Turning clients into advocates

  • By John Sharkey
  • 26 September 2012 00:00

In our previous blogs we explored the themes of service standards, client feedback and complaint handling. In the third instalment of our delivering service excellence we look at how we can turn our client into advocates so you can generate more clients.

The cornerstone of delivering a quality client service is to exceed their expectations. If you are able to consistently exceed expectations then you will not have 'just clients', you will have 'advocates'. These people are your free marketing department and they are much more valuable to you than just being just clients, and how you develop advocacy in your client base is a key theme of this blog.

Who are your advocates?

It is likely that many of your current clients are already acting as advocates of your firm. They are the clients who are most enthusiastic about the service they are being provided with, and the relationship you have forged with them.

Tips on asking for referrals

New business opportunities generated from referrals are extremely valuable to your firm as they make it easier to build the trust that is so important when selling professional services. A measure of 'reflected trust' is created when you are referred by a trusted source.

The tips below are intended to help you overcome the concerns you may have over asking for referrals and provide you with guidance on how to approach this element of your business development role with confidence and competence.

1. Don't assume they will refer you without being asked

Don't assume your clients will automatically refer you to their friends or business contacts. Some will but most of them won't. Most of them have their own concerns in running their businesses, so they are not automatically thinking about helping you to grow your business and get more clients. Providing you have delivered an excellent service, most of your clients will be happy to recommend you, it's just that it isn't uppermost in their minds...unless you ask them!

2. The best time to ask

The best time to ask for referrals is directly after we have delivered an excellent service and added value to their business. It is when this value is still fresh in their minds. This will significantly increase the likelihood of them agreeing to refer us. Make the asking of referrals part of your end of assignment routine. Many jobs end with a client meeting which is the best time to ask.

This is also the best time to ask them for testimonials. Don't expect them to come up with one on the spot; leave them a card or form they can use or ask them to email it to you.

3. How to ask

The best way to ask is to be polite, sincere and direct.

The 'general ask':

'I'm glad you are pleased with the work we have done for you. I'd really appreciate it if you could pass our/my details onto anyone else you know who would benefit from the services we provide for you. May I leave these business cards with you?'

Leaving business cards with your client makes it easier for them to pass on your contact details to others.

The 'specific ask':

'I'm glad you are pleased with the work we have done for you. We are always looking to help businesses like yours, who see their accountants as a valued business advisor/important part of their business. I wonder if you know anyone else who would benefit from the services we provide for you?'

If they provide names, take down the details and establish whether they would be happy for you to contact them or if they would prefer to pass your information on to the contact themselves. If they don't provide names, follow the route of the 'general ask' above.

The above approaches can be made even more specific by letting your client know the type of referral client you are looking for (e.g industry sector, size, start-up, established, owner-managed etc.) and the type of service you are looking to provide them with.

4. How not to ask

Avoid the 'vague ask', for example:

'If you hear of anyone who might need our services, I hope you will keep us in mind.'

Whilst this is better than not asking at all, it does not create the clear picture of the businesses you would like referred to you nor what you are asking your client to do on your behalf.

5. Face-to-face works best

Asking for referrals works best when it is done face-to-face. It is more respectful of our clients and it is more successful. People are more likely to do something for you if you are in front of them.

For those clients that we don't meet face-to-face, asking for referrals by phone or email is acceptable, with the phone being preferable. Burying your request for referrals as part of a standard email signature or by a general request on your website is the least recommended route but it still beats not asking at all.

6. Don't be concerned about appearing pushy

Many accountants are concerned they will appear 'pushy' by asking for referrals. Remember that most people like to help other people, so assuming you have helped them through your delivery of excellent service, you will not come across as pushy. They will understand that as a fellow business person, referrals are an important part of developing your business.

7. Take advantage of opportunities to refer business to them

A great way of encouraging your clients to refer business to you is by referring business to them. This will significantly increase the likelihood of them referring business to you, especially if you have asked them to.

Think of your other clients and which ones may complement each other, then offer to introduce them or take them both to lunch etc.

8. Use the internet for research

Although it is always better to ask for referrals face to face, the internet can be a great source of information. Look at your clients' websites, see if they have their clients listed, if so, are there any of them you would be interested in working with.

If your clients are on LinkedIn and actively use it - i.e. they have a good number of connections, then connect to them and then spend some time looking at their connections. You may be surprised by who your client knows.

If there are any of their connections you are interested in, next time you speak to the client or meet with them - ask them directly about that particular contact. For example:

'I noticed on LinkedIn you are connected to [name] and his company seems to be the ideal type of client for us. Would there be any chance of you introducing me to him?'

The same can be done for bank and solicitor contacts. Next time you are networking with your bank contact ask them directly about specific businesses you know that bank with them and ask if there would be any way they can introduce you to them.

9. What's the worst that can happen?

Provided you have asked them for referrals in a polite and professional way, the worst thing that can happen is that the client says 'No'. That's not the end of the world or your relationship with them. At least then you can then move on to your next advocate who almost certainly will be happy to refer you to others.

In our next blog we shall look at creating effective relationships.

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