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Growing Your Private Client Practice – The Importance of Referrals

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While private client professional services firms – be they wealth managers, lawyers/solicitors, accountants, trust consultants or similar – invest heavily in their top talent’s technical training and competency, and ongoing continuous professional development, their wider skillset often gets rather less attention.

Yet I regularly meet individuals heading for, or newly appointed to, partner or director level roles who have a less than clear plan around growing an introducer and client base that will support them through their professional career.

Business development – or BD – as it has become known is significantly more evolved in corporate firms than it was when I first worked for a professional services firm more than two decades ago but in the private client world it has had rather less attention.

To a degree this may be because traditionally client bases were often inherited and there has historically been a tendency to assume that sensible chaps and chapesses would network their old school/university tie naturally. A more competitive environment and demanding client is undermining this dynamic – if indeed it was ever that effective.

There are no quick fixes. Seminars are often cited for example but prospect data for private investors – once freely available from shareholder registers – is now safely hidden behind nominee accounts and more public high net worth individuals like company directors are protected from spam by the Data Protection Act and the Information Commissioner!

These days the focus is increasingly on referrals and relationship marketing rather than promotional marketing. According to EY’s 2014 study >85% was “the number of clients who said that personal referral was the most likely way they would learn about a financial adviser with whom they may wish to work.” Similarly JPM Morgan/Ledbury’s 2013 study found that personal referral is “the most potent source of new business” in wealth management as HNWIs “haven’t time to research wealth management firms or don’t know how to go about doing this”.

Personal referral means both social contacts and professional intermediaries. Research studies give a mixed picture of the relative importance of each but a study by the Family Office Exchange suggested that higher net worth clients are more likely to turn to a trusted authority they already know, such as a tax adviser, rather than social contacts, ie that professional intermediaries are a more important referral sources at the higher end of the market – which many would agree makes intuitive sense.

There is a tendency in some quarters to regard referrals as a gentle plant best left to flower naturally. I disagree. As an excellent study by Adviser Impact in the US for Vanguard noted: “Although a positive client experience may encourage more referrals – and is clearly a prerequisite for more referrals – data suggests that advisors must intervene to help clients and introducers identify referral opportunities in order to leverage client commitment.”

Referrals can, and indeed should, be encouraged. The 2014 US RIA[1] Benchmarking Study[1] by Charles Schwab in the US identified a segment they dubbed the ‘Best-Managed Firms’ who are outperforming their peers by focusing on three important areas one of which is “Relentlessly focusing on high-quality organic growth, driven primarily by referrals from Centers of Influence[2]…who can influence a firm’s ideal client to consider hiring the firm….and relationship marketing.”

Having an active approach to referrals requires firms to have a handle on the metrics driving (or not) their new business, to know what sort of clients they want, to be clear about how their own value proposition can meet those clients’ needs profitably, to have their introducer network mapped, and to have a plan in support of recognising, creating, and capitalising on referable moments. As the Schwab study noted:

“For the majority of advisory firms, growth is a primary business concern year after year. Yet, despite widespread agreement that referrals are the main driver of growth, many firms do not dedicate the time and resources required to create a formalised initiative.”

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