How to make referrals more meaningful

New software ensures that reciprocity is built into the process

Jan 14, 2008 @ 12:01 am

If there's such a thing as referral management technology, Referral Key Inc. of Boston is one of its leaders.

The company has created what it believes to be the first web-based system to manage and track referrals. Targeted to investment advisers and other service professionals and small businesses, the product is designed to help users keep track of referrals they make and receive, and to ensure that referrals remain two-way and mutually advantageous.

It is the "referral reciprocity" function that most differentiates referralkey.com from professional-networking sites such as Mountain View, Calif.-based LinkedIn Corp.'s (InvestmentNews, Aug. 27) or services such as The Advisors Forum (InvestmentNews, Sept. 24) of Bend, Ore.

Launched last August by Lewis Weinstein, an accountant and entrepreneur who founded and sold San Antonio-based TaxLogic Corp.'s online tax preparation service in the 1990s, Referral Key helps ensure reciprocity through a quarterly report.

The report is sent to members following their completion of a brief online questionnaire that displays a list of members with whom they have exchanged referrals over the previous quarter.

"Members then take a few seconds to rate their relationship with each person as balanced, receive more or send more," Mr. Weinstein said.

The methodology springs from a group project by students at the Harvard Business School in Boston, who as part of a class were told to answer this question: What would the ultimate referral system look like?

With no active marketing, Mr. Weinstein's latest venture already has almost 3,000 registered users.

The cost is free for a basic set of features, including sending unlimited referrals and invitations, and receiving three free qualified referrals.

It also permits automated up-loading of contacts from Micro-soft Outlook and Outlook Express, as well as online services such as America Online, Gmail and Yahoo!

For $9.95 a month, Silver Key members also receive referral tracking reports, unlimited referrals and the ability to allow consumers to post a rating.

For $19.95 a month, Gold Key members can access the networks of referral contacts and can view ratings provided by other professionals and consumers.

Steve Wintermeier, a managing principal at Fenway Financial Advisors, a Boston-based investment advisory firm, said that accountant colleagues had introduced him to the service by sending him one of the system's invitations.

That was soon followed by a few referrals. Mr. Wintermeier, in turn, plans to pass along referrals to fellow advisers and financial planners.

"I don't do a lot of estate work in my practice, and since I'm researching partners who specialize in that area, it's a good tool for finding other professionals, especially as I like being able to search for folks in a particular geographic radius," he said.

After becoming familiar with Referral Key, Mr. Wintermeier up-graded his account in order to access advanced search and referral-tracking features.

All users can post a profile describing their expertise which can be searched by registered members and by consumers using major search engines.

Davis Janowski can be reached at djanowski@crain.com.

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