A reader has asked me to post the following question: What are some good ways to ask for a referral? What would you suggest?
Archive for December, 2009
Transferring a relationship from one professional to another is best done while the client is working with your firm, because the work, itself, provides the professional seeking to pick up the relationship plausible reasons for staying in front of the client. There are two principal strategies. The rainmaker can step away from a relationship with a client, while a colleague moves in or the rainmaker can maintain her relationship with the client, providing a colleague the opportunity to develop a relationship with the client’s probable successor. I will call the former The Classic Transition and describe it here and the latter The Generational Transition and deal with it at another time.
The Classic Transition
A rainmaker starts a transition in account leadership by assigning a colleague to manage all other of the firm’s professionals working for the client company. Once the colleague knows the company’s issues and people, the rainmaker starts bringing him to meetings she has with her senior contact at the client. She plays the role of the senior representative of the firm at the meeting, letting the colleague do most of the talking with the client. If the client seems comfortable with the colleague, the rainmaker steps away from the account by:
- Never going to a meeting with the senior client contact without the colleague.
- Deferring to the colleague as much as possible and becoming increasingly quiet at meetings.
- Advising the client that she cannot attend a meeting and recommending that the client and colleague go ahead with the meeting without her.
- Letting the colleague schedule future meetings without her.
As the rainmaker steps away, the colleague must serve the client so well that he accepts the transition. He must, in the words of one rainmaker, get the client to forget the rainmaker’s phone number.
A couple of years ago, I attended a retreat for all of the new partners at a consulting and accounting firm. The CEO packed a lot of wisdom about the ways to be a successful partner into a twenty-minute, before-dinner speech. I have been turning one bit of advice over in my mind ever since. “Some of you know that when you started on one of my accounts, I always told you to make the client forget my phone number. And some of you did service the clients so well, that they did forget all about me. Now it’s time to encourage the people working on your accounts to make the clients forget your phone number.”
The CEO was addressing one of the perennially difficult aspects of selling professional services and building a practice, the safe transfer of a relationship between a client and a professional to someone else within the professional’s firm. Firms and their senior professionals need to do this for several reasons:
- Retirement: Most obviously, you can’t take a client with you into retirement—at least not if you truly mean to retire. Helping the firm keep your client will help it earn the money it will need to buy out your share of the ownership.
- Upgrading: You will sometimes develop an account that is not the most strategic use of your attentions. Turning the account over to someone else allows you to move on to bigger things.
- Specialization: Fewer people are good at developing new accounts than are good at managing and expanding existing ones. Smart managers of professional firms do all they can to keep the “finders” finding. To have the time for it, finders have to turn over existing accounts to minders.
- Organization Designed for Growth: Some firms build this kind of specialization into their organizational design. Partners mind accounts. To become senior partners, they must pass on these accounts to new partners and then go out and bring in new clients.
The process is commonly referred to as “handing off of a relationship,” a description so inaccurate, it can do harm. A relationship exists between two people and is the product of time spent together, of sharing thoughts and experiences. I cannot give my relationship with a client to you, even if the client were willing, because you weren’t there when the client and I shared those thoughts and experiences. The best that I can do is introduce you to the client and get out of the way while you and she share thoughts and experiences, so building your own relationship. Because “handing off” suggests something simple that I can do for you, it may lead you to sit around and wait for something to be given to you. It will never happen.
The words used by the CEO are much more accurate. I can set you up to meet my client one or more times, but then it is your responsibility to service her so well that she forgets my phone number. Rather than handing you something, it’s then my job to get out of the way, to disappear while you develop your own relationship with the person. How strong that relationship becomes has nothing to do with me, as long as I don’t interfere. It’s up to you and the client.
In a subsequent posting, I will provide some suggestions for doing this.
About a year ago, I ran a post asking how big a business referral network should be. Steve Shue, always helpful, posted a comment with links to discussions about Dunbar Numbers. Anthropologist Robin Dunbar hypothesized that a person could maintain around 150 stable relationships. Other estimates from other studies generally fall in this order of magnitude, though electronic communications may increase the number.
I have thought about Dunbar Numbers ever since and have some observations about them. First, definitions of “stable” may vary in different circumstances. For example, an auditor may only count client relationships that last many years as stable, but a professional who does many small projects, say a competitive intelligence consultant, may describe some relationships that last less than five years with the same word.
