Three referrer management themes – Plans, Relationships and Communication

At the recent MBL “Developing More Work from Referrers & Intermediaries” full day digital workshop what emerged from delegate discussions were three referrer management themes – Plans, Relationship and Communication. 

Agree targets and plans

It became apparent early in the session that there was a need for different levels of planning for managing referrer relationships:

  • Referrer programmes co-ordinated across the entire firm (or territory)
  • Referrer programmes for individual fee-earners in their day-to-day networking and relationship management activity

The marketing and BD professionals at the session were naturally more interested in planning for firm-wide and team referrer programmes. They were keen to know how to support these relationships as part of integrated marketing and business development plans. There was some debate about how sector or territory plans best identified, analysed and balanced action for relevant groups of referrers.

The fee-earners at the session were more interested in their personal marketing and BD plans. They needed more pragmatic insights for how they (and their immediate team) developed referrer relationships with those organisations for which they held specific responsibility.

There was a debate about strategies that attempted to “be best friends with everyone” versus those where you concentrated on one or two critical referrer relationships. A compromise was an agreed number of “levels” for different types of referrers that indicated how much time would be developed in each type of relationship and with what activities.  Some firms have a “Red, Amber or Green” or “High, Medium or Low” priority system for referrers.

We spent some time considering how to obtain baseline measures for referrer relationships. And how to set activity and results targets and objectives so that progress and success in referrer management could be measured. It was also important to have a system to measure the time invested in referrer relationships so that the return on investment (ROI) could be calculated.

Some related articles that might help with planning referrer relationships:

Referrer Management and Cross-Selling Insights (March 2021) ( March 2021

Highlights from a referrer management workshop (2020) ( December 2020

pragmatic steps to improved referrer management 2019 ( Dec 2019

Referrer and intermediary management ( March 2018

referrer management strategies for professional service firms ( November 2016

Top ten tips on referrer management (2016 Birmingham) – Kim Tasso April 2016

Referrer management – Planning basics and social media ( March 2016

Nurture relationships

A key aspect of referrer management programmes is the way in which relationships are initiated, nurtured and developed.

More experienced fee-earners will have many years of business development behind them – and therefore a large number of established contacts with referrers generated from networking and other interactions. Their focus was typically on deepening relationships, generating more or different referrals and perhaps introducing younger team members to build in relationship succession.

However, newer and/or younger fee-earners needed first to expand their networks. Growing networks can be tackled in two ways – by connecting with a wide variety of people at many different events or communities. Or by careful targeting and direct approaches or requests for introductions. We discussed the merits of the two approaches. Some found the idea of targeting based on rabbits, deer and elephants helpful.

Relationship building activity is helped if the fee-earners had some fundamental knowledge of how relationships start, develop and grow. This topic draws on a lot of material from psychology. A synthesis is included in my book Better Business Relationships.

In addition to fee-earners needing to be confident in their conversational, social and selling skills (a variety of soft skills are required – see either a short video on soft skills or my book on essential soft skills for lawyers) they also needed basic knowledge of the sales process. We talked about being more detective” by conducting research and asking questions to navigate the different decision-making units in organisations in respect of referrer relationships

We talked about how we reminded, motivated and guided fee-earners to have regular contact with referrers so that our firm remained “front of mind” and the relationship was nurtured. This is a key way in which marketing professionals can support referrer relationships. 

Focus communications

It was acknowledged that good communication skills and focus were essential when initiating and developing referrer relationships.

The communication challenge starts in marketing – with the idea of developing some channels and content purely for referrer segments or specific types of referrer relationships. This focus also continued into the relationship development activities.

We spent some time considering the importance of undertaking research (the process of researching for pitches is similar for that on referrer relationships). This is so that we can develop empathy  with our referrers – to see things from their point of view – and focus communication to topics of interest to them.

Most delegates mentioned that people often missed the opportunity to use social media for social listening to learn more about our referrers. Some firms monitored social media channels carefully to both build their knowledge of key referrers and to provide briefings and prompts to referrer relationship managers.

