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Acanthus insights:Six ways to support FrictionFreeReferrals™ for professional services firms and wealth managers

Posted on 6 June 2016.

For professional services firms and wealth managers, referrals from clients and their professional peer group has traditionally been the mainstay of new business generation.

However, ask most firms and they may not even measure or manage around this dynamic, often leaving fee earners and relationship managers to continue in the driving seat drawing support where they chose or are able from marketing, PR, operations and so on.

Yet in the last 10 years clients have become more demanding and more prone to conduct more of their purchasing and decision-making online.  Firms have often struggled to reorientate their resources to respond to this changing dynamic.

It is important that firms audit effectively the what where and how of prospects and referrals, (including asking clients and peers for feedback), that they organise around the new insights they uncover rather than outdated assumptions, and then provide coaching and training for everyone from front of house staff to fee earners to help them respond more effectively in order to encourage prospects through the increasingly erratic journey through the sales funnel.

Six commons issues that our auditing frequently highlights are:

1. Be clear what your value proposition is

I prefer to encourage firms to think about what makes them distinct rather than uniquely different which is generally a much harder thing to pin down for service providers unless they have a genuine client segment focus such as female client, tech entrepreneurs, particular professions and so on.  I also prefer value proposition to brand – brand is often a nebulous concept that many firms struggle to develop or embed meaningfully beyond their logo and corporate livery.

2. Make sure your clients are clear.

Realistically clients can’t refer you if they don’t know how you can help whom. Your clients may have come to you for a myriad of reasons and their viewpoint on your organisation will be coloured by the nature of their own interactions and relationships – it won’t be helicopter and it may not be up-to-date. They also don’t want their friends, family and business associates turned away creating embarrassment for all concerned if they try and match-make inappropriately.  Firms struggle to play back to the outside world what defines their ideal client but those that invest in client research and feedback find this easier as they have more pertinent and engaging insights to share.  Case studies and testimonials can also be helpful as a short hand.

3. Invest in client experience

“Goods are consumed, services are experienced,” as professional services management guru David Maister pointed out 20 years ago.  He was amongst one of the first to highlight the importance of client service particularly when clients cannot easily judge technical competence and because improving the quality of work can be costly and harder to accomplish than demonstrably improving the quality of service eg through instilling a more responsive attitude in professional staff.

Customer experience management can be described as “the practice of designing and reacting to client interactions to meet or exceed their expectations and, thus, improve retention, and increase their propensity to do business with you and refer you to others and/or be active advocates of your firm.” or, as Bruce Springsteen put it: “Getting an audience is hard. Sustaining an audience is hard. It demands a consistency of thought, of purpose, and of action over a long period of time.”

 Without a clear view on your client service methodology and procedures and mechanisms for ensuring quality of service, firms will struggle to please, impress and engage their clients and professional peer group. 

4. Identify referable moments

While a large majority of professional services firms talk about the importance of referrals to their business growth, few have a structured programme in support of referrals.

As part of any CX programme firms should consider how to integrate extra support for encouraging referrals. While engaged clients will refer more often, sometimes they need a helping hand, and your peer group certainly does.

Pockets of good practice often exist – particularly around larger key client relationships and or key referral relationships with other professional firms – but many still leave responsibility with individual fee earners/front office staff or teams, and fail to institutionalise best practice and maximise the opportunities across the firm.

A more ruthless tracking of where new business comes from and how is a prerequisite, and even in firms without good CRM systems there are always ways to do this better and it may involve asking new clients about their journey to your firm as it will unlikely to have been linear.  Opportunities to refocus activity more productively can almost always be found as a result and this process is also a good way of starting your clients’ engagement journey with you and your firm.  Sharing best practice is also key and experience tells me this is best done in small groups and regular sessions – I fear no-one’s looking at your knowledge sharing portal/intranet…

5. Making sure whatever online due diligence prospects do, you pass the test!

Ten years ago there was almost a badge of honour in some quarters in not really having an online footprint.  I still know smaller niche professional firms who have only just, reluctantly, put websites together (or redone sites that didn’t work on a smart phone). What used to imply a discrete standing in their market now just comes over as slightly disorganised or a bit out of touch.  It also makes recruitment harder.

Client engagement and their confidence in referring you needs to be backed up by their confidence that when you are Googled – individually or as a firm – you will emerge as a firm that’s present in the obvious places (doesn’t have to be everywhere but LinkedIn is usually a must-have), being clear about its value proposition, being seen to have a view on the key needs of its clients and the key topics of the day. If it doesn’t, for many prospects the journey will stop – the friction in their referral journey being too great to forgive your firm for being a paler shadow than their need for reassurance and confidence in you requires.

6. Make sure you don’t drop the catch

A referral may have been made but the route may be anything other than linear.  From Googling you, looking at your LinkedIn profile, trying to find your telephone number on your website, office address, trying to get through switchboard or general enquiry email, or worse still complicated enquiry forms, all these things hamper a smooth customer journey and affect a prospect's decision set.  You may never catch a referral that’s been passed to you if somewhere the ball’s been dropped.

Auditing and mapping prospect journeys across all channels is key.  Managing this sort of first contact activity is also a useful precursor to the roll out of wider client experience programmes as it is simpler, more containable and the return on investment easier to quantify in the first instance.

As Seth Godin says in All Marketers Are Liars: “It’s every point of contact that matters…..if you can cover all the possible impressions and allow the consumer to make them into a coherent story, you win.”

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