Referrals from clients or other sources accounts for at least 70% and 80% of new business for lawyers. I say that because three referral gurus say so, and based on my personal experience when I was an in-house marketer at two different law firms.

Accordingly, it makes sense to market to referral sources on a regular basis. Trey Ryder has a brief article that covers the basics. He warns:

  • If you don’t let referral sources know that you are accepting new clients, they may think that you are too busy, or not interested in certain kinds of work;
  • Keep referral sources informed about your practice and the types of clients you are interested in;
  • Market your sources by:

“Mail(ing) them (1) your educational handouts, (2) invitations to seminars, (3) newspaper articles in which you’ve been featured, (4) letters requesting referrals, (5) thank-you letters after receiving a referral, (6) outcome letters when the case has ended, (7) your firm newsletter, and (8) copies of your referral brochure inviting inquiries from prospects.”

Also, don’t forget to invite them to lunch or dinner, and entertain them just like you would a client. With so much of your business dependent on referral sources, it really is important not overlook or underutilize these business development sources.

In good times and in bad, getting noticed is obviously a critical factor in developing business. But especially in these economic times, it is even more crucial to be doing the kinds of things that allows your firm to stand out from the crowd.

In a post entitled "Getting Noticed" my friend Thom Singer over at Some Assembly Required points out one simple way to do that. As he says "I mean so simple it is nutty." The key according to Thom is to "Help other people."

Whether it is clients, referral sources or prospects from whom you are trying to attract work, the best way is to give before you get. You do that by finding out what is important in the other person’s life, and then try to help them reach their goals in any way you can. I agree that you can’t help everyone; but, if you become known as a person who is a magnet for success of others, more people will want to get closer to you and help you in turn.

Thom reminds us of the famous Zig Ziglar quote: "you will get everything in life that you want if you just help enough other people get what they want."

So, do unto others to help yourself and your firm.

Okay, the holidays are over. Time to focus on business. And the best source of new business is from existing clients (either in the form of new matters or referrals), and other referral sources. I have talked about this several times before. But don’t just take my word for it.

Paula Black had a post on her blog In Black & White earlier last month that I thought was too important to get lost in the holidays. So, I made a note to cover it early in the new year. She talks about two marketing strategies relating to referrals that individual lawyers and law firms should consider.

She conducted a survey of her readers, and learned that 65% of referrals came from "existing clients or other attorneys." Actually, if you include referrals from former clients, the percentage jumps to eighty; which matches exactly the number I was able to track at two of my firms when I was an in-house marketer.

Paula’s two strategies are both basic and simple to implement:

  • Work on generating more referrals by building up client relationships by improving listening, responding quickly, communicating more often and effectively, sending information of interest, and making (key) relationships more personal; and
  • Respond appropriately when receiving a referral by making sure to thank the referrer with a telephone call, a card (with handwritten note) and/or a small gift, and remembering to reciprocate.

Pretty basic I’d say — work harder at your client and referral relationships. Remember to thank all who make referrals, and send referrals in return. This will assure your getting more of them in 2010.

During coaching sessions I always ask clients “did you thank (so and so) for that referral you just mentioned?” Sometimes the response is “oh yeah, I need to do that.” Thanking referral sources should not be something you have to remember to do. It should be automatic. Best if you have a system in place that kicks in when you get a referral.

Nancy Myrland has an article in this month’s ABA Law Practice Today entitled “A Seven-Step Referral Recognition Program.” As she so correctly points out “Referrals are timeless, critical and obtainable if you follow some simple steps to encourage them.” They are also the major source of business for any law firm.

Nancy’s seven steps:

  1. Do great work so clients will want to refer others to your firm (some call them “raving fans”);
  2. Let clients and other contacts know that your business relies on referrals (if you’re hesitant or shy in doing that, see my earlier post “Use ‘We’ vs. ‘I’ In Asking For Referrals”);
  3. When referred a potential client, call or email acknowledgement and that you will keep them informed (I prefer a call or handwritten note thanking them for recommending your firm);
  4. Within “two days, send whatever your Level One Referral Recognition gift is” to the person who referred (Nancy is obviously a generous person, and must have tons of dough, as I would thank the person, but hold the “gift” for when you land the potential client);
  5. Schedule the meeting with the potential client, and let the referrer know about it and that you will keep them informed as to how it goes – thanking them again, of course;
  6. If you are retained, send a Level Two Referral Recognition (or cheapo Kane’s “only level”) gift with another handwritten note of thanks; and
  7. Once or twice a year, send special cards to all your referral sources thanking them for their previous support and how much it means to you.

Don’t be like a firm I heard about in New York that had received 10 referrals from another firm, and never bothered to thank them once. Think about how you would feel, and how long you would continue to refer work.

In my early lawyering days as an assistant attorney general in North Carolina, I had the privilege of having one of the best, most efficient secretaries possible. (I even tried to get her fiancée a job in town, so they wouldn’t move out of state after the wedding. He “suggested” nicely that I mind my own business.) I had one problem with her, however. Whenever I would use the word “we”, she would kid me by saying something like “what do you mean we kimosabe? It’s your job, and I’m just here to do your typing” (on a real typewriter, if anyone remembers what they looked like).

I got that flashback when I saw the article over on Automatic Referrals suggesting the use of “we” over “I” when seeking referrals. Man, did old Silver rein in on that one.

The point is a good one, however, especially when I think about lawyers I know who are shy, and would hesitate to do anything so bold as to ask someone to refer work to them. The article states that a lot of professionals don’t ask for referrals because they don’t want to appear desperate for work, or unsuccessful, or needy.

