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When to Ask for a Referral

Although there is little disagreement among professional services providers that referrals are a vital part of practice development, knowing the right time to ask for referrals is difficult for many accountants, financial advisors, financial planners, attorneys, actuaries, bookkeepers, and others. Here is all the information you need to know when to ask for those referrals that will grow your business.

Virtually everyone I meet in the business world understands the value of a referral. People in the professional services industry are no different. Although professional services firms value referrals appropriately and talk about how important and wonderful referrals are, most forget the most important piece in the referral process – asking for referrals.

I have spoken with people who understand the need to focus on bringing value to every client and helping each client as much as possible. Most firms also emphasize the importance in client retention of exceeding client expectations. It is at this point in the conversation, however, that I sometimes feel like I’m in the middle of a bad remake of Field of Dreams.

Too many professional services firms seem to believe that providing value and exceeding expectations will automatically result in referrals with no further action on their part. Doing the job well and providing additional value to a client will not necessarily result in a flood of referrals. You must learn to ask for a referral and you must learn when to ask for a referral. Until you take these steps you will continue to wait in an empty corn field muttering, “If you build it, they will come.”

If you do not ask for the referral, you are not likely to get it. We know this is true, and yet many people are reluctant to ask for a referral because they are afraid. They are afraid a client will say, “Well, your service was not that great.” Others are afraid the client will think them pushy or rude in asking and then not like them or not want to do business with them again. I am convinced by years of experience that if you ask professionally and politely, even a refusal to refer will not ruin your relationship with the client or reflect badly on you in some other way.

Here are my top tips about when to ask for a referral.

1. Ask for a referral when you prepare marketing materials. Any marketing materials you create for existing clients should include a statement like, “Referrals to friends, relatives or business associates are the highest compliments we receive from our clients. We appreciate your referrals.” This statement might be included on a business card, on notepaper attached to completed work with any necessary notes or comments.  

2. Ask for a referral when you create your sales process. A strong sales process will look beyond the first work you do for a client. It will include a process to ensure client retention. Asking for a referral should be part of this process. This might take the form of an up-front contract: “If I can do what I promise, then will I earn a referral from you?” or “I want to do a great job for you. The way I know I have accomplished this is by getting referrals from satisfied clients.”

3. Ask for a referral when you create a follow-up process.Building strong relationships with existing clients requires regular ongoing contact. After you complete a job, contact the client in 5-15 days. Say you are checking in to ensure satisfaction with the work completed and ask if your assistance is needed for anything else. If you have done your job well, the client will be expressing satisfaction with your work. This is the time to say, “I appreciate your comments. Satisfied clients are important to me. I wonder if you are aware of anyone in your circle of contacts that might benefit from the level of service we provide or who might be in need of my help with (name the service)?

4. Ask for a referral when you finish a job.Completing and delivering a job to a client is the time when you have earned a referral. Your final meeting with the client about the job is the perfect time to ask for a referral. If the client is pleased, ask. Don’t make the mistake of assuming the client will know (a) that you want a referral or (b) how to make a referral. Help them help you by asking for a referral and explaining how they can help you. You can even ask if the client is comfortable referring you to a particular person with whom the client has a relationship or to other individuals or companies in an industry with which you would like to start working.

5.  Ask for a referral when you are working your sales or follow-up process with clients. Asking for a referral is a privilege you have earned by doing outstanding work for your clients. You know how to ask professionally. You should not ask for a referral every time you have any contact with a client, but you should include on your calendar or in your meeting notes a reminder to ask one or two times each year (depending upon how often you see clients), and you should not be afraid to ask at appropriate and propitious moments.

6. Be ready whenever a client unexpectedly tell you how happy they are with your service. Don’t just say “thanks.” Have a script prepared in your mind with which you will ask for the referral you have earned.

The first time you ask a client for a referral, you will probably be nervous about the request, and it will probably be difficult. Remember you are asking people who already trust you and know what a good job you do. The trust that is part of your relationship will enable your client to understand the true nature of the request and respond accordingly. By the fifth time, it will be easy to ask. When referrals begin to schedule appointments with youArticle Search, asking for referrals will be much easier. Implementing your sales process will become easier. The growth of your practice will advance exponentially.

Copyright 2010 by David Wolfskehl

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David Wolfskehl is President and CEO of The Practice Building Team, a member of the DGW & Associates Family of Companies. The Practice Building Team helps professional services firms accelerate their growth. To learn more, please visit our web site at David has been an entrepreneur and a guide for entrepreneurs throughout his adult life. After successfully selling his business in October of 2005, David began offering workshops on unlocking the power of your employees. He also started Networking4connections, a consulting firm focused on teaching professionals how to win opportunities to promote their business to A clients

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