Brand differentiation: nothing left to chance

A sound network of contacts is vital to the long-term success of any practice, but finding and keeping contacts is the tricky bit.

Where would we be without our network of contacts? What would the quality and quantity of your work look like without their influence? But how productive can such a network be?

Many believe that referral networks are more incidental by design and best left to chance. Increasingly though, accountancy fi rms are adopting a more strategic approach to the work they win through referrals. Their aim is a well-managed network of contacts from whom they receive a regular flow of good opportunities. But converting the ambition into real success requires effort — focused, high-quality effort that is planned, reviewed, recognised and rewarded.

The starting point is often plotting current referral patterns and considering the quantity and quality of leads over a given time period. The analysis should assess the dynamics of the individual referrers, their personality and motivational factors. Some firms also track what recognition/reward they give in return. With this information a detailed picture emerges of what the prolific referrers look like, what business they account for and what motivates them to bring new leads to the firm.

The firms then consider what volume and quality of leads they would like to generate in the future. Usually there is a gap between where they are now and where they want to be. This reveals the referrers whose relationship must be protected at all costs. It also flags those current referrers who have untapped potential and whose relationship needs developing. Finally, it highlights where new (and potentially unknown) referrers are required if the overall targets are to be met.

The next stage is to consider the level of effort needed to make the network more effective. For the prolific referrers this best takes the form of a plan, one which seeks to widen their awareness of the firm and open up opportunities for face-to-face dialogue (vital for building trust and their relationship with you).

To support the implementation of these plans successful firms are reassessing fee-earners’ time allocations and building in necessary resources. Accountants are being given support to develop the key skills and behaviours, which will help them build trust with referrers. Energy is also spent refocusing and communicating the firm’s reward and recognition systems so that they support and not challenge the network’s evolution.

But how best to encourage referrals from third parties? The professionalism of many accountancy professionals often makes them uncomfortable in asking for business. They certainly do not want to come across as pushy or desperate for work.  While these are worthy concerns, if your firm has done a great job or has saved a client angst or money why not offer that expertise to others?

The position of trust an accountant builds does make the asking a lot easier. As does knowing when is the right time to ask. It may be at the end of the project or ‘just in time’ to satisfy a particular need.

Any referrer that brings your firm a piece of business needs to be confident that the work will be delivered to a high standard. The more you can keep the referrer informed about the progress of the project, the more chance you have of reducing their concerns and spotting potential problems.

There are no hard and fast rules about how best to thank referrers for any leads they pass on. For some, a simple ‘thank you’ for the leads they pass will suffice. Many, however, will want more from the experience. It might not necessarily be for leads in return. The type of reward or recognition will depend on the individual concerned. Don’t be afraid to ask.

The most successful firms view their referral networks as being in a constant state of evolution. They regularly need reviewing and tweaking to ensure all the effort invested brings the desired effects.

They do this is a number of ways. Firstly, they keep in touch with their referrers. This enables them to keep the firm at the forefront of a key contact’s mind in preparation for a potential opportunity arising. At the same time, they ensure the referrers are kept up to date with the firm’s latest achievements and capabilities. It also enables these firms to ensure they have an understanding of their referrer’s current successes and achievements.

Accountancy firms need to monitor the leads coming in against the energies their people are investing. Tracking what the firm gains versus what resources it has invested will determine what further actions are needed or whether a particular relationship needs to be allowed to dwindle.

Taking ownership and control of your firm’s referral networks is a tough but rewarding exercise. Referrers are often much more valuable than clients in terms of their long-term fee-income generation. Just think, how many know of your firm today? What more could your firm be doing to build your relationship with them?

A good reference

Tired of leaving your referral network to chance? Consider the following:

  • How does your network look now and how should it look in future?
  • Why should contacts refer business to you in the first place?
  • Which activities could you target at referrers to raise their awareness of your firm?
  • How could you build a closer relationship with your referrers?
  • How could you improve how you encourage referrals of business?
  • How good is your work and communication to referrers when you work on their leads?
  • What do your referrers gain in return?

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