Referrals are great – if you ask, and ask the right way

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Growing a professional services business isn’t easy. But if a firm does just a few simple things well, clients will become your raving fans and their introductions to you can increase dramatically.

Let’s face it: Few CPAs have good business development skills. Most CPAs think that going to lunch with a client or an attorney is business development. While these activities may ultimately lead to business development, many times these social meetings are a poor excuse to get out of the office and hang out with someone, hoping that something good comes out of it.


The simplest start to encourage client referrals is to ask for them. Most advisors and CPAs are quite shy when it comes to asking, and I completely understand that. No one wants to sound needy or like a beggar. But as a business owner, everyone also knows that if you are not growing, you are dying. I don’t know about you, but in times like this, I think of the movie “Ghostbusters,” when actor Rick Moranis, portraying a nerdy CPA, uses the line, “Who does your taxes?” Let’s just say that that isn’t going to do it.

The solution to encouraging introductions from existing clients is that you need a script of sorts that you begin to use that also sounds and feels appropriate. There are many coaching programs out there for teaching you how to properly cultivate referrals and introductions — and I encourage you to investigate them so your firm can develop a process, rather than shoot from the hip. The hardest part is developing the comfort to use your words to ask for introductions. You will be uncomfortable with the first few asks, but it will eventually become second nature.

This is also not the type of conversation that you want to harass your clients with at every visit. Once a year is adequate — but your other methods of communication should also indicate that the firm is accepting new clients. This may be through your Web site, newsletter, or events that you may hold.

Before you develop your script and turn this ask into a process, let’s define what you are asking for. In general, many firms have a new client pipeline that would plot out like a traditional bell curve in terms of client quality. There will be an A client or two, a D client or two, with the bulk of your new business falling smack dab in the middle of B or C clients. If you practice your new language with anyone who can fog a mirror, then your new client flow may indeed increase — but it is not likely to improve. My suggestion is to take this opportunity to change the conversation and be more deliberate about what you are asking, so that your new client flow begins to lean more favorably toward the A and B level clients. Over time, you will get what you ask for.

That said, I would begin this process by only speaking to your existing A clients about making introductions. Your existing top clients are usually the ones who like you most, and are most likely to speak favorably about you. These clients are important to you, which warrants these conversations to be more formal than a phone call or an e-mail — this conversation is worth a breakfast or lunch meeting.

Your best clients also have other common attributes. They are usually successful, hang out with people like themselves, and own a business where they understand the significance of business development. We have experienced many different outcomes from this effort. The outcomes range from nothing — clients look at you with a vacant stare and simply don’t want to be involved in making introductions — to the client who is willing to host an event to introduce you to those they know with the utmost confidence that it will reflect well on them.

If you choose to develop more selective language, your first-year results from introductions and referrals may lag the prior years — but at least you will only get these great new clients. Done well, your rate of new client introductions will be back up to the level that you used to get — except they’ll all be outstanding A and B clients that really need what your firm has to offer.


Your results with business development in general, and particularly with referrals and introductions, will very much be based on the context of your clients’ actual experience with your firm. This is the part of the program where you get what you give. So, if you give lip service to wealth management clients and don’t clearly stand way above anyone that your clients have worked with in their past, you are swimming upstream. Your services must clearly be distinct from all the noise and the sales pitches that they’ve had to endure for most of their adult life.

It doesn’t matter how good a service provider you think you are. What matters most is what your clients think of you and the services that you deliver. To discover what our clients thought of us, we embarked on a rather lengthy (and costly) process of hiring an outside firm to perform primary research. This firm interviewed our top 25 clients and found out, in their words, what they like about us, why they use us, and what specific services we provide that endear us to them the most. The results, I’m proud to say, were quite good and the language of our top clients became embedded into our story of who we are and why clients work with us.

The wisdom for those just starting to build a process for business development lies in the believability of the story that you tell. If you paint a picture of nirvana, and your clients don’t feel that nirvana-like elevated experience — your attempts to drive referrals and introductions will fail. Your firm’s story has to be the real story — one your existing clients completely believe in. If the results from your client research or your gut feeling is that your firm doesn’t exceed expectations and provide an exceptional client experience in the wealth management arena, then you must make your story more believable or begin to shape your service model to elevate the service and client experience.

Do not short-cut this process. Too many wealth management firms have the “all things to all people” style of business development. When trying to upgrade a client base from the traditional bell curve of clients to a client list of all A’s, you simply can’t be all things to all people.

The most successful wealth management firms have established a minimum level of service for which they are willing to engage. Some tout this minimum in terms of asset size and others in terms of minimum fees. My team usually talks about minimums in terms of the minimum amount of time that we feel will be needed to do a comprehensive overview of the client’s current situation with advice on everything and anything financial. This process ranges from 20 to 40 hours for a simple case to hundreds of hours for very complicated cases. And yes, the fees have ranged from a low of a few thousand dollars to highs of $100,000-plus.

To my team and the clients that we serve, being comprehensive and proactive is important, so we never deviate from the service model. We simply want to be known as the clients’ personal financial head coach. Our theory is that very little happens on the field of our clients’ financial lives where we were either not aware or a part of the process.


Once your service level is defined or improved to the point that you are confident that it will compete favorably with your clients’ other service providers, it is time to implement your communications plan. I’d start with a few one-on-one meetings with your best clients as we discussed at the open of this article, but then I’d be sure that you are sending this message in a few more ways.

Your Web site must be a welcoming place. Any client that is talking you up to another possible A client is not something that converts to a new client right away. That prospective client will check you out in every possible way. They’ll look at your Web site. They’ll scour through your social media — looking for professional corroboration as well as inferences and evidence about your personal character and family. They’ll read anything you’ve written. They’ll watch your videos. They’ll listen to your podcasts. In short, this is probably the big hidden secret about having a large Internet presence and social media footprint — it is a wonderful source of learning and corroboration for prospective clients.

As you can now see, there is no shortcut to improving your client referral engine. To summarize, you must know how you fit into your best clients’ lives, build your service model to elevate the client experience, and then build a tasteful communications plan to let your best clients know that you are always available for a second opinion or to help someone who is important to them.

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