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By Mark Powers & Shawn McNalis

Recently one of our clients, an attorney whom we’ll call “James,” came to us a worried man: his current group of referral sources had stopped sending work.

For the last couple of years, he’d benefited from a stream of work which flowed almost effortlessly and became dependent on a small handful of referral sources who had large projects – at the time. He’d gotten out of the habit of marketing and rode the wave of business that came his way. But all good things come to an end, and he found himself high and dry.

We recommended that he “warm up” the relationships he’d been neglecting for a while.

A motivated man, “James” soon settled into a routine of getting back in touch. Since he didn’t have a lot of legal work to keep him in the office, client development became his top priority. He sometimes met one person for breakfast, another for lunch and yet another for dinner.

We encouraged him to keep working through his list as he traveled from one end of town to the other catching up with people, getting introductions and meeting new contacts.

Several months after he had begun this effort we discussed his results.

Business had picked up, but not enough to match the level of effort he was exerting. To discover the problem, we delved a little deeper. We determined that “James” would show up at his various lunches, dinners or other events faithfully, have enjoyable conversations and begin rekindling his relationships. He did this part very well.

Unfortunately, though, he was not diligent in following-up with anyone after meeting them. Attempting to cover a lot of ground, he turned his attention instead to the next meeting or lunch he had scheduled. Though we had emphasized the importance of writing notes and making follow-up phone calls, “James” had ignored that aspect of his marketing, thinking it wouldn’t make much of a difference.

But it does make a difference. Given that “James” was attempting to warm up old relationships, the need for follow-up was even more critical than for someone who had consistently stayed in touch. He was operating in a highly competitive environment where the number of potential clients had shrunk to an alarmingly small number. Since “James” was trying to reestablish himself with the people who influenced those few clients, his ability to demonstrate his reliability and thoughtfulness would distinguish him from the rest of the field.

Common mistake

“James” hadn’t thought things through. But he isn’t alone in his disregard for following up with referral sources after he made contact. Not following up is one of the most common mistakes made in referral marketing.

We see it all the time. Like many of his colleagues, “James” felt a large percentage of the marketing impact occurred when he was face-to-face with his contact – and he’s right. But referring relationships are built on trust, and trust is built by one conversation or lunch or phone call leading to the next, and then the one after that, in a string of contacts.

It’s difficult to warm up relationships that have grown cold from lack of attention.

Doing this effectively requires finding a reason to keep connecting with your referral source. Many people run out of ideas pretty quickly and feel they have no basis on which to continue calling or initiating contact. So they stop and move on to the next person.

We believe this is because they aren’t listening closely enough to the many clues thrown out by the person they’re cultivating. It’s important to have a variety of reasons to stay in touch with referral sources. Having creative reasons to stay in touch, paired with a sense of the appropriate timing, means you don’t come off as too pushy.

Look for reasons to initiate another contact with a referral source by:

  • •Listening to the problems they are having;
  • •Hearing what they are currently frustrated about; and
  • •Paying attention to their hobbies, passions or interests.

When your potential referral sources mention a book they are reading, a problem with their staff, a love of fine wine or an interest in music, they are giving you clues to what they’re interested in. The wise marketer picks up on these clues.

Cultivating a relationship with a referral source is not unlike a type of courtship. Picking up on the conversational tidbits referral sources reveal gives you perfectly legitimate reasons to pick up the phone and call them, thus adding to the string of ongoing contacts you have with them. String enough of these kinds of conversations together and a relationship will develop.

Here’s an example of an informal follow-up conversation starter:

“Yesterday at lunch you mentioned you were looking for a new secretary. One of my staff members knows of a potential candidate…”

Here’s another:

“At the bar meeting two weeks ago you mentioned an interest in the Stearn method of litigation. I happen to have one of his books and thought you might want to read it…”

In the world of commercial sales, studies show that 81 percent of sales happen on the fifth contact or later.

No statistics exist to show how many times an attorney must be in the presence of a potential referrer for trust to develop and for that trust to translate into business, but generally speaking, once is not enough.

For referral sources to trust you, you must show up inside their world consistently. The lesson for “James,” and anyone else who struggles to follow-up, is this: consistent follow-up demonstrates your determination to build relationships with referral sources, new or old.

The job is not done when you walk away from the lunch meeting or the bar event -– it’s just beginning. Use the clues you’ve gathered to give you ongoing reasons to connect. If you never get to that fifth contact, you may never get the business.

Atticus, Inc.

This article was written by an Atticus staff member.

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