Most lawyers say they receive the majority of their business through “word of mouth” or referrals, even in the internet age. But how can you improve your referral rate?
Be a Good Networker
Networking and building your system of contacts is the obvious first step in boosting your referrals. To get business, you first need to build your reputation and get to know people so they can develop trust in you and your work.
If you want to boost your referrals, focus more on building relationships with other professionals, strategic alliances and referral sources and strengthening your relationships with existing and former clients, and less on your own desire to make connections or to get new clients. Approach referrals from the perspective of someone who wants to help others, rather than someone who is looking for business.
You can find some additional networking tips in my previous post: “Networking Online or Off: The Same Rules Apply.”
Create a Client–Focused Practice
A client-focused practice looks outward and considers how you can benefit your clients first and how you can create an exceptional client experience for them, rather than looking inward at what you do. Know your clients well, and provide them with an experience they won’t get anywhere else. If you do that, and actually put your clients first on a daily basis, those clients will want to refer other business to you, and will return to you when they have a future need.
To create an exceptional client experience, first you need to target the right kinds of clients. Create an ideal client profile – a composite picture of your best clients. Once you have a clear picture of your ideal client, it’s easier to focus on what is important to them, where to find them, how to attract them, and how to serve them well. Measure each new potential client against the standard of the clients who fit your ideal client profile. Those that don’t measure up might be better off elsewhere.
Identify and manage clients’ expectations from the very first meeting. Communicate how you bring value to the client’s matter and how your services help them to meet their goals and expectations. Check in throughout the engagement to ensure that the client’s expectations have not changed. Show a genuine interest in the client, not just their matter. Continue to stay in touch with clients after the engagement has concluded.
Narrow Your Practice Areas
It may seem counterintuitive to narrow the focus of your law practice, but often establishing a niche practice brings you more, not less, business.
Consider another professional practice – medicine. Would you rather see a doctor that may have seen only a few patients with your particular medical problem and also treats other illnesses, or a doctor that deals with your particular illness or injury and successfully treats patients like you every day? The same principle can be applied to a law practice.
Having a niche practice or focusing your practice on a few areas in which you excel and can develop in-depth knowledge and skills will instill confidence in your clients. By establishing yourself in a niche, you’re more likely to get referrals from professionals and lawyers in other practice areas, and you may be able to collaborate with other attorneys in related fields on the specialized issues encompassed by your niche.
Too often, lawyers are too broad in the description of their practice because they don’t want to turn away business. This hurts referrals, since referral sources don’t know exactly what kinds of clients to send you. As a result you’re lumped into a general “lawyer” category with many others. This makes you easy to forget, and referral sources may be hesitant to send clients if they are unsure whether you are the right fit for the client’s needs.
Establishing yourself as an authority in a particular field brings more focus to your marketing efforts and the referral process. Just because you focus your marketing or your practice on a particular niche doesn’t mean you are required to turn away clients in other areas if you’re equipped to handle those matters as well. But having a niche makes you more memorable to referral sources. And believe it or not, your focus may make you more attractive, even for clients that need services that technically fall outside of your niche if you’ve established a reputation as a skilled lawyer in a related area.
Keep Track of Inquiries
Do you know how many inquiries you received about your services last year? Last quarter? Last month? Where did those inquiries come from? How many of those inquiries resulted in an initial consultation? How were those potential clients referred to you? How many resulted in a paying client?
If you can’t answer the above questions easily and quickly, you’re not tracking this information effectively and you’re probably missing valuable opportunities. Without this information, you won’t know which referral sources are the most lucrative or result in the best clients. Failing to track this information also reduces the chances that you’ll consistently follow up on potential leads that could become paying clients.
This information will help you determine which referral sources understand your services and send you the best clients and which ones may need further education about what kind of referrals you’re looking for. Knowing this information also provides a good opportunity to thank your referral sources (which may help them refer even more business to you).
Educate your referral sources
Receiving the wrong kinds of referrals can spell problems. Sometimes it’s hard to turn clients away because they’ve been referred by a friend, colleague or client, even if the client isn’t the right fit for your practice. Let a referral source know if you can’t take on a particular client, but whenever possible, provide the name of another lawyer who might be able to fill the need. Use that opportunity to educate them about the kind of work you do and your ideal clients.
Make sure your referral sources know exactly what kind of business you are seeking. Create an ‘elevator pitch’ that tells referral sources the kinds of clients you work with and what you can do for those clients. Describe the problems you solve for your clients and the symptoms clients with those problems will experience so that your referral sources can easily identify those potential clients who would be a good fit for your practice.
Ask referral sources for introductions to specific people, or to others like them who might have business to refer. Suggest that you’d love to work with others like them, and don’t’ be afraid to ask if they know anyone who might benefit from your services. Provide free or discounted samples of work to referral sources. For example, you might provide a free or discounted will for a referral source, or give them books, CDs, checklists or other materials that demonstrate your expertise and what you do for your clients. A referral source who can speak about you from personal experience will carry much more weight with a potential client.
Reciprocate if possible, but don’t stress if you can’t send business to a referral source. Find other ways to help their business. Introduce them to connectors, be a resource, give them information that will help them with their business, or ask them to accompany you to an event.
Stay in touch
Use your calendar to create reminders to follow up with any new connections, strategic partners, referral sources, inquiries or potential clients. Make your own rules about when you want to follow up (one week? two weeks?) and schedule those follow ups on your calendar. Stay in touch with existing and former clients and old referral sources on a regular basis so you always stay “top of mind.”
Be a Good Referral Source
To receive more referrals, you need to be a good referral source yourself.
- Make sure you know what the client needs so that you can direct them to the appropriate person for help. This is where having a strong network comes in.
- Refer only to those in whose skills you are confident and with whom you think the client will have a good experience. Your priority should be helping the client get the help they need from someone who is competent to do the job.
- Contact the person you are referring the client to so they will be prepared. You may want to get permission from the client to give the referral their name. If permission is given, make a direct introduction.
- Follow up – ensure the client received the help they needed, and solicit feedback from the client about the referral process and their experience with your referral, so you know whether to refer others in the future.
Treat Referral Sources Well
Think about your referral sources the same way you think about potential clients: how can you help your referral sources increase their business? How can you help them to improve?
Rather than focusing on what connections your referral sources, clients and former clients can make for you, think about what connections you can make for them. Show an interest in them as people, both inside and outside of business. Keep your eyes and ears open for ways to help them grow and prosper – even if they’re completely unrelated to your practice, or even to the law.
Always thank a source for a referral, even if it doesn’t turn into a client. Newsletters, personal letters and gifts are nice, but it’s the long term relationship and genuine caring about referral sources, their clients and their businesses that is going to drive referrals to your door.
As my friend Barbara Nelson says, “The best gift you can give a referral source is that you take very good care of their referrals. They can trust you. Your good service gives them credibility as well, with the clients. Don’t worry about reciprocity in kind. Be grateful, get to know the referral sources, and perhaps there will be something you can do for them.”
If you approach the referral process from the perspective of giving to others, helping them grow and succeed and developing relationships with them, rather than just trying to use them or squeeze additional business or referrals out of them, you’re more likely to meet with success.
If you’re the kind of person who likes people, likes to talk to them, find out what they do for a living, who they know, where they live and what their hobbies and interests are, you will generate referrals naturally. People like others to show an interest in them. When that interest is genuine, people respond. When they like you and feel that you like them, the business will follow – even when you don’t expect it.