A friend and former colleague recently pointed out to me that one of the trickiest areas of communication for professionals has to do with referrals. Referrals in and referrals out.
Most professionals and entrepreneurs live and die by referrals. Existing clients may be the bread and butter, but new clients represent growth and diversification.
Compared to advertising, cold-calling or buying books of business, referrals provide a stream of clients who are (generally) pre-qualified as to economic and professional value; that is to say, referrals tend to pay their bills and provide interesting work which can enhance your reputation.
The problem is that the ecology of referrals is a very delicate one and the management of referrals received and sent is very sensitive.
I won’t specifically get into “how to get referrals” -- you need to speak to my friend Michael Hughes, the “Networking Guru” about that! Our discussion will be about the management and etiquette of the referral relationship and dealing with referrals in and out.
As entrepreneurs and professionals, you need to discriminate as to the clients you want. Good clients will make you, and bad clients will break you. Knowing this, the very first principle of referral is that you want to receive and give good referrals.
Who are the good clients?
A simple but powerful tool for assessing the value of a client is the A-B-C-D grid. In various iterations, it has been around forever. Here’s my personal take on it:
The “A” clients are a dream-- causes no grief, but provides both profit and professional satisfaction. They are to be treasured. The “B” clients provide less profit and satisfaction, but are not costly or difficult to maintain. With skill and patience, we turn “B” clients into “A” clients.
Parenthetically, keep in mind that the grid must fit your business. If you are an aspiring criminal defence lawyer, Jack the Ripper, facing hanging, could be an “A” client.
Everyone understands that you should never take “D” clients, but it is the “C” client who is deceptive. We look at the profit they can yield and overlook the grief they cause us and our staff. More important, “C” clients tend to be disloyal and treacherous, and when you stop coddling them or can’t satisfy their intemperate demands, they will turn on you. If you have them, ditch them, and never allow another one through the door.
So, this takes us back to referrals. Sending somebody a “D” client is an insult. Sending someone a “C” client is like giving them herpes. You should avoid doing these things. If you don’t have a good feeling about the individual or the subject matter, take a pass. Let somebody else look bad. The Lawyer Referral Service and the Yellow Pages are perfect for this.
Whether it’s a matter of karma, “being a mensch” or just having personal ethics, make sure the referrals you send out are good ones. To paraphrase the Golden Rule, “Refer unto others what you would want referred unto you.”
Cultivating Your Referrers
Dealing with in-referrals is one of the trickiest, yet most beneficial, aspects of any business. Good referrals are hands-down better than clients who find you from advertising or surfing the internet. Referrals come through the door predisposed to you and your services, and tend to be less price-sensitive.
The most important thing you must do with your in-referrals is to look after your referrers. In order to do this well you need to monitor the process-- nowhere is Peter Drucker’s adage more true: “You can’t manage what you don’t measure.” Never leave this to chance. Without tracking in-referrals, none of the following can be achieved.
Once you have a good handle on who is sending you what, you are able to begin to respond to your referral sources. And the first thing to do is evaluate them, using the ABCD grid discussed in the last Friday Briefing.
Just as you would with D and C clients, you will want to rid yourself of D and C referrers, although perhaps not as abruptly. Referrers who send you undesirable clients, or who send them with lots of strings attached, should generally be discouraged. You won’t do this without first thanking them for their good intentions and diplomatically explaining why their referred clients are not what you are looking for. By having this discussion you may actually convert the C referrer into a B referrer.
Your B referral sources need to be treated like gold and your A referrers as diamonds. Here are some of the keys to doing that:
1. Reflect well on them. By being stellar yourself, you endorse their referral to you and you make them look good.
2. Treat the referred client as special. Sometimes a token discount is appropriate, but always go above and beyond.
3. Speak well of the referrer. The word will get back.
4. Promptly and sincerely, thank the referrer. This is true even if the referrer is you business partner.
5. With your new client’s permission, report back to the referrer in a professionally appropriate fashion.
6. Make the referrer part of your “team”. Consider doing outreach events together.
7. Hold “thank you” events for your best referrers, let them know that they are special to you.
8. Thank the referrer in tangible ways-- take them to lunch or to a hockey game, send a Christmas basket or a bottle of good wine, let them know that they are appreciated. Some professional bodies limit the quantum and nature of such gifting, but within your parameters, don’t be chintzy.
But the most important rule of all? It’s this: If you want plenty of good referrals, above all else you need to show yourself worthy of the trust, that you are the “go-to” person in the field, and that referrers are actually doing their friends and clients a favour by sending them to you.