Close Close

Financial Planning > Charitable Giving

The Referral Coach

Your article was successfully shared with the contacts you provided.

Bill Cates saw his future on exactly the fifth sales call he went on with the company he worked for right out of college.

For the previous four calls, he had simply ridden shotgun and watched how the sales manager, Larry, handled the potential customers and pushed the home improvement products they were selling. Now on the fifth attempt, he was getting his first shot to actually run the show. “It went great,” says the 49-year-old Cates. “I made the sale without a hitch.”

There was only one problem: When he happily returned to the car, Larry wouldn’t let him start the ignition, saying instead, “You forgot the most important part, kid. You forgot to get the referrals.”

Cates eventually got the referral that night and learned from the experience the importance of focusing on that aspect of salesmanship. Now, over 20 years later, he’s busily sharing his own lessons on the subject of referrals through his consulting firm, Referral Coach International.

“I was fortunate enough to learn the importance of referrals early on in my sales career,” Cates says with a nod to that fateful night with Larry. “I’ve since then tried to focus on that aspect of business.”

For the past six years Referral Coach International, based in Silver Spring, Maryland, has been teaching financial services professionals the art of getting referrals, primarily running seminars for the representatives of large institutions like American Express Financial Advisors, Merrill Lynch, Solomon Smith Barney, Prudential Securities, New York Life, and Northwestern Mutual. Two years ago, however, Cates set up a two-day seminar, held twice each year, called The Unlimited Referral Bootcamp for small, independent financial planners, insurance salesmen, and estate attorneys. “It’s only for people involved in financial services,” he says of the course that costs $995.

At the Bootcamp as well as in the institutional version of his seminar, Cates teaches advisors what he calls a comprehensive and systematic approach for getting referrals. He calls this system “The Unlimited Referrals Marketing System” and bases most of it on the concepts in his book on the subject Unlimited Referrals (Thunder Hills Press, 1996).

The system begins with a fundamental approach to investment services in general. Cates stresses making the entire process into an “experience” that will not only be memorable for the client but one that they will want to share with others. “There are a lot of ways to go about this,” Cates says, “but the main thing is that you want to inspire them and teach them, make them excited about the financial process in their lives.”

Yet where Cates really excels, is in giving advisors a method for actually asking for the referral. He says that many advisors rue this aspect of their business, afraid to appear unsuccessful before the client in having to ask for referrals; nervous about hassling a client that might be important to their business; or possibly afraid of meeting rejection from someone they know. “These are all fears advisors deal with when looking for referrals,” says Cates, “but if they have a professional system for asking, they will come to look on it more in a business-like manner.”

Cates has developed what he calls the “client centered approach,” which comprises a number of neat tricks to get around these trouble spots. For instance, Cates says an advisor will always want to ask for the referral after they believe value has been given. The advisor will ask the client if they believe they have benefited from the process, and will then say, “Now what people do you know that can also benefit from what I’m doing for you?”

“It’s a very subtle point, but it’s important,” says Cates. “You want to make it so that the client feels they are helping the people they are referring rather than helping the advisor build their business. You want to make it so that they want to give you that referral, and you look as if you want to help their friends and family rather than help yourself.”

During his seminars, attendees role play with each other–one person as the advisor and one as the client–to practice the system they have just learned, including how to deal with objections to giving referrals should they arise. “The role-playing may sound a little weird at first, but think of it as practicing the fundamentals,” Cates says. “Cal Ripken has to go to spring training. So do advisors.”

Cates should know. Following a short stint under Larry’s tutelage with the home improvement company, he began selling group travel packages to travel agents for American Airlines. From there, he opened his own publishing company, where he says the trick was to convince bookstore chains to buy copies of the 50 or so titles he published.

When the publishing company was eventually bought out, he went into the sales training business, crisscrossing the country to teach salespeople of all industries how to refine their craft. “It was funny, though,” he says, “My strong suit was always in prospecting and finding clients, and I found there was a particular need in this area in the financial services industry.”

With this in mind, he wrote Unlimited Referrals, and then further decided to specialize in the financial services arena. The result, of course, is Referral Coach International, the Bootcamp, and success stories like the one told by Hillery Schanck, a Virginia-based planner with IJL Wachovia. “One of the most difficult things I encountered was the idea of asking clients for referrals. I saw it as a sign of weakness,” says Schanck. “(Cates) gives you a system of how to ask, when to ask, and those things have been helpful for me.”

Referral Coach International can be reached at 800-488-5464 or at its Web site,