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Bringing In New Clients From Referrals

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Imagine that you’re the prospect and the advisor tells you this: “Mr. Client, I’m compensated in two ways. First, I get paid through the products I sell. And second, I get paid through the referrals you give me.”

Sounds like a real turn-off, right? You’re not alone in thinking so. Yet many advisors, sources tell National Underwriter, continue to use ineffective and even aggressive techniques to try to pry referrals to friends and colleagues from clients. As a result, they not only fail to get the referrals; they risk undercutting the hard work they expended in winning the client’s confidence.

“Clients don’t want to feel obligated to provide referrals,” says Bill Cates, founder and president of Referral Coach International, Laurel, Md. “That can increase tensions in the advisor-client relationship. It can work against you.”

Why are clients reluctant to provide referrals? Commonly stated reasons, such as “I don’t know anyone” or “Let me think about it and get back to you,” often conceal misgivings that the advisor, in making the request, fails to address. Often, experts say, clients are uncomfortable with the exercise because they haven’t previously discussed financial issues with prospects and they don’t know what to say.

Others are concerned about protecting their contacts’ confidentiality or using their name merely for the advisor’s benefit. Still others don’t want to repeat previous experiences with insurance professionals who inappropriately used their contacts.

“When clients don’t provide a referral, it’s usually because they’re not sure whether they can trust you with their good name,” says Todd McDonald, a certified family business specialist and a principal of Broadstone Advisors, Albany, N.Y.

Adds Cates: “A lot of clients hold back because they don’t know how you will handle the referral. This is the big unknown for them. Their objection is an emotional, knee-jerk reaction to the risk they perceive in providing the contact.”

Personality, among other factors, may make the client more or less likely to refer, observers say. Cates categorizes individuals as somewhere on a continuum of “open” versus “guarded.” Those in the former category, being more outgoing or extroverted, tend to accede more readily to requests for referrals than the latter.

Similarly, women are more likely to refer than men because they’re “more relational beings.” This difference is especially evident in engagements involving couples. All too frequently, says Cates, the husband will resist requests for referrals, only to be countermanded by his wife.

Age may also make clients more or less likely to refer, but sources disagree as to the impact such factors play. Some say that older clients tend to be more “private”– and therefore less inclined to refer–than younger people. McDonald observes, however, that most of his referrals are generated by clients in their 50s and 60s.

Demographics aside, sources note that advisors often have only themselves to blame for failing to secure introductions. Many inexperienced life insurance professionals ask for referrals before they’ve fully earned the client’s trust. The issue may not simply be about timing: Having purchased a product or plan, the client may believe the advisor, though competent, has done nothing extraordinary to merit a recommendation.

“Clients have to make a determination that you’ve provided them with an exceptional level of service,” says Matt Anderson, president of The Referral Authority, Madison, Wis. “Otherwise, there is nothing for them to recommend you. They may object to providing the referral because all you’ve done is your job.”

When expertise or quality of service isn’t at issue, the manner in which the advisor requests the referral may be. Saying, for example, that referrals are a component of one’s compensation or that they’re necessary to grow one’s practice is counterproductive, sources say, because the conversation is now about the advisor, rather than the client.

“You want to make the referral client-centered,” says Cates. “You want to secure the referral based on the value to be provided. That can make all the difference in terms of how clients react to requests.”

Thus, shifting the focus of the request for the recommendation is key. Using such phrases as “I’ve never met anyone I couldn’t help” or “I would love the opportunity to help the people you care about,” says Anderson, can help to reorient the request, lending it a more positive tone.

Also constructive is describing (even in advance of the request) how one would approach referrals. By addressing client concerns about the care or confidentiality with which introductions should be treated, says Cates, the advisor can put the client at ease in making recommendations.

The explanation can be made still more concrete by using an example. Maribeth Kuzmeski, founder and president of Red Zone Marketing, Libertyville, Ill., recommends sharing with the client a story about someone who referred business and how the referral was handled.

If, despite all efforts, the client still objects to providing a referral, what then?

“If the client objects, then don’t press,” says Gregg A Knudten, an Austin, Tex.-based managing partner of the Pacific Southwest and Texas Region of Thrivent Financial for Lutherans. “Just say, ‘If you run into someone someday who could benefit from meeting with me, do me a favor and don’t keep me a secret.’”

But if the client proves amenable, the next step is to make the request specific. Rather than inquiring about people who may also need a product or plan, experts say, the advisor should assist the client in identifying referral prospects. By detailing the targeted individuals–retirees, corporate executives, people concerned about their legacy–the advisor aids in jogging the client’s memory.

“Another really good question is, ‘Do you know people who are nervous about their investments?’ Many advisors have gotten dramatic results by asking this question. The conversation then changes from, ‘No, I don’t know anyone,’ to “Yes–and everyone.”

Alternatively, adds McDonald, the advisor can independently identify targeted prospects, then ask the client for a referral. If, for example, the client is known to be a member of a certain association, the advisor can do a web search on association executives of interest and thereafter request a personal introduction from the client.

Some advisors, however, prefer a more streamlined approach–one that bypasses the client altogether. Tim FitzGerald, a senior partner at TFG Financial, Shreveport, La., and the 2009-2010 council president of New York Life (an honor bestowed on the carrier’s top producer) employs “personal observations” to win new business.

To use the above example, Fitzgerald would approach the association executive after learning about the connection while meeting with the client. When placing a call to the prospect, says Fitzgerald, he might simply note the client mentioned the executive’s name during the meeting, explain his reason for the call, request an appointment and, should the prospect decline, ask whether he might call later to schedule a time to introduce himself.

Does the technique ever backfire?

“No client has ever called me back and asked, ‘Why did you use my name when you called the prospect?” says Fitzgerald. “And, more often than not, the prospect is listening intently when I call because I’ve dropped the client’s name.”

“I’ve always been squeamish about asking a client to do anything for me,” he adds. “So I became an expert at what I’ll call personal observation referrals. With my approach, I’m simply seeing and hearing things during the client engagement and acting on them.”

All well and good. But as Anderson notes, a personal introduction by the client will more easily secure a meeting with the prospect. Only about 15% of the time will a referral result in new business if the advisor is only given a name and contact number. This figure jumps to over 50% if the client first “warms up” the contact by personally recommending the advisor’s services.

Advisors can ease this process for clients by hosting “client appreciation” events. Informal social meetings, such as a wine-and-cheese gathering, a sit-down dinner or a golf outing, are often the preferred venue for personal introductions, particularly among the high net worth individuals, observes Cates. But he cautions that such events are only effective if the advisor tells clients that they should invite friends or colleagues who are potentially interested in doing business.

“It’s always best to be transparent and clear with clients about what you’re trying to achieve,” says Cates.