the "randomness" of new business development and attract new clients more predictably.

About the authors
Barbara Bix is principal of BB Marketing Plus, a strategic marketing consultancy that works with professional service organizations, and a member of the AccountingWEB Bloggers Crew. Melissa Josephson Edwards is a strategic marketing consultant and an expert in creating marketing communications programs.

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