Second, not all relationships in a network are stable. We need to sort through several unstable relationships to find each one that becomes stable. Because the competitive intelligence consultant has a higher turnover rate in his core, stable network, he needs a larger pool of total relationships than the auditor does, in order to winnow through enough unstable relationships to keep sufficient stable ones. In my experience professionals with evergreen services generally don’t have networks as large as those who sell project work.
Third, when a person first deliberately starts to build a network, she must winnow through a large number of unstable relationships to do so. Also, in my experience, people building a practice must actively work larger networks than those who are well established.
Fourth, we do not look for stability in every relationship. It is quite possible to network with a person for a few months or years and then find that mutual benefit from doing so declines. Networks are full of special cases for special purposes, such as the person an architect networks with to pursue work in a specific distant location once or twice in a career.
All of this is a long way of making the point that to have a good referral network, you probably need to know more people than you think you do.
Being introverted, over the years I have tried a number of tactics to minimize the pain of large networking events. I have:
- Arrived late to shorten the event. This proved counterproductive, because mixing is easier if you arrive early and have a small number people talk with than if you arrive late, with the event in full swing and everyone already deeply engaged with each other.
- Stood in a corner waiting for someone to talk with me. A few did, but the pain between these infrequent chats was unbearable.
- Strode purposefully from place to place, though I really had nowhere to go. One can only do this for so long, before feeling foolish.
- Latched onto a friend or colleague for the whole event. This was more comfortable, but defeated the purpose of going in the first-place.
- Wandered around looking for a men’s room other than the one closest to the meeting room. Knowing where all of the conveniences are in a building that I never enter again has not proved particularly useful.
So eventually, I broke down and learned how to start conversations and mingle with the crowd. It’s not so hard if you ask questions that keep other people talking. Most people enjoy being the center of attention and will happily talk away, relieving you of the need to say much or to reveal much about yourself. Here are some things you can ask about:
- The event, itself. These questions put the other person in the position of being an authority, which most people like. Examples: Have you been coming to these meetings for long time? Do you find them useful? What is the mix of attendees usually like?
- A shared experience related to the event. Relationships are based, among other things, on shared experiences, so it doesn’t hurt to start with one. Examples: Did you have as much trouble finding this place as I did? How delayed was your flight getting in last night? Have you found a way to get within 50 feet of the bar?
- A subject cued up by something the other person is wearing. These cues often indicate a passion the person will be delighted to talk about. Examples: Do those anchors on your tie mean that you are a sailor? What is the significance of that lapel pin?
- Their companies, as shown on their name tags. Eventually, you will want to talk about their companies, anyway, so why not start there? Examples: How is Trigestis Pharmaceuticals weathering the current storm? Do you know Duncan Freely or Diana Tucker in your human resources department? Is Trigestis having as much of a struggle as other pharmaceutical companies coming up with new drugs?
- Sports. This is a reliable source of conversation for those who share the interest. (I choke on sports conversations.) Examples: How about them Bears? Did you see the game last night?
- An opinion or insights about a subject already under discussion. If you enter a small-group and find one person dominating conversation, you can draw others in with a question. They will appreciate someone giving them a chance to break in. Examples: Is that true at your company, too, Martin? Gina, how does it work at your company? Bill, did you attend that workshop, too?
Questions like these can greatly eased attending networking events. Asking questions not only makes the event productive for you. It helps others have a better time, too.
A new RainMaker Blog is now being published by the RainToday people. It addresses many of the same issues for the same audiences that this one does. They are offering a free report, Deal or No Deal: Sales Mistakes that Turn Buyers Away.
I recently received a query from an old friend who is faced with a problem I have seen before. In both cases, a firm has a service that will benefit clients tremendously by taking advantage of some relatively unknown features of the tax code. In both cases, the firms find that prospective clients tend to vet the service with their auditors, before going ahead. The auditors argue against hiring the firm, often on grounds counter to the facts of the tax code. But also, they are probably embarrassed that someone outside their firms is bringing the fresh idea to their clients. Though the firms with the new services can demonstrate that the auditors are misinformed about the objections they pose, the auditors’ resistance often kills client interest in going ahead. Often, the auditors’ strong relationships with their clients and easy access to them weigh more than the logic of the firms trying sell over auditor resistance.
What would you recommend these firms do?