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Five Keys to Building a Referral Marketing Program

  • May 13, 2014
  • Susan Van Dyke

Most firms want work from referral sources. It’s that “word of mouth” source of business that’s elusive to many, but highly valued by all.

Understandably, for the client, the fewer degrees of separation between he/she and a lawyer, the higher the comfort level. If you were new to a city and looking for an accountant would you prefer to consult the Yellow Pages or get a referral from someone you know and trust? Other lawyers, professionals or contacts in your specific industry who share your approach to business are good referral prospects. Marketing to and with referral sources will result in new work and a more rewarding working relationship.

Most importantly though, a good referral program saves time, enriches your relationships and minimizes hard marketing costs.

Here are five keys to building and sustaining a good referral network:

  1. Identify qualified referral sources
  2. Take a long-term approach that focuses relationships
  3. Understand needs and motives
  4. Create an industry group
  5. Take care of your referral sources

Now, every service-oriented company requires clients, and clients don’t come any better than by referral. Third-party endorsements are powerful vehicles and are among your most valuable marketing tools. Referrals cost little to create (aside from your scarce time) and usually bring in the best, most desirable clients.

Your referral sources are part of your business development team, so to speak. And for those who won’t wince at the “s” word, we’re talking about a sales force here. They are your champions and will pull you onto a team whenever they can because you’re a high-performing pro, and you’ll make them look like a winner.

A referral network can provide a good stream of business. Once you’ve demonstrated your value and managed relationships carefully, you can focus a significant portion of marketing time on keeping the network humming. But each individual is motivated to refer you work by different factors. Your goal is to understand these motives, and to respond and accommodate them to the best of your ability.

Some referral sources may view you as having the same potential to refer work to them. This is only a problem if you are unable to reciprocate. If your firm’s mandate is to send all referrals to another firm or individual, you need to help your referral source find another motive.

Others may see you working for their clients as a benefit to client relations, given your skill and expertise. A referral to a client that works out well reflects positively on their working relationship. Everyone wins and the client stays within a trusted circle of professionals, getting excellent client care, service and advice. Nice.

Some may see an alliance with you as an opportunity to raise their own stock. If you are positioned as an industry expert or leader, someone with less profile may seek to elevate their stature by your acquaintance. Clever.

Perhaps the potential for pro bono legal services is appealing. If your firm doesn’t support this approach, perhaps you can reduce your fee, or add value in another way.

Whatever the motive, professional services are often secured through a trusted relationship. But it takes time, patience and some industry knowledge.

At Fasken Martineau, Denyse Thiffault, Director of Communications and Marketing in their Montreal office, describes how the firm’s most successful lawyers have developed good referral sources. “They've managed to maintain and grow their relationship by performing high-quality work but, at the same time, by increasing the level of understanding of the organization, its business plan and its strategic orientation.” So, the lawyer who aligns services and responses more closely to the client, referral source or potential client wins.

On receipt of referrals, there are two people to impress: the person who gave you the referral and the client. This is where the rubber hits the road. You have to hit your mark every single time or you compromise your position of trust with the referral source, risking the volume of future work. Keep the referral source up to date on your progress occasionally and in general terms, being careful not to disclose private details. Your discretion will be noted and appreciated.

With the client, “simply” surpass expectations at every opportunity.

Key #1: Identify qualified referral sources

Start by asking yourself: ‘Who is qualified and motivated to send me business?’

Quite often, the best referral sources are businesses, like yours, that serve the same target market. They are speaking to, or currently working with, your potential clients. These non-competing businesses are one of your primary target markets.

Design and develop your referral network one person at a time. Choose an industry you enjoy. Who are the ideal professionals to influence prospective clients? Make a list of everyone you know—and don’t know—and no self-editing just yet.

Presumptions of existing allegiances to other lawyers will not serve you well. Your assumption may not be based on fact and, if it is, these lawyers won’t be primary targets, but there may be conflict work available.

Referral networks can include:

  1. other law firms
  2. other professional service firms
  3. other service providers
  4. influential individuals
  5. business leaders
  6. industry associations

Your marketing efforts should include specific plans to attract, educate and motivate this target market. But, are you in contact with the right group of people – influencers who are in dialogue with your potential clients? Are these Influencers aware of your expertise and value? Let’s pause for a moment here and insert a cautionary message.

Some of you are reaching for the phone, taking a big deep breath and poised to tell “your Influencers” all about yourselves. Restrain yourself. Slowly back away from the phone.

Influencers who know you to be a solid, reliable, keen professional will inquire further about your specific expertise when it’s relevant to them. If you begin an unsolicited gush about yourself, you will show you’re in sales mode, and nothing is less appealing. Instead take a long-term approach; create opportunities to be asked about your services. These conversations often begin with “I know of a situation where…” or “Would you know anything about….”

Ah-ha! Now you have an interested listener who will remember you because you were helpful and had relevant comments. You just nailed the best timing and the right message to plug your services. Relevancy is one of your keys to marketing success.

Now you shouldn’t completely avoid talking about your practice – we want people to know what we do – just don’t force feed the full.

