Building a referral network

Accountants simply cannot wait for referral sources to contact them – they are the ones who have to actively build up their own network. No matter how sophisticated or outstanding a firm’s services are, people will not recommend them to others if they do not know about the firm.

In every industry, there are certain influential people who can be powerful market makers for you. Firms should research and identify the prominent decision makers in their local community and the industries they serve. The reference list should include clients, friends, bankers, solicitors, heads of professional associations, and those involved with specific industry groups.

Firms then need to plan the most effective means of getting them into their corner. Not surprisingly, these people can be difficult to contact. Firms need to be alert to opportunities to meet them, and seize them when they arise.

Even if a firm does meet with a referral source, one meeting is rarely sufficient to create a positive and lasting impression. Firms need to cultivate the relationship over time, by sending regular emails or letters (such as newsletters and various fliers), calling from time to time, or visiting their business. Ask if they will give out your literature with theirs. A co-ordinated program of mailings and personal contacts is essential for maintaining contact with your network.

Often referral sources have publications that would benefit from accounting related articles from a firm. Offer to write these articles at no charge. Freeing the referral from the responsibility of filling that space will help to get in front of his/her entire client/referral base.

Cultivating a referral source is effectively training an external salesperson – firms need to continuously educate him or her about the firm’s strengths and breadth of services. And do not forget to actually ask them for business! Don’t just promise to cross-refer business with them – rather suggest that you form strategic relationships.

Firm’s would do well not to forget to actually learn about their referral source. Referral sources are looking to firms not only for them to do a good job for their clients, but also, eventually, to refer business back to them. Firms need to know the same things about them that they have to know about the firm to refer.

Bear in mind that referral sources also have a reputation to protect. To begin with they are likely to be cautious about recommending a firm. They may be concerned that the firm will perform well for their clients, and the firm needs to reassure them that it will, and that it will be to the firm’s mutual advantage. For example, when in conversation with a banker emphasise all the possible ways they can benefit from an association with you. Explain that you will not charge the client for the initial consultation, you will involve the banker in planning meetings; and you will be able to alert him to potential problems.

By cultivating the people in the infrastructure in this way you influence their perception of your firm and increase the chances they will refer your services to others.

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