From the March 2012 issue of Investment Advisor • Subscribe!

February 22, 2012

Seven Steps to Increase Referrals

Many advisors dislike asking clients for referrals, but most recognize it’s the most efficient way to increase their business. Having a concrete process in place can make the task less daunting

Illustration by Getty Images/Sally Elford Illustration by Getty Images/Sally Elford

Referrals fuel the financial services industry, and without them your client base could plateau and eventually dwindle. Getting referrals is a challenge advisors face daily. It is not a matter of simply asking a client if they know anyone needing your services.

While most advisors will tell you that they get most of their new clients through referrals, if you ask them what their referral process is, they may explain that they don’t really feel comfortable proactively asking for referrals. Or they may tell you about their client/ask-a-friend events. Few will describe a systematic process whereby they explain to their clients their objectives for the business and for referrals.

Simply assuming that your clients know what types of clients you’re looking for—or that you’re even looking to bring in new clients—can be risky. For example, an advisor we spoke with recently discovered that in all the years he’d been hosting client/ask-a-friend events, his clients had no idea that his objective was to get referrals.

One of the best ways to learn how to comfortably approach the referral topic with each and every client is to do so in a dedicated meeting and not in conjunction with a client review meeting. It is during this separate meeting that you will be able to uncover how truly comfortable they are in referring you.

There are a number of benefits to a carefully planned, dedicated meeting. You can:

  • Gain more business and referrals from existing clients
  • Expand your business without an expensive marketing campaign
  • Improve your clients’ understanding of your business and services
  • Utilize the expertise of your clients to improve your business
  • Identify current service gaps and improve client satisfaction
  • Improve client retention
  • Improve your consultative sales, active listening and group facilitation skills
  • Convert clients into advocates for your business

As you plan these meetings, there are five things you should keep in mind:

  • Clients have to value your service and products enough to refer.
  • Clients have to know all of your products and services.
  • Clients have to know that you want to grow and who an ideal client would be.
  • Clients have to have a comfortable plan when they meet someone.
  • You have to know how to comfortably approach the topic with each and every client.

In these annual meetings, you’ll be able to update clients on your products and resources as well as on your growth objectives and the ideal client profile. In addition, you’ll be able to collect feedback on their experience and how you can make it even better than it is currently.

Meeting Planning and Implementation

While the idea of an additional meeting with your best clients may seem daunting, it is actually quite manageable. If you spend one hour with 50 clients over the course of the year, that’s 50 hours; factor in an additional 20 hours of planning time for a total of 70 hours. When you consider the potential increase in good-fit referrals, it’s an excellent use of your time.

Step 1. Develop Objectives

In our coaching work with advisors, we recommend a seven-step process. The first step is developing your objectives, both in terms of what you want to talk about and what you want to learn about. For example, your objectives could be stated as follows:

  • Ensure my best clients have a clear understanding of my value proposition
  • Ensure my best clients understand my growth objectives and ideal client profile
  • Get feedback from key clients about their experience with my firm
  • Learn how to improve key clients’ experience with my firm
  • Get insight into the best way to work with clients to gain more recommendations

Step 2. Select Clients

The next step is selecting clients to participate in the meetings. This involves taking a look at your relationship with the client, both in terms of quality and profitability, as well as identifying the client’s sphere of influence. You’ll also want to evaluate how likely the client would be to refer you and how effective an advocate he or she could be. Finally, be sure you know exactly what services or products you’re providing to this client and whether he or she is aware of the full range of services you offer.

Step 3. Structure the Meeting

A rough structure for your client meeting looks like this:

Introduction (3–5 minutes): Share the purpose of the meeting, explain what you hope to accomplish and summarize the agenda.

Presentation (20–25 minutes): Provide a comprehensive overview of your business plan and business model. Reinforce the value you provide and describe the kind of clientele that can benefit most from your service.

Discussion (20–25 minutes): Engage in a candid dialogue with your clients, asking questions about what they value, ways to improve their experience with your business and how they would like to be approached about referrals.

Questionnaire (10 minutes): Ask your clients to complete a written questionnaire before they leave your office. This survey asks more targeted and specific questions that would be ineffective during the discussion section. You can use both open-ended questions and rating-scale questions such as:

  • How can we improve communication?
  • What is one topic or product you wish that you understood better?
  • How would you explain your experience with us?
  • How accessible do you feel we are to answer the questions that you have?
  • When you contact our firm, how well do you feel we resolve any issues that you may face?

Step 4. Request the Meeting

Contact clients to request the meeting. Let them know why you are calling and get permission to explain further. Use language to show that you value them highly and have specifically chosen them to participate in a unique event. Explain the purpose of the meeting and the agenda, and let them know how long it will last. Be sure to differentiate this meeting from a client review meeting. This is a separate meeting with a unique purpose.

Step 5. Set the Stage

The next step is to set the stage. Select a meeting space free from distractions—no cell phones, no disturbances by office staff. By setting a professional, productive tone for the meeting, your clients will respond accordingly and give you their full attention. Prepare a take-away folder for them with the meeting agenda, a copy of your business plan documents and the written questionnaire.

Step 6. Conduct the Meeting

When your clients arrive for their meeting, greet them in person and direct them to the meeting location. Start the process quickly as you have a highly structured agenda and need to be productive with their time.

State your purpose, explaining your objectives and summarizing the agenda for the meeting. Transition into the presentation—this is your time to outline your business plan, services and goals for the future. Conclude this part by explaining the role of client feedback in shaping the future of your business.

Next, turn your focus to the discussion and shift your meeting role to that of the listener. This will be a focused discussion with your client about referrals. Ask your questions, give your client time to answer and allow for comfortable silence. Take notes and listen to your client’s opinion. Be sure to leave about 10 minutes for the client to complete the questionnaire in private.

Step 7. Follow Up

Finally, the follow-up will involve taking time to analyze your meeting notes and the questionnaire responses. You’re looking for insights into questions such as: What is my value? What can I improve? What opportunities may exist? These insights will help you create actionable items for improving your practice, improving the relationship with your client and growing your business.

When following up with your client, consider both a phone call and a letter. The letter can be a formal thank you to your client for taking the time to meet and participate in the meeting. On the call, you can address the feedback that your client provided as well as follow up on any opportunities that arose during the meeting.

Since clients are the best consultants for your business, you need a solid process for engaging them in your practice and its growth.

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