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The (nearly) foolproof way to contact a referral

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Once you receive a referral to a new prospect, the initial phone call to that prospect is very critical. You don’t want to do or say anything that will hurt your client’s relationship with your referral source (or your relationship with your client). You want to be proactive, but not aggressive.

You’ve probably discovered that not all referral prospects are created equal. Some prospects are very open to your call, while others remain guarded. Over the years, I’ve used a contact strategy that works effectively with all types of personalities. If you reach an open person, the strategy works. If you reach a guarded person, the strategy works. I call this strategy Call-Mail-Call. It’s a proven strategy that I’ve been teaching financial advisors for years. What follows are the three steps in this process.

Step 1: The approach call

Instead of sending that “warning letter” that so many salespeople send, just get on the phone. Your agenda is simple — to gain permission to send them a little information, and create a verbal contract to allow you to follow up to discuss what you’ve sent. It’s an easy “yes” for most referral prospects. Open people will not be offended, and guarded people will appreciate the softer approach. (It takes more time to build trust and earn the first appointment with these guarded types, even when contacting them from referrals.) Even though your initial approach is to just send information, you can still end up with the appointment. I’ll show you how.

After you introduce yourself and mention the name of the friend, colleague, or family member who introduced you, you tell them you’d like to introduce yourself by way of sending them a bit of information about the work you do and how it might apply to them.

After they say, “I guess that would be okay,” you say, “There’s a lot of information I could send, but I only want to send what’s appropriate to your situation. To make sure I do that, I’m wondering if I could ask you a few quick and simple questions?” This should lead to another easy “yes.” (One caveat: Make sure you say “quick” questions. This language has been tested and refined over many years of use. Use it!)

This approach allows you to move through their guardedness into a little conversation. Many prospects will open up and give you great information that will allow you to build rapport and trust. With open individuals, in many cases the conversation will reach a point where you can go ahead and ask for the appointment to deliver the information in person. To make this happen, say something like: “Say, Barbara. I was going to mail this information to you, but you know, based on our conversation, I think we should get together as soon as possible. I can bring the information with me. Can we set something up?”

If the prospect doesn’t move to setting an appointment with you, if at all possible, try to get them to agree to scheduling the follow-up call before you end this initial call.

One final note: If you have difficulty reaching the prospect, and you’ve determined that this is a quality prospect worth pursuing, you can send the information without actually speaking to the prospect. You should, however, leave a message on their voicemail, send them an email message or leave a message with an assistant that the information is on its way and that you’ll be following up in a few days. Though not the pure strategy, it can still be effective.

Step 2: The information packet

When mailing information to prospects, my philosophy is “less is more.” There are four basic items you want to send. Any more than four, and you run the risk of sending too much. Your prospect may feel overwhelmed and not know where to begin. Here’s what I suggest sending:

  1. Cover letter: This should be fairly brief, and it should mention the referral source (their friend, colleague or family member) right off the bat. Address some of the things you discussed on the phone in a way that’s of benefit to them. I like my cover letters to be more like “cover notes.” I use a half sheet with my logo. I generate the note through my computer. It keeps my letters short and more informal. One other tip: When you’re getting the referral, make sure you ask your source “What do I need to say to George to get him to take an interest in the work I do?” Use the referral source’s response in your letter.
  2. Testimonial letters (or a sheet of blurbs): Third party endorsements work! The more specific the letter, the better. Your testimonials can describe your service, the process you put people through, the quality of your advice and wisdom. Remember, however, that some financial service professionals cannot use letters that speak to actual monetary performance. They can only talk about your knowledge, wisdom, and service, but not performance. When you have a great client who loves your work, don’t hesitate to ask them for a short letter. Then use the letters (or excerpt them) for testimonial blurbs. 
  3. Articles: Sending articles related to your prospect’s needs, even if you didn’t write them, elevates your status as an expert. Constantly be on the lookout for articles that your prospects and clients might find interesting or valuable. I suggest you underline parts of the articles, or write notes in the margins. This personalizes them.
  4. Brochure: This is an optional item.  Most people don’t read brochures, but they will read the letters and probably read the articles.

Step 3: The follow-up call

Always call your prospect back when you said you would. Discuss what you’ve sent, but, more importantly, have a few thought-provoking questions to ask them. Then suggest that the best next step would be to meet in person. It’s as simple as that! Will everyone want to meet with you? Sorry, no. But if, through your two conversations and information packet, you’ve touched on some important issues and built some rapport and a bit of trust, the appointment is usually easy to get.

Remember, this strategy is designed to work with all personality types, from very guarded to very open. When you reach the open types, if you’re having a very productive conversation, don’t be afraid to adjust in mid-stream and suggest the appointment. But be smart about it. I’m a very open person, but when someone goes for an appointment too quickly, without establishing a strong reason for us to meet, I become guarded. With me, at least, going for the appointment too quickly turns me into a guarded person, whereas the right approach might have kept me open. 

Give this strategy a try. I think you’ll find it to be very effective. Then send me an email to let me know how you faired. ([email protected]

For more from Bill Cates, see:

A more powerful way to look at referrals

9 ways to get more referrals

6 referral seeds worth planting