What Goes Around Comes Around: Collaborative Referral Strategies
January 2013 | Collaboration
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What Goes Around Comes Around: Collaborative Referral Strategies

By Carol Schiro Greenwald

Most lawyers say they get business primarily from individual referrals; few view referrals as part of a strategic network, and an important asset in the development and maintenance of a growing practice. Seen as individual introductions, referrals happen randomly as a result of good work or being in the right place at the right time. When viewed as a network and strategic asset, referrals take their rightful place as a major resource to be cared for, protected and encouraged.

Advantages of Referral Networks
Developing and maintaining good referral sources is a process – a subset of networking focused on identifying and interacting with people – clients, colleagues and friends –to create mutually rewarding, collaborative connections. A strong referral network does much more than make introductions. It also:

  • Helps you to grow your practice in a targeted, focused way that increases your business development efficiency
  • Shortens the path from introduction to work by lending the referrer’s credibility to you, which greases the path to establishing a relationship
  • Creates idea exchanges that can deepen your knowledge and understanding of how your clients make decisions
  • Expands your connections, adding to your “social currency,” the ability to introduce people to others who can fulfill their needs
  • Shows you your professional grid – where you have areas of strength in terms of industries, demographics and issues, and where you need to add knowledge
  • Adds friends.

Selection of Referral Sources
Potential referral sources are all around you. Obvious categories include:

  • Clients, past and present
  • Colleagues, past and present
  • Professionals who offer complementary services such as accountants, insurance agents, bankers, brokers, financial advisors, etc.
  • Family and friends, including alumni from schools you attended
  • People who are part of your business, including vendors and employees
  • People you meet in professional associations or networking groups.

Typically, there are too many opportunities to meet referral sources. How do you find the golden ones?  First, you need to do some self-reflection to understand the kind of work you like to do and the kind of clients you like to work with. Then you can define what you are looking for in terms of problems to solve, opportunities to maximize, client characteristics and trigger situations that suggest a need for your services.

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With this knowledge in hand, you can add adjectives to the broad categories and narrow them down to a workable base. For example, once you know what you are looking for, colleagues break down into three categories:

  • Those with a similar client base
  • Those in complementary legal areas or other professions that are relevant to and trusted by your client base
  • Those who work in the same practice area who are conflicted out of opportunities because of client overlaps or fee issues, and need to pass the work on to a vetted colleague.

Collaboration Prerequisites

Humans are wired to make referrals because we are social animals who feel good when we can connect with others around shared interests and help them get ahead. So it begins with a mindset and attitude not to “get” but to “give” – time, knowledge, support and attention.  You can’t fake it. We are wired to spot phonies a mile away. We want to work with people we like or who like us. So, be genuinely interested, poised to help and courteous at all times.

A focus on collaboration creates a reciprocal process of promises made and fulfilled that builds trust, which, in turn, is the precondition for all good referral relationships.  Without trust, people don’t refer because to refer involves an element of risk. You are taking yourself out of an equation in which you promise A that B has the appropriate expertise, experience and client service attitude to resolve A’s problems in the way A likes them resolved. You are trusting that B will make you look good. If not, you stand to lose a friend, a colleague and a bit of your social currency if the referred relationship sours.

No one knows “anybody” or “everybody,” so vague requests for leads rarely pan out.  Referrers can keep you in mind if you take the time to educate them regarding the characteristics of your ideal client or ideal situation. For example, an IT professional in my referral network is only looking for “Oh **!?” situations where his company can come in and save the client. The save establishes the kind of client relationship he wants. Or, a lawyer with a guardianship practice has targeted 18 year olds with special needs who are about to be transferred out of the educational system because the situation offers many legal possibilities.

Referrer conversations set expectations and give the referrer a reason to help you and a presumption that you will reciprocate. You want them to understand:

  • Factual details related to your ideal client and also something about the emotional context when they bring problems to you
  • Stories that illustrate the kind of problems you solve
  • Trigger words that suggest a need for your expertise
  • What they can say when describing your services.

Make the discussion interesting, adding descriptions that show your uniqueness. Often differences relate to service features – the extra steps you take to make life easier for your clients. Remind your referrer colleagues of these conversations by sharing relevant articles or attending events that pertain to your shared interests.

Assume that you and your referrer sources share an interest in growing your respective books of business.  The assumption makes it easier to communicate your willingness to help them and your sense of ease when asking for their help. Have lunch and ask: “How can I help you?”  A public relations professional was able to answer this question by introducing a real estate developer referral resource to her client, the property manager for the Empire State Building.

Or, turn the request into a compliment: “I enjoy working with clients like you so much because ______.  I would appreciate introductions to others with similar problems.” The response for an attorney who asked to meet global technology start-ups was an introduction to owners of two tech incubator buildings.

Collaboration Initiatives
Sales is a numbers game, and obviously well-selected referrers improve your numbers. But in addition to direct introductions for specific pieces of work, you can collaborate in other ways.

Before prospects hire you, you need to show them what it would be like to work with you, which is often inferred by how you engage with them during the prospect courtship process. Meeting requests for introductions can be such an indicator. Sometimes, the need is for a professional allied with you; sometimes it is for a doctor, fitness trainer or LSAT coach. When you can use your social currency to fill such needs, collaboration creates a stronger relationship.

One of the best ways to strengthen referral relationships is to share visibility opportunities:

  • Invite him to write a piece in your newsletter or blog
  • Invite her to join you on a seminar panel
  • Offer a joint seminar
  • Support their charities.

Courtesy Touches
Many potential referrer relationships are sabotaged by poor communication between the referrer and referee. To prevent this, develop a system of “feedback touches.” These give you a chance to keep connected and in the loop as to how the referred relationship is progressing.

Referrer Touches
Notify a person when you refer them to another person and share pertinent information.

  • Contact them a few weeks later to find out how it is working out. If you learn it did not work out, you have the opportunity to call the person to whom you made the referral to talk about their perspective.  At your discretion, you may want to pass on productive criticism to the referee.
  • At the end of an engagement, contact both the referee and the person to whom he is referred.  The feedback can improve the next referral for both of them.

Referee Touches
Tell the referrer when the initial contact has been made, and offer particulars if you can.

  • Report back as to whether you are hired or not.
  • If you get the client, report back at the end of the engagement.
  • Thank, thank, thank.

Monitor, Track and Evaluate
When referral relationships are viewed as a strategic business development resource, results need to be monitored and tracked in a database. In a firm, individual activities should go into a firm-wide database to maximize synergies and keep an eye on overlapping relationships. 

Monthly reports allow attorneys to see where relationships are producing quality introductions and collaborations, and where the process is weak. They can then focus on strong relationships as indicated in the data, rather than giving rewards to whomever they saw last.

Shared Common Interests
The hallmark of an effective referral strategy is a strong referral network composed of carefully chosen people you like and trust, who like and trust you, share common interests, and collaborate to help each other develop the business they want.  As your bottom line grows, so does your reputation and that of your firm, because your referral partners know that they can count on you.

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About the Author

Carol Schiro Greenwald, Ph.D. is a business development strategist and coach. She can be reached at 914.834.9320.

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