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By William Crawford, Crawford and Associates

If you haven't asked your present clients for referrals, you're missing the easiest and best source of new business. Recognize, however, that asking for referrals is not something to which most accountants naturally gravitate. As a matter of fact, most accountants are genetically predisposed not to ask for referrals. If you had wanted to become a salesperson, you would have joined IBM and not entered into public accounting.

All is not hopeless; however, with a little painless practice of a sure-fire process, you'll soon be asking for referrals with the best of them--and still respecting yourself in the morning.

Which Clients Do You Ask?

Not everyone! Exclude anyone you think has a reason, objective or not, to question your firm's performance: a serious disagreement about fees, a due date missed, a function inadequately performed, etc. If there's even a perceived problem, don't ask.

If you are new asking for referrals, the most difficult issue to overcome is your discomfort with the thought of asking. At times, this might lead you to believe that it is inappropriate to ask. In fact, while it is probably perfectly appropriate, you are so distraught about asking that you convince yourself that it is inappropriate. Be careful that you don't unnecessarily exclude clients who could lead you to your next biggest, most profitable client.

Questions to Ask Yourself

If there are no apparent reasons to exclude a client from the list of those to ask, there are two questions to ask yourself, where affirmative answers will quickly confirm the appropriateness of asking the following:

* Have you worked with the client long enough for the client to have conclusions about your performance?

* Would the client rate you and the firm an 8 to 10, assuming 10 to be the top of the scale?

Up to now, any feeling of inappropriateness was probably due to your general discomfort with asking.

Prioritize Your Clients According to Your Comfort Zone

Don't start with the client who might be able to provide you with the most or best referrals. Start with the one with whom you are the most comfortable. Then try the next easiest, then the next, etc. After 34 of these successful requests for referrals, you will wonder why you didn't ask them for referrals years ago.

When to Ask

Now that you know it is appropriate to ask probably 80-90% of your clients for referrals, when is the appropriate time to ask? The ideal time is when you are in a one-on-one situation, e.g., a congenial, social or business lunch, playing golf, attending a sporting event, or at the conclusion of a business meeting that ended positively.

When Do You Not Ask?

Common sense dictates that you don't ask when it doesn't feel right, such as when you're in a group, on the phone with the client, when you just gave the client bad news, e.g., an invoice, the quarterly figures, an IRS audit, or when you don't have time
to adequately discuss the subject.
There's no necessity to force a discussion today. If you haven't asked in the
last 10-15 years, you can wait
another day.

Raise the Subject--How?

Since you've known the client for an extended period of time and haven't previously asked for a referral, it would be useful to provide an introduction to the subject so that he or she doesn't perceive the request as coming out of the blue. Also, make him or her feel comfortable in how routine your request is.

You will be most effective when you relate a real life reason for why you hadn't previously asked for a referral. For example, "Last night, when I was thinking about today's meeting, I realized that I had never asked you for a referral. And I wondered why, other than I had an uncomfortable feeling of just not wanting to ask. In any case, I thought that was probably pretty foolish. So I decided that today, I would ask for your help in obtaining a referral to a possible new client." Using a real life situation is positive for two reasons:

* You will be comfortable saying something like that because it doesn't sound like a packaged sales pitch.

* Your client will be comfortable because you've given him or her a believable explanation of why you're doing something you hadn't done before.

Define the Type of Client Prospect You Want

The more specific you are, the more specific your client's response will be. A vague request begets a vague response. "I'm always looking for new business; I hope you can help me out," says the silver tongued accountant. "Sure, I'll keep you in mind if I ever hear of anything," replies the truly interested and helpful client. The result? No leads. Without greater specificity, the client really doesn't know what you want.

When you provide guidance to your client, you will almost always get the names of 2-3 prospects. The key is to determine where there is an overlap in the type of companies or people your client knows and the type of work that you and the firm do. Ask for referrals from the area of that overlap. You can say something like, "Bob, you're the biggest widget manufacturer in the area. Not only do you know all the other widget manufacturers, you probably know all the suppliers to the industry. As you know, Bob, I've been involved in the widget industry for over 15 years, helping you and others in a variety of tax, accounting, financial, and consulting matters. Of all those people in the industry you know, which two or three should I get to know?

Do not ask to meet those prospects who are "having problems," "need an accountant," or "would want to talk with me." That's too restrictive. In fact, it might be viewed as confidential and perhaps not to be shared.

