Referrer management – Grading, Research, Discipline, Storytelling and Leveraging your exemplars

Last week I facilitated MBL’s  full day training session on “Developing more work from referrers and intermediaries”. Delegates were from legal, accountancy and insolvency firms – both M&BD teams and fee-earners. The main takeaways for the delegates can be summarised with the following themes: Referrer management – Grading, Research, Discipline, Storytelling and Leveraging your exemplars.

Grade clients and referrers to support goal-setting

There was some discussion about how firms graded their clients and referrers (both organisations and individuals) with regards to the appropriate strategies for different groups/grades. Colour coding was popular (e.g. Red, Amber, Green). Some firms allocated grades during the on-boarding process and reviewed them regularly.

A notable difference in criteria was between what happened in the past (the historical view) and what is likely to happen in the future (potential and propensity).

There were also variations on factors such as financial (it’s easy to measure revenue and profit) and others such as market positioning, longevity, reliability/security and prestige.

There was also discussion about the use of grading criteria for individual attributes such as seniority, influence, sponsorship and loyalty. Some were also noting personality types to help with matching their team members.

As well as considering the grading of clients and referrers for the firm or particular teams there was recognition of the value of guiding each fee-earner to focus on:

  1. Critical clients, prospects and referrers (around 10)
  2. Key relationships (around 150 – see Dunbar’s Law in Client relationship management (CRM) – how many close social (
  3. Entire network (from 500 to 5,000) – usually through the careful use of social media

Produce a plan to increase discipline

Even with the best intentions and motivation, referrer management activities can be neglected as fee-earners find themselves facing so many demands on their limited time.

Ways to increase discipline (and the formation of good habits) include:

  • Adopt a laser-like focus on a few key targets (supported by analysis and grading exercises)
  • Agree specific and achievable goals on what processes are needed in the short term and results in the long term
  • Describe specific bite-sized tasks for all activities within the context of a succinct plan
  • Schedule regular reminders (with short time slots) so fee-earners can identify just one or two referrer management activities each week
  • Generate regular research to make it easy for fee-earners to initiate a call
  • Provide valuable insights to ensure fee-earners always provide some value-add to those they are speaking to or meeting

Research referrers to enrich conversations

We talked about different methods of researching referrers – whether organisations or individuals.

Exercises using referrer organisation briefing sheets (and scorecards) and an individual buyer profile were thought to be very useful. They demonstrated:

  1. the many “blind spots” about existing and potential referrers
  2. that effective research doesn’t have to take too much time
  3. the huge value in social media information
  4. knowledge gaps could be used to plan agendas and conversations at meetings

Tell stories to persuade

We considered the value of storytelling when talking about your firm and its services.

One of the exercises revealed some fantastic stories that were being used by the delegates’ firms including:

  • The story of a professional who used his skis to travel over five miles through the snow to get to the office to demonstrate the firm’s commitment to always striving to deliver great service to clients
  • A “David and Goliath” metaphor in successfully helping a small manufacturing client beat the intellectual property legal bullying of one of the leading brands in the same sector – and the valuable PR coverage this generated which helped the small manufacturer
  • One firm continually tried regularly to win work from a client that maintained that it was loyal to the advisers it had been using for decades. And when the new firm was able to conduct some work, the client was amazed at how much extra advice and guidance they received which they realised they had been missing out on for years with their former adviser.

Leverage your exemplars to promote good habits

I shared a number of stories about how firms can leverage the expertise and experience of their best (exemplar) business developers:

  • Facilitating regular “Talking to Bob” dinners at a property business where junior, intermediate and senior fee-earners could listen to stories about how he managed to identify, capture and develop significant clients and referrers
  • Using intuitive modelling to learn from a dozen highly-successful partners across the UK by interrogating their most successful client development stories to extract key learning points to incorporate into a playbook and skills training programme
  • Interviewing a variety of brilliant rainmakers in different jurisdictions to extract their best techniques for targeting, networking and developing relationships

In Change management book – Switch (Chip & Dan Heath) (, the authors call this “identifying the bright spots” by using appreciative enquiry to look at what is working well and then emulating the success. In the professions we call this capturing, sharing and amplifying best practice.

This approach works particularly well in firms where there is hesitancy about introducing “corporate” processes that are felt to stymie individual style and entrepreneurialism.

As we progressed through the analysis and planning stages of a referrer management plan, I was reminded of Henry Mintzberg’s model of “Diagnosis. Design. Decide. Do”.

Delegate aims, poll results and discussion points

Delegate aims

  • Opening a new office in the City so need to generate new relationships
  • Raise our profile
  • Supporting partners
  • Build business development skills in junior team members
  • Extend network
  • Expand referrer base
  • Develop a pursuit and communications plan to “love bomb” 2 – 3 target referrers
  • Generate new opportunities and work

Delegates were equally split between a relationship, serendipity cast-the-net-wide and strategic, planned, focused networking strategies.

All delegates indicated that referrals were responsible for over 50% of their work. All delegates spent between 10% and 49% of their time selling.

The main reasons cited for a lack of cross-selling were: everyone is too busy and there is a lack of information about the other services provided by the firm. Delegates acknowledged cross-selling happened in their firms, but they all indicated that it could be more effective if systematic.

The most irritating things people could do when asking for referrals were:

  • Spelling your firm’s name wrong
  • Not having done their homework
  • Not understanding our client base (and whether we are able to offer suitable referrals)

Face-to-face meetings was the most effective way to develop referrer relationships – closely followed by emails and newsletters. Surprisingly, delegates were more likely to use spreadsheets than a CRM for managing client and referrer information. Social media was used by all firms but to varying degrees – there was less activity in sharing joint content and endorsements/recommendations than other methods.

Two thirds of the delegates felt their personalities  were dog and the other third thought they were cats. Half the delegates had a KAM (Key Account Management) programme at their firm.

Future public courses (including referrer management) for MBL SpeakerKim Tasso (

Future courses for members of the PM Forum PM Forum

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