Get to know your referral sources

Our last two articles focused on storytelling and "Laser Talk" - the first two strategic conversations. This article is about the third and last of the trio of strategic conversations: the referral-source interview.

- The 80/20 Rule

Probably 80 percent of your business comes from fewer than 20 people. This sobering thought means that your firm probably owes its existence to a handful of folks who know you, like you, trust you and regularly send clients to you. Unfortunately, the very consistency of their referrals may lull you into a false sense of complacency. Maybe you've come to expect the business and have even begun to take your best referral sources for granted.

If you haven't been proactive in cultivating your referral relationships, there are two steps you should take right now: first, schedule lunch with your referral sources to let them know how much you appreciate all the business they've sent to you; second, ask their opinions about your practice and how it serves the people they refer to you. Think of this interview as an informal focus group for improving your practice.

- Thank, acknowledge, inquire

Let's start with the first step, which involves a simple "thank you" and an acknowledgement. You can use your own words, or use the following, but keep it simple and authentic:

"Thank you for all your referrals - we really appreciate your faith and confidence in us."

"We appreciate your business and thank you for trusting us to work with your (clients, friends, family, etc.)."

Now for the second step: sitting down with referral sources to see how well you serve their clients. Start with the referral sources you know best, the ones with whom you're most comfortable. Reconnect and catch up first, then launch into the interview. Begin with some variation of the following statement:

"I'm always trying to improve the level of service we deliver to clients and I've always respected how well you serve your clients. I'd like to ask your opinion: What would you recommend I do to take better care of them?"

Though this may seem like a difficult conversation, most attorneys are surprised at how well the interview goes. But think about it - rarely will you go wrong by saying "thank you," acknowledging someone and asking for their opinion.

- Interview to learn

The interview nurtures your relationship with your referral source. Better rapport and a new sense of familiarity are created from conversations like these. Your referral sources will come away complimented that you asked their opinion. It also shows that you care about them and value their opinions. You are paying attention to their needs, and more importantly, to those of their clients.

When you begin asking questions, your referral source may initially refuse to say anything specific, let alone critical, and instead offer generalities like, "You do a great job." Probe and press them gently by asking more positive, open-ended questions:

"What do you think we do well?"

"How could we improve the client experience?"

If that doesn't work, try moving to more pointed questions:

"If you had one suggestion or one change in how we deal with the clients you send us, what would it be?"

"Is there anything you suggest we stop doing, or change completely about how we deal with clients?"

Those kinds of focused yet still open-ended questions will usually produce more of a response.

- Interview to improve

Nine times out of 10, the referral source won't have anything substantially negative to say, but will be complimented you asked them. If any negative or critical comments are made, however, don't get defensive - this is the stuff you need to hear! Listen thoughtfully to all they have to say and encourage openness, even if the comments become brutal. Thank them for their honesty, let them know that you continue to value their opinion and reaffirm your commitment to use their comments to enhance the level of service you provide to clients.

If you listen carefully, they will tell you what kind of lawyer they enjoy working with and what kind they don't. They will tell you things they are not revealing to any other attorney. In other words, they will reveal their expectations to you. And if you can meet or exceed their expectations, they will continue to refer clients to you, again and again.

- Interview to differentiate

The interview can also open the door to more referrals from those referral sources who spread their work around to several other attorneys in addition to you. Why? First, because you are out from behind your desk, sitting in front of your referral source, thanking, acknowledging and reconnecting with them. Second, in having this conversation, you demonstrate you care about their clients and are sincerely interested in delivering a high level of service to them. All else being equal, it gives you an edge over other attorneys. Remember the first rule of marketing: differentiate yourself from your competition.

So set yourself apart and above other attorneys. Schedule 10 interviews over the next few months to deepen your referral-source relationships and gather important feedback to enhance your level of client service. Think about it: What do you have to lose?

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Michael Hammond is a "founding father" of Atticus and is a certified practice advisor with extensive experience in lawyer marketing, one-on-one business coaching and strategic planning. Visit www.atticusonline.com or call 888-644-0022.

Mark Powers is the president of Atticus Inc. and co-author of "How Good Attorneys Become Great Rainmakers" and "Time Management for Attorneys." He can be reached at mark@atticusonline.com or by calling 352-383-0490.

Published: Fri, Sep 11, 2015

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