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  • Referrals

Three Mistakes Most Financial Advisors Make When Asking CPAs and Attorneys for a Referral

April 22, 2013

Building an advisory practice today is challenging: according to Cerulli Associates, there are more than 300,000 client-facing advisors chasing the 15.4 million households that control 87% of the wealth.1,2 Take a moment and do the math; there just aren’t that many high-quality prospective clients available in the marketplace—and most of them have at least one advisor.

Because of this, the successful advisor needs to execute more creative methods for generating new clients. My experience with advisors over the past two decades has confirmed that one of the most efficient ways of doing this is to educate CPAs and attorneys—who already have earned their clients’ trust—about the unique ways you can solve an investor’s problems.

Of course, your competition goes to the same workshops and reads the same articles you do. Plus, over the years investors have become more sophisticated, and so has your competition. As a result, your message will need to be especially poignant to stand out from the pack.

Why Valuable Is Not Referable

In spite of these challenges, the importance of building a professional network should not be dismissed. The ability to work effectively with professionals, such as CPAs and attorneys, could be the key to growing your business more rapidly and much more efficiently. Professionals like these are in a uniquely powerful position to make high-quality referrals: they have earned the trust of successful individuals and families; they are knowledgeable about financial matters; and they already provide advice about many other decisions that their clients have to make.

Unfortunately, as a group they are inundated with requests from Financial Advisors (FAs) and other vendors who are trying to tap into this lucrative network. The good news is that most of the other messages are primitive and merely focus on defining a range of services or describing the basic “service orientation” of their advisory practice. In most cases, their messaging is all about the various ways in which they care for clients—their “valuable” services.

While these types of messages do a good job of describing the valuable services the FA offers, they are not referable—they don’t motivate a professional to take the reputational risk of making a referral. We’ll talk more about this idea of “risk” later. For now, it’s important to recognize that professionals will not refer clients to you simply because you show up and talk about what you do. Referable messages are different from messages about the value of what you do. They are much more about the needs of the person you are hoping to serve—the audience of the message—and they require a very distinct type of structure and content in order to motivate action.

Why Professionals Don’t Make Referrals

To make your message stand out from the rest and truly resonate, it’s first helpful to understand why many professionals are reluctant to make referrals. After spending countless hours in seminars and meetings, I’ve learned from CPAs and attorneys that they are generally reluctant to make referrals for two reasons: (1) they are uncomfortable with the risk that making a referral exposes them to; and (2) the Financial Advisor doesn’t make it easy for them to move toward making the referral—the FA expects the relationship to accelerate from the introduction to a collaboration after a single 30-minute meeting.

Both of these objections can be overcome by avoiding three common mistakes that FAs make when reaching out to CPAs and attorneys. By avoiding these errors, which can interrupt the ability of that professional to make a referral, you can significantly increase the likelihood that the professional will choose to collaborate with you.

Mistake Number One

The first common mistake ties back to our earlier discussion of valuable versus referable. Many advisors feel the need to describe the services, processes and features of their business. The reality is that any worthwhile CPA or attorney knows what a Financial Advisor is and what most advisory firms do.

Additionally, peppering the conversation with overused phrases or hyperboles such as “superior service” or “more personalized attention” or “widest array of capabilities” doesn’t add any value. These statements don’t present an actual message or offer any compelling value—they aren’t memorable, never mind referable. Rather than motivate trust and comfort with the idea of collaboration, they stir up feelings of doubt.

Anyone who has achieved success in business has heard plenty of pitches. Successful CPAs and attorneys have heard more than their share. From these many and varied experiences, most professionals have developed a keen sense of skepticism, especially about exaggerated claims and hyperboles. For the advisor who wants to motivate referrals, it would be better to avoid meeting with a professional than to exaggerate the quality of your services or inflate the descriptions of your services.

Avoid this mistake by talking about a specific problem that a particular group of investors is currently struggling with and how you can solve that problem. The idea is to inspire the professional with the depth of your specialized knowledge—your expertise—and to invite him or her to engage you for the value of that knowledge. This kind of messaging is both valuable and referable; the CPA or attorney can decide on the merits of your message whether or not to refer a client.

Mistake Number Two

A second mistake commonly made by many advisors is to offer a referral in order to get a referral. This practice goes back at least several decades and is based on the hardwired human tendency to maintain reciprocity or fairness in relationships. While it is always beneficial to understand basic patterns of human behavior, I don’t recommend trading referrals for a very simple reason: it cheapens the nature of the conversation between you and the professional.

When you offer a referral as a way to inspire the other person to give you “back” a referral, you are turning the trust and regard you’ve built into currency or a commodity. This strategy also assumes that the professional is motivated by the goal of generating more revenue. It doesn’t address the “I’m taking a big risk in making a referral to this Financial Advisor” problem.

The CPAs and attorneys you most want to work with have plenty of business; their clients are important to them, and they won’t offer a referral as a way of “evening the score.” In fact, rather than thinking you expect a referral in return, the professional will likely assume that you want them to provide an important, high-quality professional service to the client. This is, of course, what they should think about when it comes to servicing new clients!

As in the first mistake, the key is to remember that the CPA or attorney needs to hear a compelling reason for making the referral. Sending them a client will most likely get you a heart-felt “thank you,” but until and unless you provide a clear and compelling reason for them to make a referral to you, that’s about all you are likely to get.

Mistake Number Three

The third mistake advisors make is simply asking the professional to take too big a risk. Essentially, the advisor says, “Here’s a problem some of your clients have—send them to me and I’ll fix it.” Outlining a problem some investors are facing and a solution that you offer is an effective way for you to showcase your knowledge of capital markets and of investment products. To the extent possible, message this way to as many professionals as you can. However, as you are messaging, always remember that, for the other person, making a personal referral to you is a big step. In many cases you’ll need to make it easier for the other person to overcome this barrier.

There Is a Solution

Instead of attempting to win the referral by using clichéd examples of your abilities, swapping referrals or expecting big commitments of interest after one or two meetings, I recommend the following:

  • Instead of describing general services, describe a specific problem and solution that you have to offer. For example: “I’ve been working with clients who are nearing retirement and worried about the volatility in the marketplace. For people with these particular concerns, I’ve been recommending [XYZ]. Would this type of strategy be useful to any of your clients?”
  • Instead of offering to trade a referral for a referral, offer a compelling reason to make the referral (solve a problem) that will cause the CPA or attorney to make a referral to “take care” of a client. Consider beginning with an offer such as, “If you have a friend or client who has [define the specific financial problem] and needs to talk to an advisor, I would make it a priority to be available for that person.”
  • Instead of asking the CPA or attorney to take a big step, provide a small, easy, intermediate step that he or she can take to move toward working with you. This step should be low risk and no cost. Two great examples of strategies that are working for many advisors today are (1) to offer to do a bond analysis for clients with large, individually owned municipal bond portfolios and (2) to provide a seminar to educate investors about recent changes in the municipal bond marketplace and some of the active management solutions that are available to address them.

By avoiding the common mistakes and instead focusing on (1) highlighting a dangerous problem that the professionals’ clients are exposed to, and for which you have a solution, (2) making yourself available as someone who can solve a problem, and (3) providing a low-risk and no-cost intermediate step or trial experience of engagement, you can significantly increase the number of quality of referrals you garner from professionals. When this method is effectively designed and properly delivered, I know of no more efficient way to build a pipeline of new business.

1Cerulli Associates, , Intermediary Quantitative Update, 2011

2G. William Domhoff, “Wealth, Income, and Power”, 2013

For financial representative use only. Not for inspection by, distribution or quotation to, the general public.

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