So, the article suggests using “us”, “our” and “we” (as in your law firm can do or offer…) in ways that “takes the emphasis of the conversation off of you…”

But, “we” need to keep this to ourselves. I’d hate for my former secretary to think I didn’t learn my lesson after all these years.

More importantly, are you serving others. I have always gotten a kick out of the British TV comedy by that name. My mother-in-law still watches it every chance she gets. If you want a laugh, check out some episodes on YouTube.

I thought about that show when I saw Thom Singer’s recent post on Some Assembly Required,
where he mentions the importance of helping others to help yourself. He quotes a famous line from Zig Ziglar, the super salesman, which goes: “You can have everything in life you want, if you will just help other people get what they want."

From a lawyer’s perspective, the same should be your approach to clients and referral sources. Offer to help them in ways that are not necessarily related to a client’s matter or an incoming referral.

When coaching lawyers, I often suggest a variation of Ziglar’s adage, which is “give before you get,” especially when it comes to your networking approach. Then, you will get a reputation for being a person who serves others.

In March I wrote a post about a client of mine who admitted being timid when it came to asking clients for work (or friends as I recall). There are also many lawyers who are shy when it comes to asking for referrals. One reason is that they don’t want to appear “pushy” or come across as a snake oil salesperson.

Today I ran across a post on Automatic Referrals that mentions the “no-pressure referrals” that Judith Cane talks about on Advisor Radio  (unfortunately, not being a financial professional, I couldn’t figure out how to register free as the post suggests – hey, I was on vacation last week and my mind hasn’t fully reengaged). Notwithstanding, I wanted to make a point about asking for no-pressure referrals without scaring off the referral source.

One option involves offering educational opportunities for potential clients to learn more about the dangers in your area of the law. On these occasions, you can outline the benefits to them by getting professional help without directly asking for their business. This can be done via newsletters or seminars.

So, let your referral sources know about the availability of such resources; and ask them if they know of anyone that might benefit from such information. In effect, this is an indirect referral since your contact is only providing the name of a “potential” client who may or may not benefit from information you are willing to share.

Every lawyer should have a good referral system in place, since at least 71% of new work comes from referrals, as mentioned in an earlier post. As that post noted, “giving vs. getting” is a very important element of any system. And every lawyer should check to insure his/her outgoing referral – whether to another lawyer, accountant, banker, etc. – was satisfactory to those being referred.

Bob Weiss has an item in the current issue of ABA’s Law Practice Today that points out the importance of checking on referrals you make to assure that the person was well served. A bad referral is worse than no referral. Bob suggests:

“Calling the person you referred soon after making the referral. Make sure the call was taken, or that the email sent or voice mail left was responded to timely. Eventually, find out how well the matter was handled, if the results attained were satisfactory and if the fees charged were fair.”

Then, provide feedback to the professional involved. He also recommends, when making a referral, to provide “three names,” so the client can make up their own mind after talking with each. Of course, let each referral contact know that you gave their name to a client. 

Focusing on prospects in a down economy – or any economy for that matter – is far down my list of suggested marketing priorities. On a scale of 1 to 10, I’d rank it a 15. Business development activities should be focused on existing clients and referral sources 99.9% of the time in my opinion. There are a few exceptions, but not many.

An aside: I had a partner one time, when I was in-house, who told me – no ordered me – to focus on bringing in new clients, and “stop wasting our time on existing clients we already have.” Putting a high priority on retaining existing clients, and trying to get more work or referrals from said clients was not on his radar screen. He was a bit long in the tooth, so his radar was WWII vintage, and we can pardon him for his lack of marketing sophistication.

Today, there is no such excuse. This past Wednesday, I had the privilege of listening to a free webinar hosted by John Jantsch of Duct Tape Marketing blog fame. His panelists consisted of three highly respected experts in the field of referral marketing – Ivan Misner, Bill Cates and Bob Burg. I thought I pretty much understood the value of referrals. Now, the word “clueless” comes to mind. To say the least, I learned a few things (and I expect I can learn a whole lot more) listening to these guys.

Here are a few of their pointers:

  • Key elements for a referral foundation: Visibility, Credibility, Profitability (includes reciprocal referrals);
  • Being referable – i.e., potential referrers know you (and what you really do), like you and trust you;
  • Common mistakes – not prepared, no system, no script, not collaborative and don’t ask for referrals;
  • Focus on giving vs. getting – add value by sending referrals first;
  • Develop trust – it is “the ultimate root and source of referrals;”
  • Over 71% of new business comes from referrals;
  • Women give two to three times more referrals than men;
  • Sources of referrals: clients, personal networks and strategic partners; and
  • “Referrals are King” in current economic climate – “More important than ever.”

That’s just part of what was covered in the webinar. You may want to buy one or all of their books to learn more. I intend to.

Thanks, John.

Oops. That note to a referral source might be a bit tardy, but a late “Thank You” is better than no thank you according to Thom Singer on Some Assembly Required, and I agree completely.

Further, I’m a big fan of handwritten notes, since they are used so infrequently these days. Especially with email and cell phones, it’s much easier and quicker to thank someone by such means, if one takes the time to show appreciation at all. But, that is why the handwritten communication means so much more.

 

But when is it too late to thank someone for a kindness, a referral, a meeting, a lunch or a whatever? NEVER. That’s Thom’s and my message. Of course one should express their gratitude as soon as possible, but heck we’re only human and we forget things. Just ask my wife.

 

So, if you are woefully late, just own up to your tardiness, apologize profusely, and thank the person for what they did for you. As Thom says:

 

"Your best way to get future favors is to say "thank you".  Even late, a Thank You Note is amazingly powerful."

 

And more so if it is handwritten.