Over the years, we’ve seen many widely varied ways of successfully attracting clients to independent advisory firms, from radio shows to seminars to playing golf to niches as specific as dentists who like to fly fish. Yet despite most marketing gurus’ advice to the contrary, referrals continue to be the single most powerful way to attract clients and build an advisory firm. However, all referrals are not equal, as many savvy advisors have come to realize. While a well-connected client can make more than a few fruitful introductions, even the most proactive clients will typically have a limited stable of appropriate friends and family.
There is another—often better—kind of client referral. Some of the most marketing-savvy advisors I’ve run into greatly enhance their referral networks by working with professional “centers of influence”: mostly lawyers, accountants and high-end insurance agents.
Referrals from these professionals offer many advantages over those from existing clients, both in the number and quality of the clients they refer. For one thing, their clientele is usually a close match with the target clients of most independent advisors: affluent and high-net-worth professionals, executives and business owners. What’s more, those clients obviously are comfortable working with professionals and, for the most part, have shown that they are willing to take advice and guidance. Perhaps most important, these professionals are usually connected with other similar professionals: in their own firms, through professional associations and contacts, and through their own professional networks. Consequently, an effective professional referral network is among the most powerful ways to build an advisory business. For instance, I know one prominent advisor who launched his now successful firm largely by offering free financial plans for professionals in his area.
The drawback is that other professionals are often hard to form relationships with. In part, that’s because they typically bring in a financial advisor to work with one of their current clients, so not only do they have their professional reputation at stake, they also have an existing client relationship on the line. Most often, they will want to coordinate with the advisor on the client’s needs, so a good working relationship is an issue as well. Consequently, professionals tend to be very careful—read “slow”—about forming referral relationships with advisors.
To get concrete answers about how other professionals actually form referral relationships with advisors and what they are looking for in those relationships, investment manager Loring Ward in San Jose, Calif., asked Mike Maslansky, CEO of communications consulting firm Maslansky + Partners, to conduct one of his interactive panels at its Advanced Symposium in Austin, Texas in October. The Maslansky panel consisted of 12 accountants and estate planning attorneys who work with affluent and high-net-worth clients and have referred other professionals to their clients in the past. These panelists listened to a number of advisors’ pitches for forming a referral relationship, and each panelist had one of Maslansky’s patented feedback meters so they could indicate the degree of their positive or negative reactions to what they heard as they were hearing it.
It’s an amazingly revealing technology that let the advisors in attendance see how the panelists responded to the way advisors described their firms, their work and the kind of relationship they were looking for. As Maslansky explained: “We all may think that we are rational, but when it comes to communication, we’re highly emotional beings. We react first in our gut and then in our head. These dials allow us to get into the hearts of our participants.” For independent advisors who work with other professionals—or who want to—the panel provided invaluable insights into how professionals see them and what they want to hear.
To help advisors get into the hearts of professional centers of influence and form valuable working relationships, here are two “Don’ts” and three “Dos” that stood out in the Maslansky panels:
• Don’t tell other professionals how to do their job. This may be the quickest way to turn off a potential referral partner. “The second advisor rubbed me the wrong way,” said one panelist, referring to an advisor presentation. “He reminded me of a wealth advisor who was in my office just the other day to talk about doing some business together. He had a client who needed some planning, and I didn’t like it because he said: ‘We need a little C-Corp and then we need to do this, this and that,’ and I was supposed to be taking notes and just be the executor. I’m like: ‘A C-Corp? I haven’t formed one of those in years. Are they going public or what?’ And he said: ‘Well, no, but that’s what he needs.’ That is not a team-based approach. It’s the advisor telling the lawyer how to do my stuff and also doing the financial advising.” Note to advisors: To work with other professionals, the relationship has to be based on mutual respect. If you want them to let you do your job, you have to let them do theirs.
• Don’t “oversell” other professionals. Here’s what one advisor said as part of his pitch to form a relationship: “We’re seeing you because you are the best in your class, because you are somebody who’s an expert in your area. We don’t just partner with anyone.” Sound good to you? The professional panelists didn’t think so. Here’s how one of them captured the sentiment of the group: “It’s the first time we met, and you have no idea what I do. How do you know what I do? If we know each other and the situation calls for it, great, a compliment would pull me in. But if it’s fake, I mean, come on.” Just like financial advisors, other professionals become attuned to when people are being disingenuous. There’s probably no faster way to lose credibility than to blow smoke at them.
• Do give as much detail as you can about how you work with your clients and other professionals. “The last advisor got the highest positive ratings we’ve seen, when he gave about 10 examples of how he was going to keep you informed,” observed Maslansky. One panelist explained her reaction: “I liked the specifics because when I’m talking with a client, I can let them know exactly what they can expect from the advisor: how frequently they’re going to meet with them, contact them to review a plan or make recommendations. I like the specifics.” Added another: “I like the specifics too because it sounded like he’d done that before. Those examples are all problems that I’ve seen, and it sounded like he had a lot of experience and knows what he’s doing.”
• Do form relationships to get referrals. This is probably the most important takeaway from the panel: Where do professionals meet the people they refer their clients to? Virtually all of the panelists said they tend to refer clients to professionals they already know through the organizations they belong to. “We meet [our referral sources] through our own networking circles, the chamber of commerce, BBB, metropolitan breakfast club, that sort of thing,” said a CPA who’s been practicing for 18 years. “You have to create relationships that way before you’re going to trust people with your clients.” Added an attorney: “As a general rule, I’ve meet [my referrals] all through Rotary Club. They tend to be willing to invest their time in the community helping to do the good works.”
• Do give referrals to others. There’s no better way to establish a relationship by making a referral of your own. An estate planning attorney put it this way: “It really is a matter of building a relationship. Many times, a financial planner will refer someone to me, so I feel like they’ve trusted me. And that goes a long way toward me trusting them.” Said another: “To be brutally honest, the quickest way to get on my top three referral list is to refer a client to me and I see that you do a good job with them. The most common way I get financial planners on my list is by working with them in that way.”
As the Maslansky panel revealed (there really is no substitute for seeing people react to actual presentations), while accountants and attorneys may be great referral sources, these are not easy relationships to establish. They take time and effort. They also take careful thinking about what an advisor is going to say and how they are going to say it. Maslansky summed it up this way: “When we talk about using communication to build trust, it’s not what you say that matters, it’s what your audience hears.”