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The Art of Asking for Referrals || by Mark Powers & Shawn McNalis
July 8, 2015

Bar none, asking for referrals is still the most cost-effective and powerful marketing tool we know for a successful litigation practice. Unfortunately, it’s also one of the most highly resisted client development strategies of all those we recommend.  For example, two years ago, after much coaching, one of our litigation attorneys started incorporating a small but powerful new verbal strategy into his conversations with clients: he began mentioning his firm is built on referrals and asking clients to send their friends and family. 

It was simple but effective and he’s seen his client referrals jump dramatically. "At first, I was very reluctant to try this," he says, "afraid that people would find it offensive. But once I found a comfortable way to mention I’m open to referrals, no one seemed turned off at all. In fact, referrals from my clients have increased dramatically.”

For him, this was a way to tap into a market that exists just beyond his reach - the family and friends of his past and present clients. Certainly, delivering a high-level of service to clients will garner a certain percentage of referrals: people who like you will tell others. But what about those that use you, like you, then forget about you when their nephew is hurt in an accident or their neighbor wants to sue his employer? If, while you’re working with them, you plant a few seeds to let them know you’re open to referrals, would it make a difference?

The answer is yes. You can never assume that the client you’re working with realizes that you want referrals. They may see how busy you are and assume that you’re booked up. Mentioning it in a way that’s comfortable for you makes it much more likely that they will remember you when the time is right.

So what are the obstacles to asking for referrals?  Most attorneys consider asking clients, referral sources, family and friends for referrals to be much too uncomfortable.  Most attorneys don’t want to sound desperate or too aggressive when they’re marketing. 

Fortunately, they don’t have to. The key to developing this small but powerful rainmaking habit lies in the ability to ask the question in a way that doesn't come across as overly aggressive. The language that you use makes all the difference, not only in your comfort level, but also in how the message is received.

Blurting out, ”I need business,” or “Can you send me some clients?” lacks finesse. We’ve found the best referral requests start out as compliments or expressions of gratitude – this is the secret -- and are said in such a way that it is friendly and service-oriented. 

To show you what we mean, we’ve gathered samples of language used by attorneys in our coaching programs when they want to request referrals. Some of their language may sound too formal to you, some too familiar, but all of it conveys the right message and does so without sounding pushy. If you want to adopt this powerful rainmaking habit, take a look at what other attorneys say, and then modify the phrases to fit your situation and specific way of speaking. 

This first group of statements is intended for use with clients. Most of our litigator clients use them at the conclusion of a case, though there might be points during a case when comments like these are appropriate. The better rainmakers we work with make it a point to take well-connected clients out to lunch and conduct informal exit surveys. Before they finish, they work in their version of the statements listed below.

  • Steve, we’ve really enjoyed working with you on this matter. Our practice has been built on referrals from satisfied (or good, or great) clients like you. Please don’t hesitate to mention our name to others we might be able to help.
  • Grace, I thank you for your business and would appreciate it if you passed my name on to anyone that you feel I could help. 
  • Referrals from good clients like you, Carole, are the foundation of my practice. Thank you for your business and feel free to recommend us to others.
  • Ben, I built my practice by working with great clients like you, please let us know if we can be of further help to you or assist your friends or family in any way.

You can take a similar tack when talking with your referral sources. Create the opportunity by asking them out to lunch to thank them for a client they’ve recently referred, or, if you haven’t been good at thanking your referral sources along the way, all the clients they’ve referred in the past:

  • Thank you for thinking of us with your many referrals, Tom. Though we’re not good at saying it sometimes, we really appreciate the clients you send and make every attempt to take great care of them. 
  •  I’ve enjoyed working with all the clients you’ve sent, Chris. Please don’t hesitate to send anyone else you work with that could use our services. 
  • Pam, thanks for sending Hugh over to see me. I really enjoyed working with him and would certainly do my best to help any of your other clients.
  • Please don’t hesitate to send us clients – we’re never too busy to take care of anyone you might refer, Larry. In fact, my receptionist has special instructions to interrupt me immediately whenever one of your referrals calls.

Here’s another situation that you may need a script to navigate. You’ve briefly met a potential referral source and want to cultivate them, but don’t quite know what to say to initiate the relationship. Use the following script to get you over the hump:

  •  Why don’t we get together and go out to lunch next week? I’d enjoy learning more about your business and could tell you a little bit about mine…
  • I’d like to invite you over to my office to learn more about what you do and see if there’s a way we can network in the future…

Here’s another situation in which having a few simple scripts can be helpful: you have a friend who has the ability to send you clients, but for some reason never has. First, make sure they know what you do. You’d be surprised how many of your friends and acquaintances don’t know exactly what you do. Once they understand, use one of the following scripts to take the relationship to the next level: 

  • John, I’d enjoy building more of a business relationship with you to see if I can be of some service to your clients in the future. Why don’t we meet for lunch next week and talk about it?
  • Jason, I’ve built my practice on referrals from a lot of people in this community and it would be a privilege to work with anyone you think could use my services. Why don’t we get together next week and talk about it?

If you add one new skill to your client development arsenal this year, make it count. The brief, scripted phrases and statements such as those listed above are not aggressive sounding, but have the power to produce significant results for your practice. Whether that means you motivate your clients to send referrals or you turn a casual friend into a friendly referral source, you possess the power to make these changes by uttering the right words at the right time. This is the beauty of a word-of-mouth marketing approach. Don’t rely upon the client, friends or potential referral sources to automatically know you welcome referrals. Many professionals are savvy about this, but many of the other people you work with or meet, may not be. It is up to you to educate them. Don’t rely on what we call the “Blanche DuBois” method (“I’ve always depended on the kindness of strangers”) of marketing. Master the power of your language to take you where you want to go.

Mark Powers, President of Atticus, Inc., and Shawn McNalis, an Atticus Practice Advisor, co-authored Time Management for Attorneys; How Good Attorneys Become Great Rainmakers, and Hire Slow, Fire Fast, A Lawyer’s Guide to Building a High Performance Team. As the country's leading management consulting firm for the past 25 years, Atticus, led by Mark and Shawn, has offered the first nationally recognized training program dedicated to teaching attorneys the lasting skills and habits required for effective practice development. To learn more about the work that Atticus does with attorneys, visit www.atticusonline.com or call 352-383-0490 or 888-644-0022.  

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