Referrals: Why (or Why Not) Ask Why?

Jul 10, 2012

When two people offer differing opinions, it can be good for everyone. In the case of referrals, it can be great. Any opportunity to get more prospective clients in the door is a win — so when Dan Richards, founder of ClientInsights, reached out to me to disagree with one of my posts, we both thought it would be a good exercise to share our opinions publicly with our readers and let you decide what works best for you.

Last week, I wrote an article called “Referrals (Or How I Got Someone’s Uncle Fired)”. The theme of the post was to show that referrals don’t come by the typical “Do you know anyone that can use my services?”, but more likely happen when a client identifies a need of a friend or family member and can articulate the benefits of working with you. Dan and I agreed on that point. The question is — how do you get a client to articulate those benefits?

I had suggested:

“The next time you have a meeting with one of your better clients, instead of the usual, “If you’re happy with my service, please refer me,” take five minutes at the end of the conversation and ask:

• Why did you select me as your financial advisor?

• If someone asked you to describe how I’ve helped you, what would you say?

• What was the trigger that made you decide to get financial advice and/or change advisors? Was there a problem you wanted to solve?”

Dan’s article disagreed with my approach:

“[The] problem with asking clients to articulate our value [is] the risk that it positions us as salespeople rather than professionals. We all want to be seen as professionals, equivalent to lawyers, accountants and private bankers. Well, if you want to be viewed like accountants and lawyers, you have to act like accountants and lawyers.”

“Can you imagine a partner in a Big Four accounting firm asking ‘Why did you hire me? What did you like about the job I did?’ Can you visualize a successful lawyer asking: ’How did I help you? What problem did I solve?’ Or can you see a private banker dealing with multi-million dollar investors saying, as one referral coach advises: ’Please don’t keep me a secret.’

“There’s a simple test for every conversation, whether with existing or prospective clients. That test: would a successful accountant, lawyer or private banker say this?”

Comparing apples to apples?

As I said, I actually think Dan and I are on the same page in the first part of his post — referrals don’t come when someone just asks for them. But we differ on the second part (what he called “the private banker’s rule”). Here’s why — when I go to a CPA or attorney:

• I am typically going for a transaction with a specific tangible outcome, such as getting my taxes done or writing a will. Both parties know why I’m there and what the results were. When the transaction is done, we move on.

• I’m (typically) not paying an ongoing retainer. With advisors, you can have years of advice with multiple changes and challenges along the way.

I don’t have an issue with asking people why they started with me and why they continue, as I think it can also help them (and me) have a better understanding of the value that is provided. And that can lead to an internal script that will reinforce your value down the road.

What do you think? Post a comment or send me a note; I will share it with Dan. I think we can all agree that we’re all looking for the best methods that result in more prospects meeting with us.

If you are not familiar with Dan’s work, you owe it to yourself to view his site and sign up for his emails. Dan is one of the few authors that I read regularly and would encourage you do the same. Dan’s website is

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John Anderson

John Anderson

John Anderson is the creator and lead author of Practically Speaking blog and Managing Director of Practice Management Solutions for the SEI Advisor Network.

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