Anyone who talks too much doesn’t listen well to others. And those who get that glazed “I’m just formulating my next thought” look when another person is talking should pack up their files, move across the hall and join the Business Prevention Department.

Summary – Key #1: Identify referral sources. Ask yourself: “Who advises my clients before they contact me?”; “Who is targeting the same type of client with different types of services?” and “Who influences my prospective clients?”

Key #2: Take long-term approach that focuses on relationships

Helpful, relevant lawyers will gain mindshare – that “top of mind” spot that is under fierce competition since it’s the most valuable space to “own”. To stay above the noise though, you’ll need to be vigilant about this space and ensure vacancies are minimized. Competitors are often lurking here.

How to do it? Quite simply, with a long-term focus that carefully nurtures the relationship. This is easy if you’re targeting individuals or an industry that you enjoy or at least interests you. Success will depend on it; you can’t sustain a relationship you don’t like.

Martha Hartwick, Director of Marketing and Business Development in Fasken Martineau’s Toronto office adds, “We have some great examples of referral work that has come as a result of some of our lawyers' very consistent attendance at, and involvement with, the ABA and its section meetings over time. Given how tough it is to catch the attention of US attorneys, it is an accomplishment worth noting, and a tribute to the marketer's mantra: consistency, consistency, consistency!” 

One managing partner wondered if referral work was a result of a lawyers’ expertise and not the relationship. Hartwick, though, clarifies the point, “It all comes back to the relationship developed by an individual lawyer who just ‘connects’ with the referrer; they build the trust, call by call, and, hopefully, file by file. It's their investment of energy, and their own mobilization of the firm's resources when required, that solidifies a good referral arrangement.” 

Denyse agrees, and points out that relationships with referral sources and clients are similar, “Lawyers really distinguish themselves by the quality of the relationship they have with their clients… Clients want their legal advisors to listen to them, know them, their industry, their company… In the end, lawyers are in a better position to be referred to other clients – and not only do they grow their own practice, but they also grow the business of the firm.”

Harris Abro, President of Professional Planning Solutions Inc. and insurance and financial advisor to lawyers, has spent the past 10 years building his referral network. Originally a practicing lawyer from South Africa, Harris understands the value of referral business.

Over the years, Harris has given far more referrals than he has received and adds, “I see myself as a kind of modern day “matchmaker”. I am always trying to put people in touch with each other, even if there’s nothing in it for me. It’s a process that comes naturally for me and it’s logical. If I can help others to succeed, I have no doubt that over time they’ll try and help me… Always ask your referral source what you can do for them; you’ll be amazed at how effective this approach can be.”

Summary – Key #2: Take a long-term approach to building a referral source, and focus on relationship quality.

Key #3: Understand needs and motives

As with all your marketing efforts, define your target audience and understand their needs. Marketers refer to a target market as their end-users (i.e. clients) but a target audience represents individuals who influence that market. For instance, parents are a target audience when young children are the target market.

You will prudently concern yourself with both the needs of the target audience – The Influencers – and clients.

How can you get them to know you and trust your professionalism? Learn all that you can about the needs of your Influencer and their clients. Here’s how:

  1. Put on a seminar for the target audience.
  2. Offer to speak to their clients at a free seminar – or co-present, with an offer to hold it in your boardroom and use your administrative staff to pull the details together. This will enable you to demonstrate your knowledge and value, improve your working relationship and guide the development of the seminar. Co-presenting at their client seminars has double the impact. You demonstrate your value while gaining direct prospect contact.
  3. Write an article for their newsletter or website (recycle in your own newsletter and website).
  4. Introduce them to your industry group (see Step 4).

If your firm has multiple practice areas, consider offering a topical seminar of interest. The seminar topic will likely be different from the area of law you wish to attract new business.

Here’s a classic example:

A personal injury lawyer who is targeting physiotherapists, occupational therapists, doctors and rehabilitation specialists will first consider the referral sources motives for sending you clients.

Take physiotherapy clinics. They are usually small businesses and will benefit from business-related legal advice. The legalities of employment, insurance, tax, real estate, leasing issues and the like are excellent seminar topics to attract a referral source. Doing this on a non-billable basis will earn you a great deal of goodwill.

The clinics’ clients, on the other hand, have different needs. Consider how you can deliver your services in a manner that will address their needs? They’ll have a pile of questions relating to claims, and will need guidance through the litigation process. Pamphlets answering frequently asked questions would be helpful and attract potential clients. With consent, leave them in the reception areas of your referral sources.

Some elderly clients have unique needs and challenges that make access to legal services awkward. They might need occasional home visits, extra large print in documents and communication via mail, phone and in-person; avoiding use of e-mail and faxes. These are but a couple of examples of the many things you can do to demonstrate great client care.

A boutique firm that restricts its practice to a specialized area of law such as personal injury, intellectual property, trademarks or criminal law can also do well by targeting other law firms without these services. There’s no threat of stealing the client and the boutique firm could reciprocate with referrals.

A construction lawyer will seek a position on the local construction boards, offer to speak to their members, write articles for their newsletter and other industry publications. Your goal should include a constant level of exposure in the industry –in print, as a presenter or in person. In doing so, you’ll get to know some industry Influentials.

