Although most of my clients have already built up a good base of clients, I am also often asked how can (typically less experienced) accountants and bookkeepers get more clients. And I see plenty of such questions in online forums.
Of course there is no single activity which will work for everyone all the time. Especially as the implication behind the question is how to get new clients from a cold start.
Answers to the question typically include creating a website (that no one knows is there), being active on social media (where no one is looking) and networking (where it takes time to build relationships, trust and confidence)
There’s some value in each of those suggestions, of course, and certainly when you’re starting out, you’ll probably need to promote yourself ‘cold’, through advertising, marketing and other forms of ‘door-knocking’.
However, most experienced accountants tell me that ‘referrals’ and networking are how they generate new business – even though they rarely have any form of referrals strategy. In other words, they have reached the stage where they get all the referrals they want without doing very much beyond looking after their clients well.
Of course, not all of the referrals they get are to the type of ideal clients they want to be working for, the type of work they most want to be doing and who are willing to pay a decent fee.
So that is key too when considering how to get more referrals. They have to be more of the referrals you really want. Your ideal referrals.
What would make an ideal referral for YOU?
Until you are clear on this, how can you expect anyone else to know?
When I ask accountants this question they often answer by reference to a size or style of business. An industry sector or worse by starting their reply with “ANYONE who…”
The more specific you can be the more likely yo are to get more of the referrals you really want. And please keep in mind that you will only get referrals to a PERSON not to a business. You probably want to be referred to business owners but you may want to reach FDs, CEOs or even bookkeepers.
Review your best referrals
- Think of the last few good-quality clients that came through referrals
- Who did they come from? (The referrers)
- What did the referrers say about you?
- What services did the person you were referred to need?
- What contact was involved? (Email, voicemail, face to face …?)
- Did they also check out your website or online profiles?
- How well did the referrers know your services before making the referral?
- Had you ‘educated’ your referrers?
These questions should reveal both strengths and weakness in relation to your ‘referral strategy’.
Summarise your ‘referral audit’
Having found out how and why people currently refer you will help you to understand your business better, who to ask for referrals and how to ask for referrals in the future. Do you get referrals simply because you are well liked? You are fast? You are cheap? Or for some other reasons?
ASK for referrals
It’s not rocket science – you’re more likely to get the referrals you want if you ask the right people for them. Even if you ask badly, you’re likely to get more than if you don’t ask!
And you want to ask for referrals in the same way of similar types of people. Being consistent builds the habit of asking for referrals, which of course gets you more referrals of the type you want!
When you tell your clients that referrals are how you like to grow your practice, it can help remove the pressure if you say something like:”If you know anyone who runs a similar business to you – don’t worry, I’m not asking you to think of anyone right now – who is complaining about their accountant, who seems unsure about their finances or who might benefit from a more hands-on approach, please do put us in touch”.
If it’s an existing client, you may not need to explain what you do, but you do need to be clear on the type of referral you want.
I’ve seen accountants with email signatures that include a request for referrals to “Anyone who needs help with their taxes”. ANYONE? Really?
Check your website works for you and not against you
How many good referrals might you have lost because the person struggled with your website?
You might be getting more referrals than you think but then losing them due to your website or online profiles.
Make it EASY for people to refer you
Ensure they are clear about the kind of referral that you need, and help people know how to describe you to their friends and colleagues. Most people are happy to help, but they don’t want to make any effort to do so.
If someone’s happy to refer you, offer to send them an email with your details, or give them your quick ‘value message’. Work out what forms of contact are easiest and so on.
It’s a simple rule – the easier it is for someone to refer you to a precise target market, the more likely it is to happen.
Give potential referrers confidence
Remember that when someone refers you, they’re putting their own reputation on the line.
You can increase their confidence in making referrals to you if you let them know what your ‘referral process’ is.
You might want to reassure them that you’re not going to ‘sell’ at their friend/colleague.
Something like ‘Just so you know, when I get a referral, I usually send an email with details and a link to my website, and then let your friend get in touch with me if they’d like. I don’t hassle people, or chase them up’.
Thank your referrers
You can help increase the prospect of further referrals if you keep a referrer in the loop. So I’d encourage you to:
- Thank them properly for the referral
- Let them know what’s happening with the referral if it’s a long process
- Let them know what the result was (even if you don’t win the client
This is the right thing to do, but also builds trust and confidence in you for the next referral.
This can be another route to referrals – but it typically needs to be a two-way street. You might, for example, look to build relationships with local estate agents, local solicitors, financial advisers and other people who do not compete with you but who meet the type of people to whom you would appreciate being referred.
Some local networking groups actively encourage such mutual referrals. The key word here is MUTUAL. There needs to be something in it for the referrer.
In reality you are only likely to be happy referring people to a third-party service provider once you are confident they know what they are doing and will look after your introduction. No doubt they feel the same way about referring anyone to you. So you should NEVER attend a networking event in the expectation that you will immediately be able to generate referrals for your practice.
Try to reframe how you think of referrals. Try to give them some priority in your business. Think of them as ‘The easiest, cheapest, quickest way to increase my revenue AND work with clients who are pre-sold, high-quality and likely to be loyal’
Part of a really successful accounting practice is creating a sense of ‘community’ around what you do – exactly like I’m trying to do in my Sole Practice Club. Making it easy for people to refer you helps to build a community around your practice.
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