Summary: Client referrals are the key to growing your practice with a minimal up-front investment in marketing. But in order to make it happen, you need to do more than simply serve the client and hope for the best. In my experience, there are 3 pre-requisites. First, you must deliver the kind of service that’s referral-worthy (which means doing more than just rebalancing their portfolio and meeting with them once a year to talk about performance). Second, you must know which of your clients are potential referral gold-mines, and which ones are referral landmines. Finally, you must set expectations for how you will get their feedback on your performance — and how to approach the subject of referrals. Getting this right requires the right script and lots of practice. However, the results that I have seen make it well worth the effort.
Most financial advisors I know do a great job of focusing on client service. They do what they promised, they try to be proactive, they deliver periodic market updates…
And still, for some reason, clients don’t come forward with referrals.
That is the kryptonite of advisor-client relationships. Most advisors deal with this tough issue in one of two ways. They either stick to thinking “If I just keep doing a good job, clients are bound to make introductions at some point…” Or, they awkwardly stumble into a referral request — and the interaction often leaves both the advisor and the client wishing that conversation had never happened.
Shouldn’t there be a better way?
Yes, there should be — and there is! But before we dive into the language of asking for a referral in a way that feels organic and welcome, let me start off with an analogy.
Imagine a bank account. If all you ever did was make withdrawals, you would eventually hit overdraft, and the bank would kick you out because they don’t want to work with someone who isn’t putting any money into their banking institution.
If you think about the work you do with your clients, what does your deposit versus withdrawal balance look like?
And I am not just talking about delivering quarterly reports or the annual update. From the client’s perspective, is your relationship limited to two (or four) financial conversations per year? Do your meetings leave you any space to connect on the personal level, or is it all business?
If you only connect with the client twice a year, and if you use up one of those two interaction instances to ask for a referral, two things happen. One, you are essentially “withdrawing” 50% of your annual relationship “balance” to make this request.
And two, the client often feels ambushed. Some advisors are more artful in how they set up the conversation than others… But if the client is not prepared to think and talk about referrals, then it’s not likely to be productive. And you have just sacrificed a good portion of your “relationship capital” for an ask that will likely go nowhere.
How can you fix this common dynamic?
Here are three steps to follow.
A financial plan matters. So is the investment portfolio. And it’s important to talk about things like insurance needs, savings rate, and cash flow.
But let’s be honest. When all of those conversations are lumped into one or two meetings per year, clients are likely to experience them as stressful. They probably aren’t getting that much out of those meetings, either… After all, how long can you hope to keep their attention on charts and numbers?
And there’s one other problem with this common approach. These long, financially focused meetings leave you no time to talk about other things that are important… Like their sense of job security with all the recent upheaval in the world, or what’s happening with their kids, or how their dad is recovering from a stroke.
What if, instead of one or two big-pressure deliverables, you thought of the year as a dozen (or two dozen) opportunities to touch the client in smaller ways?
A checklist shared on Facebook.
An email with a white paper about the importance of maintaining a solid savings rate.
A personal note of encouragement or celebration included with quarterly statements.
A podcast episode.
A message about a great new book recommendation (along with an Amazon gift card).
A comment under the client’s photo of a kid starting his first baseball season.
A text message reminder about scheduling a 30-minute call to review the client’s compensation package.
A birthday lunch.
If you approached client service this way, you would be building a relationship with them in a way that’s organic, steady, and proactive. And yes, by the end of the year, you will have made 12-24 “deposits” into the relationship bank. So, you would be able to confidently broach the subject of referrals — because you have had the opportunity to have a real relationship with your client.
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The side effect of all that effort is that the client will likely respond with “Ah, finally I can pay this person back!” We are biologically wired for reciprocity, and clients who see all the time and effort you have put into their financial well-being will want to respond in kind.
If we remove all the complicating factors, your clients fall into one of two camps.
There are clients who will, if given the opportunity and the training, refer you to their friends and family.
And there are clients who just won’t do that.
Now, that doesn’t make the second group of clients “bad” or “ungrateful”. If they are paying you fairly, and if they are treating you and your team with politeness and respect, then they are good clients. You just need to not ask them for referrals, because that conversation is guaranteed to make everyone feel awkward (and be unproductive).