In addition, looking for prospects who "have problems" or "want a new accountant" is like looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack. Maybe five percent of companies change accountants in a given year. Instead of looking for the needle, a more effective marketing strategy is to identify long-term prospects and become their next choice as an accountant. Then, maintain your contact with them and, at some future time, if the current relationship is terminated, you will be in a position to take over that account. Or perhaps, in the meantime you might have the opportunity to do some specialty work for them. Also, you will find the needle as you look for that broader prospect base.

Don't Hurry

Take your time. Asking for a referral should be a conversation. The more abbreviated you make it, the more confused your client will be and the less successful you will be.

Describe Your Firm's Capabilities

Explain the firm's expertise in the area you identified so that your client will be comfortable giving you an appropriate referral in that area. You might say, "Sam, I mentioned that I would really appreciate an introduction to your contacts at the various hospitals in the county because the firm also has a significant health-care practice. We have three hospitals, 14 physician group practices, and two nursing homes. We've been one of the leaders in the industry for over a dozen years. I thought it worthy of mention because you normally associate us with our known expertise in the widget industry."

What to
Do When Your Client Provides Referrals

After throwing yourself at his or her feet and professing your undying love and affection, truly thank him for the help. When you get back to the office, write a note, again stating how much you appreciate his or her efforts. Keep him or her informed as you pursue the prospect. If the client feels involved in the process and believes you're appreciative, he or she will continue to give you more names; if the perception is that you are not appreciative, the first lead will be the last.

How to Set Up the Appointment

Once you get the referred names, the most important issue to resolve is who will contact the prospect to mention you and the firm, i.e., your client or you? The ideal situation is for your client to introduce you to the prospect; if not, do it yourself. No matter what happens, be sure that at least one of you takes responsibility for the introduction.

After you get the names of the prospective clients or referrals, you might say to your client, "I very much appreciate your providing me with these names. Which is easiest for you, do you want to contact them first and let them know I'll follow up or do you want me to do it? Which do you prefer?" If the client says he or she will do it, again thank him or her profusely for the help. At the same time, ask if it would be O.K. if you were to call in a week or so to see how it went when he or she talked with the prospects. When you do call don't make the client feel guilty by asking, "Did you call, yet?" Rather you might say something like, "How'd it go when you talked with the prospect." To which your client may reply, "I forgot" and you'll say, "That's O.K. I'll give you a call in another week or so after you've had a chance to talk with him or her."

How Should the Introduction Go?

The introductory phone call or letter from the client or yourself should be brief; preferably only one page if it's a letter. Your relationship and good work with the client and your familiarity with the prospects' industry should be mentioned, as well as the fact that you will be contacting him within the next few days. Ideally, in your letter show some understanding of the industry, the prospect's needs, and how you might address them.

Calling the Prospect

Call the prospect within three days of his or her becoming aware that you are going to make contact. Briefly introduce yourself, determine any needs the prospect might have, and, assuming these are unmet, set up an appointment to discuss how you can help. You are not trying to sell the prospect anything; you are trying to find some unmet needs. If the prospect is satisfied with the existing accounting relationship, wish him or her well. It does no good to indicate that his current accountant is incompetent. If the prospect is satisfied with his or her accountant, he or she is satisfied. No amount of selling, cajoling, and whining will dislodge the relationship. Your job is to maintain contact so that you will be in a position to pick up the account when the current relationship ends.

The conversation might go like this: "Hello, this is Bob Smith. Jim Jones, a mutual friend, suggested I contact you. I've been helping Jim as his accountant for the past 15 years; he thought it would be to our mutual advantage if we were to get to know one another. Is this a good time to take a few minutes to discuss some of your more important issues and how I might help?" If the prospect says, "yes," continue the conversation; if "no," ask when would be a good time to call back. When you continue the conversation, lead with a question that will result in the prospect giving an answer that indicates whether or not he or she is truly a prospect. The questions should reflect your best guess as to the prospect's most important needs. For Example, "Are you satisfied that your current accountant is sufficiently involved in your business and provides timely, profit making, and cost saving suggestions at a reasonable fee?" Or "Are you satisfied your accountant's monthly financial management advice is well thought out and in line with your needs." You will be most successful when your prospects understand that your objective is to identify and meet their needs, not to sell them services. Once you have identified the prospect's needs, briefly explain how you might help meet those needs and suggest you meet to discuss more thoroughly how you could help.


Your clients are your best source of new business. The few referrals you've received from them so far are just the tip of the iceberg. Imagine how much your practice will grow when you start to ask for referrals in a more structured and specific manner! *

Michael Goldstein, CPA
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