How to get potential referral sources to like and trust you enough to send business your way. 

By Mark Powers & Shawn McNalis, Practice Advisors

romancing-your-referrals300Attorneys constantly ask how they can jump-start a relationship with a potential referral source they’ve just met. They’re often stymied about two things: how the process of developing a new business relationship works, and how to go about it without appearing desperate.

Essentially, what they want to know is this: How can I get potential referral sources to like and trust me enough to send their business, without actually looking like I need their business?

The answer is pretty simple. People are people, and the way to cultivate them is to court them – the same way you courted your current spouse or romantic partner. You focus on them, learn about their likes and dislikes, and find common ground on which to base a relationship.

The Cultivation Process

At your first meeting with a new potential referral source, however brief, say something like, “Why don’t we get together in the near future for lunch – I’d like to learn more about your business.” Or perhaps, “I’d like to get together sometime soon to learn more about what you do.”

The emphasis on them is key: no one wants to get together with you just to hear a commercial about you. People are interested in talking about themselves first, and learning about you second.

At this first meeting, try to get a business card, a phone number, or an e-mail address. Getting contact information is critical to continuing the relationship. Put that information in your database as soon as possible, along with any background information you’ve gleaned from the conversation.

If you missed the opportunity to extend an invitation to get together at your first meeting, having their contact information gives you a second chance. You can send a short handwritten note that says you enjoyed meeting them and will call soon to see if they’d like to get together. Or, for less formal personalities, you can send an email with the same message. Calendar this call like an upcoming appointment.

When you arrange to meet again, there are a number of possible venues. You might invite the person to have lunch, meet for coffee, have a drink after work, have breakfast before going to the office, meet for an early morning walk (if they are interested in exercise), have dinner together, meet at a bar event (if they are a colleague), or meet at your home. The place doesn’t matter so long as it is convenient for them, comfortable, and quiet enough to hold a conversation. No matter where you do it, spending time together in person is key to the information-gathering process that begins when you first meet someone, and continues throughout the relationship. In fact, the more you know about a person, the stronger you can build the relationship.

To learn the facts about someone, you have to ask questions. Similar to a courtship, learning the hobbies, passions, and interests of your potential referral sources gives you a way to get to know them and a wealth of excuses to connect and cultivate them further.

Here’s an example: If the person raves about his or her love of travel at your first encounter, you can send an email the following week about something travel-related you saw on the Internet – perhaps a link to a great travel website, or an article about the top 10 travel destinations. In this email you can also say you’ll call to invite the person out to lunch.

By listening carefully and leveraging what you’ve learned, you’ve navigated the relationship to the next step by offering information that’s interesting and opened the door to a second meeting.

The kinds of questions you can ask to gather information are the same questions you’d ask anyone when first meeting them. For instance, you could ask about the person’s family:

  • Did you grow up around here?
  • Do you have family in the area?
  • Are you married? What does your spouse do?
  • Do you have kids? How old are they? What school do they go to? Are they active in sports?

Or you could ask questions about hobbies, passions, and interests:

  • What do you do in your spare time? (Ask further questions about whatever their interests are: sports, cooking, reading, gardening, photography, painting, the theater, etc.)
  • Do you enjoy travel? (Ask questions about where they go, how they get there and what they do and see once they are there)

Once you piece together your potential referral source’s background information, you can use that to initiate activities they’d be interested in. You can send them a book about a topic they mention; you can give them tickets to the theater if you know they love going to plays; or you can invite them to a game if you know what sports they like. There are any number of things you can do to connect if you listen closely enough to the clues they give you.

Next, you want to ask questions related to their business or profession, such as:

  • Where did you go to school or receive your training?
  • What kind of services do you provide?
  • Are you looking for more clients/customers/patients?
  • In case I know of anyone, what kind of people do you like to work with?

Of course, in all of these conversations you will naturally provide information about yourself. And once you’ve shared information about your practice, the people you work with, and how you help them, the potential referral source will often start voluntarily sending clients to you. Generally speaking, it will take three to five meetings for enough trust to develop for this can happen. If it doesn’t happen, you can be more direct and say something like, “I’d like to explore building a business relationship with you.” Or, “I’d enjoy working with your clients if you have any who need my services.”

All of the above is well within the bounds of ordinary social behavior and are things you have already done at some point in the course of your social life – you’re just behaving in a more strategic way. You’ll know you’ve mastered the art of cultivating new referral sources when you move three to five people from being acquaintances to becoming actual referral sources every year.


Mark Powers, president of Atticus, Inc. and Shawn McNalis, Practice Advisor Trainer, are the co-authors of How Good Attorneys Become Great Rainmakers; Time Management for Attorneys; and Hire Slow, Fire Fast. Both are featured writers for Lawyers Weekly and a number of other publications. www.atticusonline.com