How to ask for referrals from existing clients. Excerpt from: Growing Your Client Base, Paul Denvir and Kevin Walker, 2006
A few years ago I was doing a lot of business development training work for a long-standing banking client. The managers that I was working with had, as one of their key tasks, to develop new business from new customers. Their customer base was in the mid corporate market and each manager typically managed around 40 to 50 relationships. According to independent research this bank’s mid corporate customers were the most satisfied in the UK. This was not a one-off aberration. Quarter by quarter this bank’s customers rated their relationship with their bank – and their bank manager – higher than any other bank’s customers did.
However the managers struggled with the task of new business acquisition and most hated the prospect of being asked to ‘cold call’. On one of the workshops I asked the participating group three questions. Question one was, “How many relationships do you manage? Please write the number down on a sheet of paper”. Question two was, “Of the number of relationships that you manage, how many customers have you got who are somewhere between being satisfied and highly delighted with the service that you provide? Will you please right the number down below your first number”.
Question three was. “Of the second number that you just wrote down, how many of these customers have you proactively asked for a referral or recommendation in the last year? Will you also write that number down?”
A pattern quickly emerged. The first two numbers were very similar – and the independent market research substantiated these estimates. However, the third number was usually zero.
Often clients do not realise that professionals, as part of their role, are responsible for new business development. It simply never occurs to them that a referral to a colleague or some other business associate would be extremely welcomed by their advisor. Why? Because the advisor has never raised the issue with the client.
Professionals regularly tell us, “I wouldn’t know what to say or how to say it. I don’t want to put my client under any obligation or pressure”.
“Let’s try this then,” we respond. “You are meeting with one of your clients. You have a good relationship with her and you have just completed a project that has gone extremely well. This is the review meeting and the client has just told you how delighted she is with the outcome of the work. At that point you say to her something along the lines of, ‘I’m pleased that you’re pleased and we look forward to working with you in the future. Also if you think that there are other people in your organisation – or indeed any other business associates – that we should be talking to about our capabilities then I would welcome the introduction’.” Given the context, how painful did that feel?
In asking for a referral two things are important. Firstly there is timing. The subject should be raised when the relationship is on a high. Why would any client recommend the mediocre to a colleague or other business associate? Secondly we have to be comfortable with our choice of words. We are never comfortable with any skill that we have not practised and most professionals have never practised asking for a referral. In our workshops we take professionals back to the scenario of the delighted client and tell them to write down what it is that they would say – word for word, in their own words, words that they will be personally comfortable with. We then get them to practise amongst themselves. It is amazing the improvement that can be seen and the confidence that can be gained through three or four articulations during a few minutes practice.
Having sown the seed the client should be left to decide her own response. Some may just nod, acknowledging that they have heard, but no more. Some will actually respond along the lines of, “I know that the people in our Manchester office are not entirely pleased with the advisors they have been using recently. I’ll give them a call and ………”
We should never put pressure on our existing clients or make them feel uncomfortable. Raising the subject of referrals in a thoughtful, practised way at the right time should not result in embarrassment on either side. In practice we find that once clients realise that business development is an important role for the professionals with whom they work, some will act as a continual source of introductions for those professionals whose abilities and relationships they value highly.
How do referrals work as a marketing tool in the light of the two keys to marketing effectiveness? The answer is that whilst the person to whom the professional has been referred is unlikely to receive any immediate direct value, what they do receive is tremendous insight into what it is like to work with the professional concerned. The referee has months or perhaps years of real life experience that she can share with the person to whom she is making the recommendation.