How Financial Advisors Can Master Referrals: What Would Arlene Say?

13 min read
January 17, 2019

There is real value in building your network and learning to ask for referrals in a direct and efficient way. When you’re able to clearly ask people to refer you the types of clients you want to work with, and you continue to build excellent relationships with the people in your referral network, you set yourself up to find success on several levels: 

  1. You’re getting clear on who your ideal client is, which helps you to hone your message, improve your marketing, and your practice as a whole!
  2. You’re figuring out how to vocalize who your ideal client is so that, when people ask, you can communicate it.
  3. You’re building a network. A network of colleagues can help you to refer non-ideal clients out to advisors you trust. A network of COIs can help you to serve your clients when they need to talk to an attorney, CPA, or other professional. Long story short, asking for (and giving!) referrals is a fantastic way to create lifelong connections that benefit your business and your clients. 

Before we dive in, I want to address the elephant in the room because I know I will get questions about this post. Referrals are not the only way to grow your business. They’re just one component of a more comprehensive sales and marketing strategy.

With that out of the way, let’s talk about how you can start mastering referrals in your financial planning practice.

Let’s Talk About Relationships

Referrals boil down to one thing: relationships. They build strong relationships with current and future clients, COIs in your network, colleagues in the financial planning profession or financial services industry, and other advisors.

In fact, for people who worry that asking for referrals is uncomfortable or pushy, it can help to view creating a referral network as simply building valuable relationships. The referral is just the side benefit.

Relationships that lead to referrals have a few qualities in common:

  1. They’re genuine. If you approach people with sales in mind, they’ll know that your effort to build a relationship with them isn’t coming from a genuine place. Instead, approach people because you want to know more about them and what they do. Maybe you have a prospect who isn’t an ideal fit for you and you’re looking for a fellow advisor to refer them to, or maybe your current client is in need of a CPA or attorney. Whatever the reason may be - make sure you’re prioritizing the relationship over the potential for referrals.
  2. They’re long-term. One-and-done referral relationships never last. This is true for a couple of reasons. First and foremost, you can’t possibly get to know someone well enough to send clients their way (or vice versa) in one fifteen-minute phone call. If you truly want what’s best for your clients (and they want to send you clients who are ideal for you), you’ll need to spend some time and energy getting to know the people in your referral network.
  3. They may be slow growing. Again, this ties into the fact that people aren’t always comfortable enough to send referrals your way straight out of the gate. You may meet someone at a conference, follow up, have virtual “coffee chats” a few times, then have a longer meeting where you explore your ideal clients and how you can help each other with referrals. This process may take months or years, and that’s okay! Having a colleague, client, or COI send you ideal referrals because they know you really well is way better than random referrals who don’t fit your service model at all coming from someone you just met.
  4. They start from a place of generosity. Always remember this: you give before you get. I know that sounds cheesy, but it’s true! If you’re willing to give referrals out to clients, COIs, or other advisors in your network, you’re way more likely to receive referrals in return.
  5. They serve your clients. This is true for COI and other referrals from your advisor colleagues. Your relationships with these professionals need to serve your clients and prospects before they serve your business. For example, building a relationship with someone who does the exact same thing as you, or serves the exact same group of people isn’t necessarily going to help your clients. They already have you! 

But building a relationship with an advisor who specializes in one-time student loan analysis and strategy building, or a CPA who specifically helps entrepreneurs, is going to benefit your clients because you can send them to other professionals who directly help them.

Be Findable

Have have you ever tried Googling yourself? The practice sounds vain in theory, but the truth is it’s incredibly helpful.

Tip: Don’t Google yourself in a traditional web browser. Pull up an incognito window so that your search results aren’t tainted by cookies and search history.

What do you find when you search your firm’s name? What about when you search your name? 

Just the other day I had a new member who had people tell him they were referring clients, but none of the referrals ever call. We tried to figure out what it could be and discovered that while search results for his business name are great, if you search for him by name on Google you get next to nothing. It’s time for some SEO work!

Both you and your firm name should be findable online and in local listings if you work with local clients. Sound overwhelming? SEO doesn’t have to be all-consuming. You can go through pretty quickly to make sure all of your social media profiles list your business name and are updated with a bio briefly stating who you are and what you do.  

You can take an hour to update your website’s copy to include your name in several places, and work to optimize it for search engines. If you approach SEO with the goal of making yourself and your business findable rather than trying to “outrank” other big-box firms, you’re going to have more success than if you load your site with filler keywords.

Then, work to continue producing content—like a blog or a podcast—that provides your audience with updated information (and search engines with more content to associate with your business name).  

See? That wasn’t so hard! Admittedly, you could go down the SEO rabbit hole for hours, but for the purposes of optimizing your online presence for referrals—keep it simple.

Where Do You Find Referrals?

There are several places that you can start looking for referrals:

  • Clients
  • Other advisors
  • COIs (Centers of Influence)
  • Referral or lead groups

Some of these ideas are going to work really well for you, others may not. That’s okay. Your practice is unique, and the places you find ideal people to refer to your clients, and to refer you to your ideal prospects, are going to be equally unique. Let’s take a look at the several referral sources you could explore in a little bit more depth.


Many advisors reading this are probably cringing right about now. You want me to ask my clients for referrals?

Here’s the thing: happy clients are one of the biggest and best sources for potential referrals you have. I don’t think you have to be smarmy about it at all. I’ve seen the people who ask for referrals as part of their meeting process, and so have you. You know exactly what I’m talking about: 

The email or form that gets sent saying, “Please provide me with the names and emails of three people who could use my services.”

