[IMGCAP(1)] The number one source of new business for accountants is referrals. But when I ask partners of CPA firms how many really good or “A” referral sources they have, they can often count the number on one hand. That means that even if they get one good referral per referral source per year, that’s less than five per year. That’s certainly not enough to sustain, let alone grow a practice.

If you find yourself a little low on quality referral sources, all hope is not lost. First; organize your referral source network into three buckets, A, B, and C.  

•    An “A” referral source is one that gives you one or more good quality referrals per year.
•    A “B” referral source is one that gives you one good referral every couple of years.
•    A “C” referral source is one that gives you undesirable and infrequent referrals.

As a partner who is responsible for practice growth, a good target quantity is a minimum of 10 “A” referral sources and a minimum of 10 “B” referral sources. This mixture of referral sources should yield at least 15 good referrals per year, which is enough to sustain and grow a practice. And, ideally, you won’t have any “C” referral sources, because they can waste your valuable marketing time.  

The Best Places to Find High-Quality Referral Sources

1. Your key clients can and should be an “A” or a “B” referral source. You need to ask your clients for referrals and introductions after your delivery of any successful project.
2. Your clients’ attorneys, bankers, and financial advisors are excellent referral sources. If you don’t know your clients’ bankers, attorneys and financial advisors, shame on you.
3. Boards of directors and associations where you serve. These are people that already share a commonality with you. Explore relationships with this population of people!  
4. Your fellow partners’ referral networks. Exchange contacts and discuss how you could open doors for each other. For example your partner meets with his/her referral source, his/her referral source brings someone else from that firm, and your partner brings you.
5. LinkedIn and other social media outlets.What used to take days and months, can take merely hours. Scour your online networks for links and connections that would be desirable and request introductions.

Once you’ve exhausted these avenues, the next best place to look is networking receptions at high profile business events (such as those sponsored by your local business journal), networking opportunities at business and industry-centric association and educational events, small group receptions between firms, and other events where desirable referral sources “hang out.”

Cultivating and Sustaining your Relationships

There are a few ingredients to building and sustaining high quality referral relationships.  These include frequency of contact, shared interests, offering items of value (such as articles on trends), education as to what you’re looking for in terms of referrals, and of course reciprocation of referrals or other items of value such as introductions to others in your network

A good rule of thumb is that you should be touching your “A” referral sources quarterly, and your “B” referral sources twice per year. If you can convert a “C” into a “B” through a little nurturing, education on what you are looking for, and of course, how you can reciprocate and help them too – this will be a worthwhile use of your time. 

At the same time, ideally, you will work on converting your “B” referral sources into “A” referral sources.Just remember, not everyone is built to be an “A” referral source – which is why it’s OK to have a good number of “B” referral sources that aren’t always producing, but do produce good opportunities from time to time.

It Takes Time, so Don’t Give up

Don’t forget that building a referral network with 10 plus “A” and “B” referral sources takes time. You have to put months and years of effort into it before you start to reap the rewards of your hard work. Just think about the rainmakers in your firm who seem to get tons of great referrals all the time – it took them their entire career to get where they are today.

I equate it to the time and energy I have to invest in making my one of my signature dishes Braised Beef Short Ribs. I’ve made it a couple of dozen times – and the first few times it wasn’t exactly what I had hoped for. However, even now that I’ve perfected my technique - this delectable and satisfying dish takes all day to make - but when I finally get to enjoy it, I know that my hard work has paid off.

Art Kuesel is a director of consulting services for PDI Global, Inc. and works exclusively with CPA, law, and financial services firms across the country meeting their most significant marketing and business development challenges. He currently works one-on one with more than 30 CPA firm partners in a coaching capacity helping them build, sustain, and enhance their personal marketing efforts.  He also enjoys gourmet cooking and travel with his wife, Colleen. Art can be reached at akuesel@pdiglobal.com  or 312-245-1745.