How to Build an Agency Client Referral Culture

Published: Thursday 10th February 2022

How to ask for internal and external referrals from clients.

1. Why Client Referrals

Asking for client referrals is one the easiest and most powerful ways to get in front of new business prospects – an effective and proven strategy for helping to build new business pipelines. The problem is, many agencies don’t exploit this opportunity or if they do, it lacks consistency. Therefore, the benefits are not fully realised. And the benefits are numerous – if everybody was to offer up say 2 potential contacts, these are potential easy wins.

2. Who to ask

Who in the agency should you be asking for help in identifying clients that could make referrals? You should definitely be asking the senior management, client services and those who are generally well networked, but the truth is that everyone has potential connections that could be of value – either directly or indirectly.

3. Mindsets

Overcoming negative mindsets is the key to success. These negative mindsets hold people back, and include:

– It’s not my job

– Fear of opening up a conversation with clients who may then turn the spotlight on the agency’s (poor) performance

– It looks desperate, like I’m being a salesperson

– It doesn’t feel natural to ask

– I don’t feel equipped to ask

– They don’t want to use their valuable contacts as leverage – they may be wondering whether this is the right time to ask, (given that people move around and don’t want to ‘squander’ their contacts).

Some of these responses and barriers are actually in our own minds and provide us with reasons not to ask people who express objections. Pressing ahead with those most likely to engage will deliver the best results. It’s important to recognise that your agency is building a business, as are our clients, so asking is quite natural – we’re simply asking clients to recommend us to other clients who could benefit from our expertise.

Next steps are to brainstorm their mindsets – what’s holding them back from asking. Help them to overcome their issues and then ask them to present a list of client targets.


4. Preparing the catalyst line: how to ask

This should ideally be face-to-face, because then the agency representative can gauge their client’s emotions and responses. The next important step is preparing the opening gambit, the catalyst line, e.g.

“We’ve worked together for 4 years, I’d love to get your help on one thing…”

“We’re looking to grow our business and I’m asking key people for their help on one thing…”

“I know we’ve spoken about client x before, and I’m wondering whether you could make an introduction if you feel she/he could benefit from our services…”

“You’re the kind of client we’re looking to attract. Would you help us by making an introduction to a like-minded company…”

The catalyst line needs to be bespoke, highly personalised, taking into account the client’s personality, the agency’s relationship with them and so forth.

This requires practice, role-play, and needs to feel natural so the agency representative feels comfortable.


5. Positioning the referral correctly

Make it specific, perhaps ask the client for a referral to someone outside the client’s organisation, or someone within a different part of the organisation.

Ask them for one person/referral; don’t make the request too general. Being very specific about the referral will make it more valuable.


6. Creating follow-up and accountability

When the client agrees to make a referral, what happens next? We listen to what they say, for instance “Let me think about it…”

You’ve now completed about 70% of the work, but it’s the last 30% that is critical – making it happen.

Make sure you agree in the meeting to a follow-up – for instance, “I need to call you in a week about the project so we can catch up on this then…” Get the client’s agreement.

It’s reasonable to go back to see what’s happened after a few days.

Your role is to help the agency representative involved progress and monitor the referral – through to completion.