Practice Management

A new way to generate referrals

You can obtain business leads without jeopardizing client relationships or looking desperate

Sep 7, 2014 @ 12:01 am

By Frank Maselli

Remember that scene in “Jaws” when the shark lunges out of the water and scares the life out of Roy Scheider? Asking a top client for a referral can evoke the same kind of terror: If they give you a name, something will leap out and bite them. In fact, whenever you say “referral” just imagine the “Jaws” theme playing in the background and you'll understand the client's misgivings.

Advisers are also squeamish about referrals. A recent study by Horsesmouth found that over 87% of advisers do not ask for referrals.

We know that the archaic referral techniques don't work with today's more intelligent clients. They make us look pushy and risk damaging the client relationship. It's time to learn a new way.

1. Think like a lifeguard

Traditionally, the point of referrals has been to get more clients and grow your business. That reasoning is flawed and based only on adviser needs. It also makes you look weak in the eyes of your best clients.

Turn the goal into a much more powerful and passionate one: the deep need that top advisers feel to help as many people as they can navigate the treacherous financial waters ahead.

I call this the “lifeguard referral.” Imagine you have just two seats left in your lifeboat, and the only people you're letting in are the closest friends and loved ones of your top clients.

The lifeguard model conveys professional exclusivity and generosity. Plus, it's much closer to the core emotional truth of why the best advisers are here — not to sell more products but to help others succeed.

2. Narrow your focus

You want referrals from just 10 clients. These are the movers and shakers in your book. They have friends, colleagues and clients who can appreciate and benefit from your expertise and wisdom.

Interestingly, your top referral sources might not be your 10 wealthiest clients. Only people I truly love get to refer folks for the lifeboat. This whole process is based on caring and service. It's not a sales pitch anymore.

3. Do your homework

Once you have identified your top referral sources, create a referral intelligence file on each one and gather data on his or her personal, professional and community circles.

Find out specifically who these people know. What boards do they sit on? With whom do they vacation? Who are the other executives in their firm?

Doing this work makes you look like a true professional who takes referrals seriously. Clients love that.

4. Use a referral guide

This is a written document for clients detailing your referral process. It communicates that you recognize the sensitive nature of their relationships and that you will handle their referrals with extreme care.

It also highlights that you will insulate the client (or certified public accountant) from any potential harm by conducting a thorough discovery and planning process before making any recommendations.

The referral guide reflects the professionalism you devote to the whole referral experience. It's a tangible reminder that you're different and better than other advisers.

5. Make sure you're a fit

When I was a young adviser, I had a wealthy client whom I had been badgering for referrals. He finally caved in and invited me to play golf at his country club.

Never having been to a country club, I proceeded to make every social- and golf-etiquette mistake possible. Picture comedian/actor Rodney Dangerfield in “Caddyshack,” and you have some idea of how badly I meshed with those old-money blue bloods.

I learned a number of powerful lessons that day. One was — don't try to be something you're not.

At least now I have the emotional intelligence to ask the important questions first.

Am I worthy of referrals from my best clients? Will I make them pleased and proud to have brought me into their world? Can I add value for their friends and colleagues?

If the answer to those questions is yes, you're on your way to a massively successful career.

If not, you can start turning that around today.

Frank Maselli is a professional speaker, author of the best-selling book “Referrals: The Professional Way,” and 30-year veteran of the financial services industry. For more information, visit


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