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Hands down, the single best way to get clients is to have them referred. Word-of-mouth marketing brings a potential client to an attorney, because someone he trusts has given him that lawyer’s name. The problem is that most attorneys handle the referral process in a haphazard manner. They don’t develop the referral-generating skills or structures to create what is critical to client development: a referral system. Think what would happen to a lawyer’s practice if 20 people consistently sent him clients who pay on time, value his expertise, comply with his instructions and don’t call with ridiculous questions on evenings or weekends. This list of top 20 referral sources would continually update as people move, retire, etc., and it would be priceless. But such a list doesn’t get built by magic. Lawyers must work on it, in addition to being willing to develop those relationships. The place to start is for the lawyer to have his assistant look through his files for the past year or two and identify the referral source for each client. Once the lawyer has the list, he can easily identify the A-list clients and circle the name of the person who sent them. Don’t have 20 who have sent a significant number of clients? Most attorneys don’t. But finding one, or three or seven provides a place to start. Whatever the number of people on a lawyer’s top-20 list, make sure to acknowledge them in some fashion on at least a quarterly basis. This could mean setting up lunch, sending a gift, inviting them to an event or participating in an activity that’s of mutual interest, such as golf, hunting, tennis or a 5K run. Remember, just because they’ve sent referrals in the past doesn’t mean they will continue in the absence of a relationship that leads to top-of-mind awareness. Building the rest of a top-20 list begins with identifying two kinds of people: those who service the kinds of clients a lawyer desires and those who are centers of influence (COIs) in the community and know the kinds of clients a lawyer services. For example, referrals for a real estate attorney can come from builders, bankers and mortgage lenders. Estate planning lawyers can look to certified public accountants and financial planners. Family lawyers can look to psychotherapists, priests and ministers, who are all good referral sources. A COI could be anyone who is widely networked. She can give a lawyer names of people who can become referral sources and maybe even clients. Remember, a COI can be a current or past client, a friend or even a relative. Once a lawyer identifies someone as a potential for the top-20 list, she must convert him to a referral source. Here’s where it gets tricky: A lawyer must ask for referrals and do it in a way that is not pushy or in a manner reminiscent of a bad salesman. This is the place where many attorneys bog down and decide they hate marketing and don’t want to do it. Don’t think of the endeavor in terms of marketing. Think of it as building relationships. That’s what attorneys are good at. After all, they build relationships with their clients all the time, not to mention with colleagues and friends. The secret to building relationships with potential referral sources is to be more interested in them than in walking away with referrals. Call them to set up a breakfast or lunch meeting to brainstorm how to help each other’s business grow, given shared client types. For someone in the COI category with whom the lawyer does not already have a relationship, the lawyer should approach him by saying that he works with the lawyer’s target market; can he share thoughts on how best to approach this group? Most people feel complimented when others ask them to share their opinions, and they are glad to help. Once a meeting is set up, begin by asking questions about the other person’s business and interests. Be genuinely interested rather than trying to be interesting. The other person, of course, will want to know about the lawyer’s business, as well. After spending some time getting to know each other, ask some questions designed to unearth the top three frustrations the person experiences when referring a client to an attorney, or what has turned her off in the past about working with an attorney. Listen carefully; if a lawyer can honestly say that he would not do the things that the person finds annoying, the lawyer can then tell her what the referral process is and how he sets things up differently so those frustrations will not occur. For example, a common complaint from referral sources is that professionals to whom they’ve referred business never thank them. Lawyers can respond that they always call or send a note to anyone who refers someone, even if the individual does not become a client. Another typical complaint is that attorneys don’t return telephone calls. In that case — again, assuming it’s true — attorneys can let the person know that they or someone in their office always calls and acknowledges a person’s referral within the same day, even if it’s to say they won’t be able to return that call until a later time. This also would be the time to find out how the person prefers to make a referral. Does she like setting up a meeting between the referred person and the attorney? Would she rather the attorney give the person a call and just use her name as a referral source? Or would she like to call or e-mail the person first to tell her the attorney will be calling? Also, attorneys can educate the potential referral source about the way they deal with referrals. She may be wary that the lawyer is going to come on strong and harass the person with calls, e-mails, mailings and such. Reassure her by providing information about the process. Attorneys can detail how they do not inundate the person with marketing calls or materials, and then explain what they will do. For example, after a referral some attorneys call the person referred and explain the reason for the call. If the person says he is not interested in meeting, they may ask permission to subscribe the potential client to a monthly newsletter, to check back in six months or to send announcements of seminars. When lawyers explain how they treat referrals, this process builds trust and reassures the person that they won’t be doing anything to embarrass her. A SCRIPT This is the point in the conversation where many attorneys make one of several common errors. Saying something vague such as, “I’d really appreciate being kept in mind when you run into someone who could use my services” is not a direct statement asking for referrals. Asking a question that’s too broad is also a mistake: “My business builds by referral. Do you know anyone you might refer to me?” Even if the other person wants to provide a referral, his mind is likely to draw a complete blank, because the attorney hasn’t focused him on a particular group of people. It’s better if the lawyer refers back to information she’s gained from the meeting and asks for a specific category of person. For example, “Is there someone in your Rotary group who you would refer me to?” or “Do you know any other CPAs in your association who I could speak with?” or “Is there someone in your church who I need to meet so we can do business together?” Letting the source leave without a follow-up plan is also a mistake. He may say something such as, “Sure, let me think about it.” Rather than the common, “Thanks, I’d appreciate that,” reply with “I’d so appreciate it. Can I follow up with you middle of next week?” The key is to achieve control of the next step rather than being in the waiting position. If she says, “I’m going to be out of town most of next week, but let me give you a call when I have some names for you” her lunch partner might counter with “That would be great. And would it be OK if I call with a reminder if I haven’t heard anything from you by (date)?” When a person knows that someone is going to follow up, she becomes much more committed to thinking about who she can refer. In addition to having breakfasts and lunches with targeted potential referrers and influencers, attorneys shouldn’t forget past and current clients. After all, those clients have experienced the attorney’s work first-hand. Many of them can become excellent referral sources and may quickly become one of the top 20. Learning to ask for referrals in a professional, nonpushy manner is a skill lawyers can learn. They don’t need to be back-slapping extroverts nor do they have to change their basic communication styles. Lawyers always want to be themselves, authentically. But they do need to ask. Judi Craig is an executive coach and president of The Practice Advisor in San Antonio. She holds a Ph.D. and is a master certified coach. She coaches attorneys on critical practice management issues such as time management, productivity, client development, staffing and profitability. She also facilitates law firm retreats. Her e-mail address is [email protected].

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