by Tony Vidler
Why so many professionals struggle to get referral business consistently generally comes down to 2 things:
1. They don’t position for them
2. They aren’t prepared in advance
Something like one-third to a half of the people we engage with might be prepared to provide referrals – IF we ask for them, and IF we have done so thoughtfully and at the right time.
The reality is perhaps up to a third of consumers will never give you a referral no matter what you do, and a similar proportion will perhaps give you a referral no matter what you do. Some people always will just because you asked nicely, and some people never will no matter how nicely you ask.
For those “maybe’s” in between the difference between having them refer or introduce you to other good prospective clients or not comes down to how we position the concept, and then how we go about doing the actual asking. Let’s accept straight away though that the majority of people are comfortable with providing referrals, or referring their friends directly to a particular professional. It is continually the most effective source of new business for successful professional services firms, and if anything even more importance is placed upon it as a source of finding a trusted adviser by the consumers themselves.
Notwithstanding the increased importance placed upon word-of-mouth recommendations it has pretty much always been the case that the majority of people are very comfortable referring a professional who has done a fine job for them to the people they like or care about who need similar help. When I say “the majority” we are talking about something like two-thirds of the people you know and deal with.
I bet the answer is somewhere in the hundreds, so the opportunity is massive isn’t it? IF we position properly and then are prepared to ask professionally and without creating a sense of immediate obligation (so no “pressure” tactics). If you aren’t doing those 2 things then you are probably letting hundreds of potential clients go to a competitor each year.
Positioning for referrals means establishing in the customers mind several things:
1. an expectation that you will be referred, if worthy
2. assuring the customer that they are in control of deciding if, or when, you should be referred
3. ensuring the customer knows who you deliver the best value to, and how
Doing this successfully every time, with every customer, requires you to have a process. It cannot be left to chance…perhaps a third will never give you a referral, but two-thirds will, right?
Generally the right time in your meeting or interview process is to position expectations relatively early in the customers mind – but it is only positioning expectations, not asking bluntly for names of people they know at the outset. In fact I am a fan of not asking bluntly at any stage for names directly, as I feel that it creates a sense of pressure to deliver which makes most customers feel uncomfortable, perhaps even to the point of jeopardising the business at hand. The business at hand, doing the work you have been engaged to do by this particular client, must always be paramount of course. Anything which makes that client feel that their business is secondary jeopardises the relationship and engagement.
I believe that the optimal approach in positioning for referrals is to position a conditional expectation very early in the engagement, and then refer back to it once you have met the clients expectations about handling their own business.
That means right back at the beginning, perhaps when working through the initial meeting agenda or scope of service, we introduce the explanation that our preference is to work on a word-of-mouth or personal introduction basis. The exact wording should be carefully considered, taking into account the typical apprehension that any customer might have about recommending a stranger (which you probably still are).
Later, and only after you have demonstrated your professional expertise and met or exceeded the customers expectations concerning their business requirements, you have earned the right to remind them of your expectation that they will recommend you when appropriate.
The principle of reciprocity will often be in play if you have done it this way. Having done good work for them (especially if you did exceed expectations) creates a stronger sense of obligation on the customers part to return favour. It is far more powerful when positioned in such a way that there is no overt expectation of immediate reciprocation. Bluntly asking for names (no matter how elegantly we word the request) positions us as wanting an immediate payback…it is akin to saying “you owe me” – and we then wonder why people squirm when asked for referrals?
Being referred by customers, or as I prefer “being recommended”, is not a right of ours. It is not an obligation on the part of the customer. So position it as it truly is – something we hope the customer will do as and when they feel it is appropriate….when we are worthy.
Putting the customer in control of the process; positioning the clear attitude of “I know I have to work for the right”; creating a mood of reciprocity; and; never losing sight of the fact that your primary role and focus is to deliver to that particular customer right there and then is how we position successfully for ongoing referrals.
Preparation is planning isn’t it? So the not-so-secret element of “preparation” is, well, actually preparing. Thinking ahead and working out what you are going to do, and when, and how….that is preparation. That means scripting – or planning – what you want to do in advance.
Think about your advice or engagement process and work out where it makes the most sense to introduce the expectation that you will be recommended if you earn the right.
Think about where in your process it makes the most sense to remind clients that you would appreciate being recommended, taking into account the need for you to meet their expectations before you can even consider being recommended in reality.
Part of your preparation is working out where those moments are. A bigger part of your preparation is ensuring that you diligently use the process every time, with every engagement. Your positioning for recommendations must be consistently present and consistently used if you are to get referrals from the majority of customers.
By far the most important element of the preparation though is scripting the words you want to use. Thinking about the emotions at play and the psychology of the customer and understanding some words transfer control and empower people, and some words make others feel manipulated or cornered. The words you use make a difference to your success in this area, so think about them and craft them carefully.
“If you feel that we deserve it and the work we do is valuable for you, then we’d like to think that you would consider recommending us to others who might also need…..”
“You may recall that I mentioned way back at the beginning that I prefer to work on a personal introduction basis – I find that the clients I enjoy working with and give the best value to tend to mix with and know people like themselves – so my clients tend to be great at introducing me to others that are like themselves. Can I ask if you do feel that any of your friends, family or professional colleagues happen to be talking about (whatever your professional expertise is) that you consider giving them my name and a brief introduction?”
Thoughtful preparation matters. It helps position you every single time with every single customer. Introducing it as part of your process ensures you give yourself a chance of getting recommended by the maximum number of people, to the maximum number of people. Talk to them before they talk to your competitors.
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