Proven Ways to Obtain Referrals from Your Best Clients

Steve RileyAlthough great clients often refer other great clients, many attorneys have no strategic plan for eliciting referrals from their best clients, says law firm coach Steve Riley of the consulting company Atticus. In a recent webinar that was the sixth in ElderLawAnswers’ marketing funnel series, Riley described proven techniques for obtaining rewarding clients from your current best clients.  

“You have a unique opportunity to have a really great practice fueled by great clients,” said Riley, who himself practiced in the estate planning and elder law field for more than a decade before joining Atticus.  When he was an attorney, the bulk of his client base was developed through word-of-mouth referrals from highly satisfied clients and a network of legal and financial professionals. 

Because the clients you want will come from your current best clients, you don’t want to go after every client for referrals, Riley said.  The first step is to identify your targets – your current “A” clients.  When you tell them “I want people like you,” you want to be able to tell them what “people like you” means.  Think about criteria like the average fee per case, the revenue per case, the clients’ income threshold and family dynamic.

But before you start asking for referrals, Riley said, you first need to have a referral acknowledgment process in place.  His guess is that 90 percent of firms lack such a process.  “Don’t expect people to continue sending you work if you don’t acknowledge the fact that they’re sending you work,” he warned.

As a minimum standard, if someone refers you a case, they should receive a handwritten referral card within 24 hours of the referral showing up at your firm, Riley advised.  If the referral converts to a client, then another “thank you” could be a small gift, such as an Amazon gift card (which can be emailed), although be sure to check the ethical rules in your jurisdiction.  Riley likes to send books, and he adds a personal touch by creating his ‘thank you’ cards out of his kids’ artwork or his own photography using Shutterfly. 

Making the Ask

To get the actual referrals, attorneys need to practice the art of asking, Riley stressed, adding that “most lawyers are leaving a tremendous level of value on the table by not asking their best clients for referrals.”

 But rather than take the direct “Northwestern agents” approach of bluntly requesting that clients give the attorney a list of their friends, Riley suggested a more empowering ask:  “It’s been a pleasure working with you.  If anyone calls and mentions your name, I’d be honored to work with them.  If they call with your name, I’m on the phone as fast as I can.”  The first approach, he noted, is really about you, while the second is about the other person; it’s about how you like and value them.

Once you become comfortable with this sort of ask, you want to teach your team how to do it so that it’s second nature and you develop a culture of asking for referrals.  You might even want to consider building an incentive program around asking for client referrals.

Answering the Phones

Riley said that how you or your staff answers the phone can be a “big killer from a referral marketing perspective.” No matter how smart a lawyer you are, “it won’t matter one iota if your people are treating prospects terribly when they answer the phone.”  He advised putting a great deal of thought into who you hire as a receptionist.  Riley said that when he has done exercises with attorneys where people make calls to their firms posing as prospective clients, three-quarters of the time attorneys are appalled at how their firm handled the calls.

But Riley warned against outsourcing answering the phone to a virtual receptionist.  He said this can result in a delay in responding to a caller and a drop in referrals, usually leading to a decline in cash flow.  One elder law firm, he said, lost $60,000 to $80,000 in revenue the first month that it went to a virtual receptionist service.  Although you might be able to use an answering service for existing clients, “you probably want your prospect line answered live,” Riley said.  “There’s a big difference between providing good customer service and catching a live prospect.”

Another technique for generating referrals is to meet and tap your “A” clients’ own referral networks – their financial planners, CPAs, business lawyers, family law lawyers, property-casualty agents, etc.  These are people you can request an introduction to who can be referral sources for you as well. 

Similarly, Riley encouraged his listeners to make efforts to meet their “A” clients’ families by hosting events that integrate the next generation, such as a family meeting or workshop.   

Practicing TOMA

Riley also had suggestions for raising a firm’s profile in the community, thereby generating more referrals. The goal is to maintain top-of-mind awareness (TOMA) of a firm among clients and referral sources.  To do this, the firm needs a strategic way of connecting with referral sources and clients, whether it’s an email newsletter (like ElderLawAnswers monthly Client e-newsletter), a print newsletter, a webinar, or a workshop.   Whatever the medium, “the communication must have some sort of value to the recipient,” Riley said. 

You might also consider creating client-only events to which clients can invite others.  Riley identified three types of events: the traditional successor trustee workshop, a session on recent changes in the law, or an event like a golf tournament that integrates a favored charity.  “My experience has been that fun events are more effective at getting referrals,” Riley said, citing cooking classes or a group outing to a sports event as examples.

Finally, it’s important to build the firm’s community engagement, especially in senior-related cause like a local Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease chapter.  And make sure this community involvement is showcased in your annual marketing. 

Webinar host Harry Margolis mentioned that his firm’s business increased the year after he ran for a local office. (Harry finished a strong second against a well-entrenched incumbent.) 

Riley called running for office “a very common old school traditional marketing technique [for lawyers],” but cautioned that the race can become a full-time job.

In closing, Riley advised his listeners not to try to implement all his ideas for garnering client referrals all at once.  Instead, pick one technique and try to implement it over 90 days.  Riley predicted that attorneys who are able to ask their best clients for referrals will see a doubling or tripling of income within two to three years.  

Riley’s webinar was part of a series of webinars titled “The Elder Law Marketing Funnel.”  For more information about the funnel and past webinars, click here

To view Riley’s hour-long webinar, click here