How do you know which of your clients falls into which camp? (Or, in the words of Dan Allison, how do you know which clients are “gold mines” and which ones are “landmines”?)
You find that out by asking them.
Here’s how. Before I jump in, let me say that there are many ways that you can go about this. I’m not saying that this script is the silver bullet. I do, however, think that this is a useful arrow in your quiver, because it has been tested and proven to work across industries, including financial services.
As you are talking to a brand-new client, set up expectations for how you approach client service.
“Before we wrap up, I want to go over some mutual expectations. I want to make sure that we’re on the same page when it comes to working together. If we both understand these expectations, then my team will know exactly what they need to do for this to be a good and productive relationship. And you can do the same. Are you open to going through that?”
Most clients will say, “Yes!” After all, who doesn’t want to set up a productive and good relationship with their financial advisor?
We like to set three main expectations. However, sometimes our clients come up with additional ideas that would make the relationship work better for them. So, when we get to the end, you will get a chance to share your thoughts on this.
The first expectation is pretty simple. Just like when you are going to see your doctor, everything that we discuss here will remain confidential. The only people that will know what we discuss are you, me, and the members of our team that are going to work on putting your plan together. We take client privacy and confidentiality very seriously.
The reason why I bring that up is because for your plan to be as accurate as it can be, you must be comfortable to share as much information as you can. Not just the numbers, but also the goals, the vision, the worries… all the things we usually prefer to keep private.
So, you need to know that my team will honor this commitment.”
At this point, the client will probably nod to indicate approval and appreciation.
“Number two is communication.
Every time you reach out to us, our team will get back to you within XX hours.“
Insert a timeframe that you can commit to here…so 24 hours, 48 hours, same business day unless the request comes in after 4PM, etc.
“Quite frankly, we expect the same thing from our clients, too.
We want to spend our time and our resources making sure that your plan is up to date. In order to do that, we must work efficiently. We want our clients to get the answers they are looking for quickly, which is why we commit to a 48 hour turnaround time.
But sometimes, we need a piece of information from you in order to move forward in our planning or execution. And it helps to know when we can expect it. We don’t want to hound you for an answer… but we don’t want for things to fall through the cracks, either.
So… What timeline are you comfortable committing to on your end?”
At this point, you remain quiet and listen to what they say. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if they say “I will get back to you on the same day” or “I will get back to you that week”. What you are doing is getting their commitment to communicate. If at any point in the relationship the client goes MIA, you have their permission to follow up.
“In our first conversation, we had talked about maintaining an open line of communication. Is everything okay on your end?” Which should, hopefully, get them to respond to you or return their paperwork, whatever it may be.
“The third expectation is that throughout your life, you will be making lots of financial decisions.
You might be refinancing your home, buying a second home, re-evaluating your estate plan, looking for a new CPA… And then there might be funding the college education for your kids, or figuring out a care plan for your parents.
If and when you have a new financial puzzle, we expect that you will let us know and give us an opportunity to help.
We’ve spent years building relationships with all kinds of financial professionals — because we know that our clients need and appreciate their expertise. So, we would love for you to think about us in that moment. This is our small way of helping you outside of the scope of what we’re getting compensated for — and to be honest, the relationship just wouldn’t feel right without it.
You would, of course, always be the final judge of what you do next. We just want an opportunity to connect you to resources.
Is that something that you’d be open to?”
Most clients would say “Yes” to this. After all, you are not saying that you will force them to work with a certain CPA or to refinance through a certain company. You just want to give them access to another opinion and more resources.
So far, your expectations have demonstrated that you are committed to serving them well, above and beyond what’s in the advisor service agreement. And you have broached the subject of professional introductions in a way that’s beneficial for the client. Now, you can talk about the other side of introductions.
“And while we are on the subject of connecting people to resources, I want you to know that we grow our business on introductions.
Over the years, we have found that our best clients, quite frankly, come from other clients.
Our clients’ friends and family have financial puzzles to solve, too. Sometimes, you might hear someone share that they are not happy with their advisor. Or they might be frustrated by having to find all the answers on their own. Sometimes, they may not even know that a team like mine can help them. And I would hate for someone you care about to go without that help.
