A man persisting at attacking a wall (Image: Sergey Nivens/Thinkstock)

If you need a plumber, would you prefer to hire someone you found in the local phone book, or someone your neighbor used for a similar problem and recommends highly?

If you need surgery, would you prefer finding your surgeon through your research on surgeons.com or seeing a surgeon who performed successful surgery on a family member or is recognized as the top specialist in his field by your trusted internist.

I’d be surprised if your answer was not the second choice in both cases. People want to meet their professionals through introductions.

(Related: Connect… Build Rapport… Offer Your Help)

This means that even in this digital-social media world, one of the easiest and most effective ways to build your practice is through your existing clients and other people who already know you. Of course, they have to be willing to recommend you to others.

There are two things you can do immediately to facilitate this:

  1. Be referable; and
  2. Be on their minds.

“Being referable” is about developing relationships with your clients and others that go beyond the particular services you provide to them. It’s about knowing them as people and treating them in a way that gets them to want to tell stories — great stories — about you.

Providing great service isn’t enough. The largest of corporate clients hires you based on your relationship with individuals in the organization. Competence and great service are important, but what these individuals want is a sense that you really care about them. Find out your clients’ birthdays and anniversaries. Know what flavor ice cream their children like.

My friend, Stu, is a master at this. In the first few months of our business relationship, he called me to ask for important dates in my life. “I already know your birthday,” he said, “but when’s your anniversary? When is your wife’s birthday? What are your kids’ birthdays?”

I knew exactly what Stu was doing, and I was thinking to myself, I could never just call up a client and blatantly ask about birthdays. He or she would know I was just putting them into my database.

Then, Stu called me on my wife’s birthday and told me to wish her a happy one. He made a similar call for each of my children’s birthdays. He called to sing Happy Birthday to me on my birthday. He called to wish us a happy anniversary. And he kept on calling year after year.

It no longer matters to me that his call to get those dates from me was so transparent. I smile every time he “remembers” one of these occasions.

Stu also knows that “being on their minds” means having as much contact with them as possible. He has found five reasons to call each year that have nothing directly to do with the work we do together. He has assured himself that if I run into someone who needs his services, he’s the one I’ll recommend. He has made me a “referral partner.”

I learned early in my law practice many years ago that my clients were meeting dozens of lawyers each year and tended to refer a friend or business associate to the last lawyer they ran into, rather than to me. It wasn’t that they didn’t think I gave them great service or did good work for them; it was a matter of convenience. They had the card of the lawyer they met last week right there, and it was just easier than trying to find my number after not hearing from me for months — or years.

Now, one of the first places I look when a client consults me to help her grow her business is what contact she has been having with her best clients and other people she knows. “If it has been years since you spoke with some of the clients you might want to replicate,” I tell them, “reach out to them now, just to say hello.”

What to Say

Reach out to the people you already know, especially your best clients — clients you know were satisfied with your work. Have a conversation with them:

  1. Tell them you were thinking of them.
  2. Ask them how they are doing.
  3. Ask them if you provided value to them and in what way.
  4. Tell them that your time with them was (or still is) meaningful to you.
  5. Ask them if you can help them in any way now or in the future — not for a fee — but because you care.

Then watch what happens to the growth of your practice.

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Sandy SchusselSandy Schussel has been a coach and practice development consultant for insurance and financial professionals for the past 20 years. He is an approved MDRT coach and has served as the national sales training director for First Investors and Foresters. He is the author of two books, The High Diving Board, about overcoming fear and Become A Client Magnet, about attracting and keeping clients. Schussel‘s scheduling calendar is available here.