Summary – Key #3: Understand the needs or motives of the referral source and how you can help their clients or those they influence. Respond accordingly, or give them new reasons to refer work to you.

Key #4: Create an industry group

Find other non-competing suppliers to the same industry. The construction lawyer would seek an alliance with people who influence those involved with commercial property: insurance brokers, property managers, accountants and bankers.

Here’s how it works: Form an industry group of motivated, like-minded professionals. You can start with as few as three people. Done right, you’re going to spend some energy on this project, so take the time to ensure you’re well suited for each other, and that there are no conflicts of interest. In trolling for appropriate members, consider: Who’s building a new practice? Who’s new in town and already making progress? Who’s doing a lot of marketing? Who’s an up-and-comer? Who do you connect well with? While not critical, you’ll find it helpful if you work within close proximity of each other.

Discuss the general terms of the group. No, not legal terms, but your goals and objectives. Get everyone on the same page. Terms could include that you’ll get to know each other’s services and value in order to refer work to them; gain valuable industry intelligence; increase your profile; and of course, win business.

Take the time to get to know each other’s services and approach. Meet weekly at first and have each professional take a turn and introduce themselves and impart some industry wisdom that’s helpful to all members of the group. Why? You’ll learn valuable information that you can apply to your own practice and gain insight into how this member works and thinks (and promotes themselves). Make it simple for them to refer work to you. As part of the self-introductory phase, provide fellow members with your biography and/or other pertinent printed information-- and a stack of business cards.

Commit to a meeting schedule that’s not too burdensome; say, a lunch meeting every six weeks or so. At these meetings discuss current projects (obviously you’ll be careful with client names) and industry news. Ask for contacts or introductions to prospective clients. You can even invite a prospect or client to join you for lunch occasionally – nice way for this individual to gain insight from a few different perspectives.

Once the group is cohesive, ramp up your business development plans. First, create a shared or individual target list, and work on how to get on the target’s radar. This is a long-term effort, so put it in place early and revisit the lists regularly. Once you’ve identified a few good prospects, find an opportunity to introduce yourself. Does someone in your existing network know a professional in one of your target organizations? Where do they frequent? Join their professional organizations and committees, read trade publications and make contact with industry writers (they love to hear from readers!).

Tactically, facilitate productive introductions to each other’s colleagues; put on a workshop for your clients and prospects, a collective invitation effort will populate the session, with each member taking a turn to speak; write for each others’ client newsletters; give internal presentations to members’ organizations; include each other in sporting and arts events – and the list of opportunities goes on.

Always remember: referral sources put their own reputation at stake whenever your services are recommended.

Summary – Key #4: Build an industry network group of professionals who are pursuing the same target market. Think strategically, set goals, share information, be patient.

Key #5: Take care of your referral sources

Clearly, if you develop referral sources that bring ongoing work to you, part of your marketing plan must include repeated communication, expressions of gratitude and reciprocated business opportunities if possible. Make no mistake, even when you are taking good care of your referral sources you are saving a bundle in cash and time by not having to trek out into the dark and chase new work.

Besides responding to what motivates them, take good care of your referral sources and give back in a variety of ways. Funnel a proportionate amount of your marketing time towards those who refer you work. Treat them as you would an uber client. Ask:

  1. “what are your goals and how can I help?”
  2. “who can I introduce you to?”
  3. “what are your foreseeable challenges”

Now you can create a plan; one that addresses his or her needs. You know exactly what’s important to this Influencer and, likely, how you can help. Break your plan into four quarterly projects, so that “vacancies” are short-lived. Share this information around your firm as appropriate, and don’t forget your legal assistants, librarian and marketing professionals. They can help you help this Influencer.

Here are a few ways to give back:

  1. facilitate productive introductions;
  2. provide non-billable advice;
  3. join their board;
  4. support their charity efforts; or
  5. give a seminar to their clients or staff.

Your help needn’t be limited to your core area of expertise, however. When you get to know people well, you are privy to their private life and you’ll inevitably spot ways to help. A new gardener or mechanic reference? A tutor for the kids? Step in and help whenever and wherever you can. 

Of course, even individual referrals deserve recognition. Sometimes a handwritten card will suffice, other times a thoughtful gift is appropriate.

“Old-fashioned face time, a regularized call program to them, an occasional article on point, if outside Canada, use excuses like developments on the political or economic front to connect with them, to share views, [these] are a few ideas,” suggests Fasken Martineau’s Hartwick. 

Be systematic about keeping in contact and addressing their motives.

Harris Abro from Professional Planning Solution sums it up best, “As all farmers know, there are good years and there are lean years. Not every relationship that you develop will bear fruits and some fruits will take longer than others. Remember that you’re sowing the seeds of long term relationships and with time, energy and care they’re bound to pay off.”

Summary – Key #5: Calendarize regular contact with your referral source. Plan a minimum of three special events or special projects per year with this Influential person.

Susan Van Dyke, Principal, Van Dyke Marketing & Communications is a law firm marketing consultant based in Vancouver, B.C. She can be reached at 604-876-7769 or

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