So my question is… If we could find a way for you to introduce us to the people that you care about, a way that would of course be 100% comfortable for you and for them, is that a conversation that you’d be willing to have?”
Now, you get quiet and let silence fill the room. Resist the temptation to ease this tension of waiting. The client is either going to say yes or no. You must give them the space to say it.
Don’t try to push them into a “Yes”, either intentionally or indirectly. If their real answer is “No”, then you want them to be comfortable with saying “No” now. That way, you will know to never ask them for an introduction.
And if they say “Yes”… You know that this subject is OK to raise in the future.
“Thank you for that.
So, when you think about those three expectations, confidentiality, communication, and being open to introducing each other as we see fit, what other expectations do you have in working with us?
My team is here to make sure that those expectations are met. That way, in the event that someone in your world could use a conversation or needs advice, you can feel confident and safe in making that introduction.”
Again, let silence fill the room. Wait to hear what other expectations they have. They are going to say whatever they’re going to say, and you’re going to repeat it back to them to show that you are listening carefully.
You must take notes during this process, too. When it comes to implementation, you’ll be glad you did.
Now, here’s how you tie the loop on this part of the conversation:
“Thank you for sharing all that.
We’ll table that stuff for now. As we work together, I will periodically check in and see how we’re doing. I do that to avoid any potential friction in working together. And, of course, you should feel free to raise your hand at any point, too.”
Now, think about how much time I just spent on that conversation. I didn’t just glance over it and hand them a stack of business cards. I didn’t ask them to “think about us” when it comes up in conversation. I anchored them on specific expectations, I figured out whether they are a potential gold mine or a landmine, and I have set up a process for gathering feedback.
After the client relationship has had some time to develop (typically, a few months into it), you can return to the feedback conversation at the end of a review meeting.
“In our very first conversation, we had discussed some expectations, and we came up with X things.”
You remind them of what you discussed…
“How are we doing in relationship to those expectations?”
If you did a great job on delivering the client experience, they will say:
“Honestly, yes, you met those, but I also think you exceeded our expectations and here’s why.”
At which point you can say…
“Thank you so much. We work really hard to deliver the service we’ve promised, and to also give you a great experience of working with us. So, I’m glad that it’s coming through.”
“In that first conversation, we had discussed that if those expectations were met, (and it sounds like they were exceeded, which is great) that you would be open to making some introductions when you see fit. But I want to make sure that you are 100% comfortable with bringing it up. Are you open to having that conversation today?”
Again, they’re going to say yes or they’re going to say no, right?
And assuming that they say yes, then you say:
“Great. So there’s really three things that we would need to do.
One is to share with you the types of folks that we work best with and figure out who in your world fits that category.
Of course, we’re happy to have conversations with others. We just may not be able to formally work with them, but we are always happy to have a conversation with someone that you care about.
And then we need to figure out the most appropriate way to go about the introduction. We want them to feel comfortable, and we want you to feel comfortable. We also know, from doing this over the years, that just giving someone our number or our business card doesn’t work. Those people typically don’t call. They don’t know us the way you do. They don’t have a personal experience or a reason to trust us. And they may feel uncomfortable reaching out. As a result, they don’t get the help they need.
We don’t have a financial planning season like we do a tax season (insert a playful laugh/chuckle here). So, in most situations, there’s no real deadline. It’s an easy can to kick down the road.
So, would it be OK if I shared with you what’s worked best on our end in the past and see if that’s a comfortable approach for you? How does that sound?”
That’s essentially how you do it.
You plant the seed, figure out the goals and the expectations, exceed those expectations, and then say, “Hey, remember when we talked about expectations? It seems like we are working well together and exceeding those expectations. Is now a good time to talk about how to make those introductions in a way that’s effective and comfortable?”
This is the script and conversation flow that I use and teach to my coaching clients. Just like any other information you consume, it’s useless unless you implement it. Take some time, read this again, maybe even write it out yourself, record yourself, listen, record again, and then implement in real life.
Good luck and let us know your results!!
Interested in more ideas for how to turn your practice into a referral engine? Then sign up for the Model FA Accelerator. Module 2 now includes brand-new training on Feedback Marketing, a comfortable and remarkably effective way for financial advisors to generate referrals. Visit www.modelfa.com/accelerator to get started.