ICAEW.com works better with JavaScript enabled.

Referral marketing

Building your business through personal recommendation is the most cost effective and reliable marketing method. But when and how do you ask for referrals?

Think of your favourite type of client: the successful business with pleasant personnel. They seem to like working with you, and you enjoy working with them. They tend to associate with equally agreeable individuals from similarly successful entities. Personal referrals from such clients are likely to result not only in increased turnover but, more importantly, increased profits.

This is why referral marketing is reliable. The quality of resulting clients will mirror the quality of the clients who recommended you in the first place; and it’s cost effective because it’s virtually free.

There are two main reasons why more firms don’t use referral marketing as their preferred method. What should they say that won’t sound desperate or pushy? And when should they ask?

There are three key opportunities to ask the question: when a client says "thank you"; when a new client signs up; and when you have just completed an assignment.

Responding to a "thank you" offers the best opportunity. Whenever someone thanks you for a piece of work, thank them for the compliment and then follow up with the request for a referral. Try something along the lines of: "Thank you. I really enjoy this type of work. Do you know anyone else whom I could help in this way?"

The next opportunity is when you sign up a new client. It may seem odd to ask a new client to recommend you when you haven't actually done anything yet. However, asking the question at this stage means that you catch them when they are feeling most positive about their decision to bring their business to you, and the reasons for that decision are still fresh in their mind. As you conclude the agreement to work with them, asking “What was it that made you decide we were the right firm for you?” seems a reasonable question. Following up with “I’m very pleased you’ve come on board. We’d like more of the same kind of work. Whom do you know that you could introduce us to?” appears natural and not at all pushy.

Warning: if you haven’t used this approach before, it may take some practice before you’re entirely happy with it. However, it is worth persevering. 

Upon completion of a successful assignment is another useful time to ask for a referral. Assuming everything has gone well, the referral conversation springs naturally from a brief review of what benefits the assignment has brought the client, such as identifying tax planning opportunities. Ask the client to talk you through what aspect of the assignment they have found most useful. When they’ve done so, you can thank them; mention that the work was enjoyable; you’d like more of the same; and whom do they know that they can introduce you to.

The secret of referral marketing is to strike whilst the iron is hot (when the client thanks you, is new to you, or the assignment has just been completed); and to follow up.

The ICAEW’s library offers a range of support material covering marketing and sales.