[IMGCAP(1)]Looking to increase your business leads? Who isn’t? The best kind of lead is one that comes through a referral. While accountants always welcome referrals, they don’t always actively work to get them.

That’s a wasted opportunity, because client referral programs are easy to implement and provide a huge bang for the buck. So how can you develop a strategy to increase those kinds of leads? Here are just a few simple, low-cost ideas.

Ask some of your best clients to write referrals for you and your firm. Once you get permission, you can post these on your Web site, preferably on the home page and on your profile page.

Once you and others at the firm have multiple referrals, you can have a rotating display on the firm’s Web site. Be sure to thank the clients who offer the referrals. Depending on the client’s preference, a thank you can be as simple as a hand-written note, lunch or other small token.

Develop a Sales Strategy
Don’t wait for referrals to fall into your lap. In a low-key but direct way, ask your current clients if they have colleagues who may need an accountant. You can set up lunch with current clients and their colleagues or friends to provide information in an informal environment.

Take the time to participate in chamber groups and professional associations as a way to create new referral streams. These activities will take you away from your day-to-day work, but it is time well spent.

Refer-a-Friend Programs
A formal referral program will require a little more investment than picking up a dinner tab, but it can quickly pay off. With a refer-a-friend program, you offer clients a discount for referring a friend, colleague or business partner to your firm. Keep it simple. You may want to offer 10 percent or 20 percent off their next matter, or a refund for a percentage off their last matter. Of course, offering the discount on the next matter will encourage them to be sure there is a next matter.

You could also consider offering the referred client a discount for the first matter, as a way to encourage them to try your services.

Depending on your client base, it may have more impact to make a charitable contribution in the name of the person who refers a new client. If you take this route, you should consider providing a list of charities that clients can choose from, to ensure that they are not controversial and are legitimate 501(c)(3) organizations. For many clients, particularly corporate clients, a $50 charitable donation (or whatever amount you see fit) will be more meaningful than a discount off the next matter.

Email Signature Blurb
In order to keep referrals top of mind for you and your clients, include suggestions and information in your email signature blurbs. It takes just a few seconds and doesn’t cost anything.

Keep it short and non-intrusive, such as, “I value your business and I appreciate your referrals.”
Consider creating email settings that will only include the blurb once for each email string. Otherwise, the referral may become annoying during extended email conversations.

Social Media
Don’t underestimate the value of social media to help you get referrals. LinkedIn is one social media site that makes it extremely easy to request referrals. With the click of a button, you can ask specific connections for referrals that are then posted as part of your profile. These types of referrals are particularly effective when looking for business clients. Of course, social media is interactive. If someone writes you a referral, consider writing them one, too.

Whatever programs you choose to use, always personally thank the referrers. Sometimes, that acknowledgement alone will make clients want to refer you to someone else!

Michael Alter, a payroll expert with an MBA from Harvard University, provides thought leadership and advice to help accounting and payroll professionals with practice management and client relationships. Alter is president of SurePayroll, a payroll technology company. He is also a columnist for INC.com and a frequent contributor to Bloomberg TV, The Wall Street Journal, and Entrepreneur magazine.

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