Many delegates mentioned collaborative or joint social media campaigns with key referrers. There is an introductory book on social media for lawyers – and the principles are the same for other professionals such as accountants or surveyors

One of the discussions was about the most irritating things firms do when approaching your firm for referrals. The common themes were:

  • General emails obviously sent to lots of firms – not unique or special to us
  • They go straight for the sell rather than focusing on the relationship
  • Failed to do their research – asking for the wrong person or not knowing that we don’t do that type of work or serve a particular type of client
  • The relationship is one way only – nothing is likely to come back (reciprocity is explained in this short video and there are ideas on what to do when you can’t reciprocate with referrals)
  • They refer the wrong sort of clients or work to us – despite us providing education and training
  • They ask for confidential client data or attendee lists

There was discussion about the power of storytelling (see a short video on storytelling principles  or read reviews of two storytelling books  or consider material on selling legal services with storytelling). There were some referrer stories shared with a real human element which were interesting and memorable.

Paradoxically, while we need to focus communication for each referrer we also need to equip our fee-earners with a broad knowledge of our firm’s services so that they can be good brand ambassadors and are able to pick up on opportunities for others in the firm.

Many had found the digital channels useful during Covid – to present webinars and organise online socials. And LinkedIn was found to be the most important social media tool for learning about, connecting with and collaborating with referrers. However, everyone was eager for the Covid restrictions to end so that we could return to face-to-face interactions with referrers. It was noted that it was particularly hard to initiate new referrer relationships through digital channels.

Delegate poll results

These are the results from the polls that took place during the workshop

Delegate aims:

  • Build my network
  • Create new referrer relationships
  • Develop existing referrer relationships
  • Support fee-earners in developing their referrer relationships
  • Win more business from referrers and intermediaries

Delegate role:

  • 60% Marketing, business development and selling
  • 40% Delivering professional/technical advice and services to clients

Sector representation:

  • 78% Legal (employment, regulatory, licensing etc)
  • 11% Financial services (loans for SMEs)
  • 11% Accountancy

Topic of most interest:

  • 30% Sales processes
  • 30% Strategy and planning
  • 20% Psychology of relationships
  • 10% Cross-selling to existing clients
  • 10% Working with external referrers

Proportion of work generated by internal and external referrals:

  • 0%      Less than 20%
  • 40% 20% to 50%
  • 30% 50% to 80%
  • 10% Over 80%
  • 20% Don’t know

Which CRM system do you use to track clients and referral sources:

  • 43% Integrated with our finance/billing systems
  • 43% Something else
  • 14% InterAction

Our systems and information for referral management are:

  • 0% Excellent
  • 20% Very good
  • 30% Average
  • 40% Inadequate
  • 10% Non-existent

Three main reasons why cross-selling doesn’t occur at your firm:

  • 55% Everyone is too busy/no time
  • 45% We are in silos
  • 36% Lack of trust between departments
  • 36% No incentive
  • 36% Lack of information about other services
  • 36% Something else
  • 18% Client resistance

Most effective activities for building referrer relationships (during Covid restrictions)

  • 50% Zoom or Teams meetings
  • 30% Telephone calls
  • 10% Webinars and online networking/socials
  • 10% Collaborative or joint marketing
  • (Social media, emails and newsletters did not receive any votes!)

To what extent do you use social media for referrer relationships:

  • 91% Connecting after meeting
  • 91% Researching individuals and organisations
  • 73% Sharing our content
  • 73% Liking and sharing their content
  • 45% Monitoring/listening to their accounts
  • 45% Endorsements and recommendations
  • 36% Sharing joint content
  • 36% Collaborative social media campaigns
  • 18% Approaching referrers in groups

How do you feel about selling?

  • 10% Very uncomfortable
  • 20% Uncomfortable
  • 50% Neither comfortable nor uncomfortable
  • 10% Comfortable
  • 10% Very comfortable

How much time do you spend selling?

  • 22% – 0% – 10%
  • 56% – 10% – 49%
  • 22% – About 50%
  • 0% – 50% – 80%
  • 0% – Almost 100%

How well do you think you understand the psychology of business relationships?

  • 67% OK
  • 22% Not well
  • 11% Well

Do you have a KAM programme at your firm?

  • 63% No
  • 25% Yes, but it isn’t working very well
  • 13% Yes, some teams work well with it

Thanks to all the delegates for their enthusiastic participation in the polls, breakout exercises and discussions. And thanks, of course, to Lauren Brown of MBL for being an excellent technical host and administrator and sorting out the occasional irritating technical glitch.