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How to Qualify Effective Referral Sources

We all have vast networks, 1000 vCards in Outlook, and 500+ connections on LinkedIn, but it’s difficult to translate all these contacts into meaningful business development pipelines.

Lawyers are constantly busy with client service, so wedging business development and relationship management can be a daunting notion.

Many aspiring rainmakers figure “Well, I’ve got to eat, so I suppose I’ll go to lunch with a friend from law school. You never know if there might be a potential opportunity there. Hopefully he’ll keep me in mind.

The problem is that these random acts of lunch are not an effective way to tap your network. “You never know” is not a strategy. And “keep me in mind” is not a close. Certainly “you never know” works every now and then, but they usually come in automatically. “Keep me in mind” is totally out of our control.

Skimming the surface with these relationships, barely touching each one of them, is an ineffective and inefficient way to develop business. In today’s competitive landscape, it’s not enough. There are so many contacts out there that even full-time sales professionals don’t have enough time to pursue everyone. So it becomes very important to target and qualify the people in your network to develop a short list that is manageable and worth investing time into developing.

An effective pipeline consists of one or two dozen people who can serve as allies to your practice and who are feeding work to your practice, as well as benefiting from your reciprocity. A good referral source who knows what you do, can pitch your practice well, and sends you the type of work you want is an invaluable resource that can pay dividends for years to come. It is worth your while to spend a little extra time to assess whether it will be an effective use of your time.

With that in mind, use the following criteria called “The Four C’s” to qualify a referral source quickly, so you don’t invest too much of your limited time in someone who is unlikely to be an effective referral generator. These criteria will help you:

  • Select the right referral sources,

  • Deepen referral source relationships efficiently, and

  • Identify the business prospects available through your referral sources.

1. Chemistry

The first C is Chemistry – this is the easiest of the four to identify because you do this already without thinking about it. When you meet someone at a networking event and you get to chatting, you know within the first few seconds whether or not you like them. This gut check happens automatically but it’s an important criterion, because if you don’t like this person it will be very difficult to sustain a years-long relationship. Think of a referral source as a business friend – you’re looking out for them, and they’re looking out for you. You have to enjoy spending time with them, and there has to be potential for working together. Because this is the gravity that draws you together over a decades-long career.

2. Commerce

If there isn’t commercial potential between you and your referral source, you’ll have lunch after lunch that never seem to pay off in new business. You prevent too much wasted time by asking questions that identify commercial compatibility:

Rather than simply asking, “what do you do?” ask follow-up questions that reveal more details.

  • “What industries do you focus on?”

  • “Can you give me an example of a recent matter you worked on?”

  • “What kind of client do you like to work with?”

When it comes time for them to ask what you do, give them your elevator pitch: a memorable, concise description of what you do, who you do it for (your ideal client), what sets you apart, and your personal interests. For example, “I’m an M&A lawyer focused on technology SMB’s who want to get acquired by larger companies. And when I’m not practicing law, I’m usually at home with my twin boys trying not to let my house fall apart!”

This elevator pitch is memorable, specific, and includes personal details that can start a conversation and build rapport. A memorable elevator pitch can go a long way in making your expertise stand out against a sea of competitors who do the same thing you do.

3. Competence

Let’s say you’ve checked off the first two boxes, Chemistry and Commerce. You like this person, it seems there is some commercial compatibility there, so you schedule a lunch meeting. Before sending any work their way, it is crucial to determine whether or not they’re competent. If you send them a referral and they turn out to be incompetent, it will reflect badly on you. Ask pointed questions to get a sense of the quality of their work product.

  • “Tell me a bit about your background.”

  • “What are some of your biggest professional challenges to date?”

My favorite technique for assessing competence is to elicit their advice. Ask them how they would deal with a difficult client, or perhaps an under-performing employee. If they can bring viable solutions and critical thinking to the table, chances are that they won’t embarrass you if you send a client their way down the road.

4. Collaboration

Is this someone who understands that, when you send them business, the expectation is that they’ll send you work in return? All too often we learn the hard way that a referral relationship is a dud; we send them matter after matter, hoping eventually they’ll take the hint and reciprocate. They don’t, and after a certain point it’s awkward to broach that with them candidly, so we usually just let the relationship fall by the wayside.

There are plenty of people out there who think “Well, if you send me business and I do a good job for the client, then I’ve fulfilled my obligation, so go ahead and send me another matter and I’ll just keep producing high quality work.” The fact of the matter is that “producing high quality work” is mere table stakes, so it’s important to identify whether a potential referral source understands the quid pro quo dynamic in a referral relationship.

So how can you identify someone’s level of collaboration? A favorite technique of mine is, after the lunch, to send them something of value to see how they respond. Do they acknowledge the gesture? Do they thank me? Do they try to send something of value in return? Does their response meet my expectations?

If I send them an article after the meeting and they don’t even acknowledge it, that gives me a sense of their responsiveness. If I introduce them to a colleague and they don’t follow up on it, that tells me something about their appreciativeness. All of these things can be a litmus test to assess the degree to which they will be effective collaborators in the relationship.

Use the Four C’s to assess your network and select a dozen or so people who meet criteria #1 and #2, Chemistry and Commerce. During these lunches, ask questions to get a deeper sense of their Competence and level of Collaboration. At the end of this process, you should have five or six qualified referral sources for whom it makes the most sense to invest your time. The more you cultivate these relationships, the more of a return you will gain in mutual referrals and a meaningful rapport.

This is one of many ways you can make your business development efforts more targeted, intentional and effective.

For more Business Development techniques and resources, visit


About David Ackert

David Ackert, M.A., is the President of Ackert Inc. and a mentor to high-achieving professionals in the legal, corporate, finance, and accounting sectors. David has advised hundreds of lawyers, CEOs and professional-

services executives on overcoming business development and marketing challenges. He has developed and implemented business development programs for countless firms, from AmLaw 100s to local boutiques

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