For lawyers, accountants and surveyors in a network of offices, the challenge of generating referrals (cross-selling) will be all too familiar. Extend the network into strategic alliances and across other firms and the problem is compounded. Referrer management is an important but tricky activity.

It’s a multi-faceted issue, and there is no easy solution. But here are some tips for making progress.

Reward – Start with motivation. Answer the question “What’s in it for me?” from the referrer’s point of view. This will force you to consider the value to the individual who is doing the referring. It takes time to refer someone – doing the relevant research and effectively taking a brief. And to ensure that they are looked after appropriately once they have been referred. And this time could probably be used more productively generating a direct fee for themselves. So how do you make the reward for referring more valuable? Sadly, reciprocity is unlikely on a personal basis (it may be firm or department or network oriented) so you need to look beyond that as a reward. It’s not enough to keep a register of referrals .

Recognition – Professionals should focus on what is important to the client. How does someone know that their client needs to be referred to you? Often advisers will wait until a client asks about something (a reactive opportunity) whereas a more proactive approach requires a broad knowledge of other areas of expertise available and a strong nerve when it comes to engaging with the client on a wider range of issues. Here you need to think about the selling and relationship management (account management) skills amongst those you want to do the referring. Without those skills they may not have the type of relationship that makes it easy to spot the opportunities nor the ability to engage with the client in a way that reveals them. You might find it helpful to provide guidance on the “triggers” – and what to do – when an opportunity to refer occurs.

Relationship – For a referral to take place you need both the right sort of relationship with the client (and the right decision maker there) as well as with the person to whom you are referring. Whilst information about the experts available is good what will facilitate the referral is a strong relationship (built on face-to-face regular contact) with the person to whom you are referring.  The referrer needs to trust the person to whom they are referring their cherished client. There is much evidence to show that people are more likely to refer their clients to people who they have met, and know and like. There’s a raft of internal marketing tools that can help here – including socials, shadowing and secondments.

Research – Rather than plead for “general” referrals, be more specific about what you want. So, for example, research may reveal that another office or firm has lots of a certain type of client. So focus the efforts to achieve referrals in this specific area (e.g. small technology companies that are experiencing fast growth who may have international ambitions). Target one or two  offices or members from whom to generate referrals – or a particular type of work. Perhaps with internal and external campaigns lasting 3-6 months focusing on one type of referral before moving onto the next. Or an even more focused approach would be to research the particular clients from whom you want referrals – then approach their primary contact with the evidence and a suggested strategy to make an approach for the referral. You should have internal systems to track referrals (and reward them) that can be interrogated to identify the “best practice” of the most successful referrers and referees from which others can learn.

Risks – To refer a client requires trust in the person/place to which you are referring them.  There are risks in referring so you must be clear what they are and do your utmost to address/minimise them. Bad news (referrals gone bad) travels faster than good news. Sometimes this requires protocols so that both the referrer and the referee know what will happen once a referral takes place. There should be clear “rules of engagement” (How much to charge? Who to check with? Briefing notes? Who bills? Who pays? Who manages? Who is in control?) about how the referrer will be kept in the communication loop, “handed back” at the end of the transaction and what happens if there is a problem. Needless to say, if the risks outweigh the rewards it simply won’t happen. There are also the risks of “not referring” (e.g. the client goes to a professional or firm outside the firm or network and the core client/business is lost or a non-specialist tries to do the work and it goes pear-shaped).

Reassurance – This links back to rewards. Communication about successful referrals (for the client, the referrer and the referee) keeps it top of mind and provides ideas for clients/matters that might be appropriate for other referrals. But the key point is to communicate that referrals take place and are successful….

Here are a few related links that might help