At my friend’s daughter’s high school, invitations to the prom are sometimes elaborately orchestrated. One boy filled a girl’s car with balloons, for example; she popped them one at a time to reveal a teddy bear holding a card that popped the question.

Unfortunately, however, the desire to stand out at that school has become so extreme that some students are just too intimidated to ask anybody out.

I sometimes think advisors are subject to the same fears when it comes to asking for referrals. Yet in my experience, referrals don’t come as a result of an elaborate production, but rather from a simple personal invitation.

I work with 70 to 80 clients. Each year for the past 10 years or so, I’ve added four or five new clients — all referrals. My approach is free of high school drama and the systematic planning that many advisor marketing programs advocate. For my clients, a mass mailing or string of email requests would feel impersonal.

Instead, I ask for referrals in person, from the heart and with some humor.

NEED FOR NEW CLIENTS

For instance, when wrapping up a quarterly meeting in my office, a client with $5 million under management might ask how my business is going. I might reply like this: “While I am lucky enough to have a very low attrition rate, I have yet to master this death thing. And, so when clients die, I find myself needing to generate new business.”

I’d then add, “Ideally, I don’t want to spend a lot of time prospecting, as that takes time away from the work I do for my current clients. So, I’m asking clients I enjoy working with the most — clients like you — for referrals.”

Clients appreciate my candor and understand that they are a great source for new business. But even so, they need more information in order to produce viable referrals.

BE SPECIFIC

The most important thing you can do to help clients refer more business is to be extremely specific about who you’d like to work with.

Recognize that without your guidance, your client could interpret a “client like you” to mean “my sister the school teacher who has a retirement account of $45,000.” If you want to work with more entrepreneurs, say so. If your forte is helping recently divorced or widowed women, let your clients know that.

Besides describing your ideal client, detail the help you’ll provide. A bare bones question like, “Jennifer, could you refer me to someone who would benefit from my services?” is likely to get a response like, “I can’t think of anyone off the top of my head.”

Instead, if you are interested in working with entrepreneurs and family businesses, try something like this: “Jennifer, I know you are a member of the Chamber of Commerce. The next time you hear a member business owner worrying about not having a succession plan, I hope you’ll mention my name. I can help construct an exit plan that maximizes the value of their business, minimizes taxes, and positions the business owner and her family to achieve their future goals.”

Or maybe you mention to a recently divorced client who has successfully begun saving for her own retirement, “It’s good to see your retirement account moving in the right direction — that’s a challenge for many single women. If you have any single friends who need to commit to a more rigorous retirement savings plan, I can help them take the first step by developing a budget so they can begin to save more of what they earn.”

Referrals should not be a homework assignment for clients — as in, “Please email me some names by Friday.” Instead, specifically identify the clients you are looking for so that referring becomes a relatively easy response for your clients.

PROPS & PUSHBACK

Here are a few other things I do that make it easy for clients to send more business my way.

  • Provide props. Make it clear to clients that you want them to keep you in mind over the long term by giving them business cards, brochures or even studies to share. If I’m looking to work with more divorced women, I might provide one of my reports, Suddenly Single: How Divorced Women Can Gain Financial Independence. I figure that even if it ends up with a stack of papers on my client’s desk, the title alone could remind her to mention me the next time a newly divorced friend says she has financial worries.
  • Mention your minimum. Many of your best clients may not be aware of your minimums, and that’s a tricky bridge to cross once they make a referral. If I’m asking clients for referrals, I usually say, “Ideally, I am looking to add clients with $3 million to manage.” That way, if they do recommend someone who doesn’t meet my minimum, they aren’t surprised if I wind up referring the prospect to another advisor.
  • Handle possible pushback. Your clients might not want to share you. They might worry that by taking on a new client, you’ll have less time to spend with them. Accordingly, I’ll often move the focus away from me and onto my current clients. I note that I intentionally limit myself to 70 to 80 relationships. I also say that adding a few clients with a minimum of $3 million who are good fits takes up less time than adding many clients with fewer assets to manage.
  • Raise a glass. Occasionally, I invite five couples or so to a wine-and-cheese reception; I also host an annual client appreciation event. These events are ideal venues for prospective clients to ask questions in an informal atmosphere. If a client mentions that she has a likely prospect, I encourage her to invite that person to one of these social events to meet me and my staff.
  • Keep a family tree. It’s important to keep your referring clients apprised of your progress with their referrals — and to record how each referral who becomes a client relates to the rest of your clients. For example, I work with several members of an extended family who regularly go cycling together — talking investments while they ride. If I mention one structured product to one member, I have to offer it to everyone connected to the family tree.
  • Say thank you. Try something more personal than an email. I rely on my sister Linda’s beautiful handmade cards. In addition to sending them on clients’ birthdays and anniversaries, I use them to thank clients personally for referrals. It’s so rare to receive handwritten notes that these cards really stand out. 
  • Make a great first impression. I tell my staff that on every opportunity to touch a client, whether by phone or with a note, we have two possible results: We can increase or decrease our value. There’s no middle ground. To ensure that we make a great first impression on prospects, I brief my entire staff when a client makes a referral, especially if that person is well known. When a prospect identifies himself on the phone, I want him to be greeted in a warm and inviting way.
  • Reciprocate. If you ask a client for referrals, you might also offer to refer her as well: “The next time a friend needs a general contractor, I’ll be sure to mention your name.” Some advisors even have a book of client businesses with business cards in their waiting room. Of course, before you include a client in any promotional effort, be sure to check about privacy concerns. Some clients don’t want others in the community to know they are working with an advisor.

While my approach for referrals is effective, it’s not systematic or aggressive. Rather than put clients on the spot, I choose to gently, but routinely, remind them that I’m interested in new clients.
If you need a push to ask for referrals, keep in mind that there’s something in the referral process for clients, too: They get to look like heroes for introducing their family members or friends to the top-notch service you deliver. Meanwhile, the referring clients become more invested in their relationship with you because you share another personal connection. How’s that for a win? 

Kimberly Foss, CFP, CPWA, is a Financial Planning columnist and the founder and president of Empyrion Wealth Management in Roseville, Calif. Follow her on Twitter at @KimberlyFossCFP.

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