Maybe the copywriting is a little fancier than that, but the gist is the same.  

I know that tactic has worked for a lot of people, but personally? I’m not a fan. I think asking for referrals from clients should be approached as a highly individualized process. Here are a few steps to get you started:

  1. Be picky. Don’t ask every single one of your clients for referrals. Instead, dig deeper and choose your top clients. Why are they ideal? What makes them an excellent fit? Why do you want to work with more clients just like them? These are the people you want to get referrals from.
  2. Be respectful. Your clients are spending their social capital on you when they send referrals your way. That’s a big deal for a lot of people. Even more important, you need to be respectful of the fact that some people may not be comfortable referring others to a financial planner. Personal finances are just that—personal. Talking about money is a societal taboo we face and your client who adores you may still be uncomfortable saying to their coworker, “Hey, my advisor helped me pay off all my student loan debt and organize a budget because I couldn't do it on my own.” You and I know there’s no shame in seeking financial help. They may not feel the same way. Respect that.
  3. Be specific. Saying, “I sure love working with you, I’d love to work with more people like this!” isn’t specific enough. Create a client avatar. Then describe it to your ideal clients. Make it part of your meeting agenda.

The conversation could look like: “I love working with you because I find student loan debt incredibly interesting. I’m so excited that you were organized and ready to hit the ground running when we started working together. Moving forward, I’d love to work with people who are in a similar situation: optometrists who are starting a family, ready to pay off their debt, and are geared up to take action. If you know anyone who might be a fit, do you think you’d be comfortable sending them my way?”

  1. Make it easy. Don’t just pass out your business card and hope for the best. Make referring people to you as easy as humanly possible for clients. Set up a landing page that they can send friends or family to that’s specifically for newly referred prospects to enter their information or schedule a call. Have a spot on your Calendly or Schedule Once for referrals. Have an easy-to-remember email address where clients can do an e-introduction. It can even be helpful to have a digital or physical PDF that you can give to clients to pass along to any referrals that outlines who you are, your firm’s values, and how you can help.
  2. Be thankful. Always, always, always say thank you. Even if a client sends you a referral that’s not quite a fit, say thanks and follow up with them that you connected with the referral! Your gratitude will speak volumes and encourage more referrals in the future.

Does just the thought of asking clients directly for referrals make you want to crawl out of your skin? That’s okay. You can try client events instead! I’m a huge fan of setting up a memorable, exciting client event where they’re encouraged to invite friends and family along. Be a good host while you’re there and make the rounds, introducing yourself to everyone. And have high-quality swag to give away to attendees so that they keep your logo and firm name in mind long after they event!

Other Advisors

Don’t be shy about connecting with other advisors for the sake of referrals. I’ve found that if you’re willing to network within the advisor community, you’re much more likely to grow your practice successfully.

This is especially true in the fee-only world. Fee-only advisors like to refer within their network of other fee-only advisors. Knowing that you’re able to connect family, friends, colleagues, or even non-ideal prospects with an advisor who shares your same values is a huge win!

When you’re looking to connect with other advisors to earn referrals, start with a goal of generosity in mind. Approach the conversation from a “Who can I send your way?” angle. Here are a few things you should be looking for:

  • Advisors who have different minimums than you do.
  • Practices who specialize in a specific industry, niche, or type of planning.
  • Advisors in other locations who work with local people.
  • Individuals who have a specialty, or whose philosophy/brand you particularly like.

To connect with other planners, you can attend conferences, be generous with your knowledge on public forums or social media, and reach out to them on LinkedIn or over email to connect and learn more about what they do. It can also be helpful to answer questions, take the time to meet for one on one “coffee chats”, and join member groups like NAPFA, FPA, AICPA, XYPN, etc. to grow your network.

A word to the wise here: many XYPN advisors are virtual, and that’s great! But that means you have to watch your online presence both publicly and privately. Connecting on social media with other advisors through forums like FPA Activate, XYPN VIP Radio Community, or Kolective is a phenomenal way to meet other planners, share ideas, and find referrals. However, if you’re unkind, or are constantly picking fights in those groups, the likelihood that other advisors are going to be willing to send work your way is slim! Come from a place of gratitude and abundance when meeting your colleagues, not from a “my way or the highway” mentality.

Centers of Influence

Hitting up COIs is a popular referral tactic, but as a result, many of them may be skittish and not receive your request for referrals with an open mind. Remember that many CPAs, real estate agents, attorneys, etc. have been burned by super salesy financial planners looking for a referral source in the past. So, you need to do a little bit of extra work to differentiate yourself here. I think you can accomplish this in a few different ways:

  1. Be creative. Invite people out for dinner, send them a fun card or small gift, or approach them with giving on your mind before asking for referrals. Be creative. Don’t just shoot them a generic email asking for them to send clients your way.
  2. Collaborate. Invite your COIs to do something creative that serves both of you! Interview them for your podcast, do a shared webinar, invite them to guest blog for your website. Then offer to promote their content on your channels, as well.
  3. Serve your target market. Don’t pursue COIs who you wouldn’t send your clients to. All of your referrals should somehow also serve your client base. This is mutually beneficial and can help both of you to grow a solid referral relationship with one another.
  4. Be clear. Don’t just ask for general referrals. Tell COIs exactly who your target client is. One perfect client is better than ten so-so referrals who don’t make it past your introductory call.

Keep in mind that, when it comes to COIs, a few deep relationships that benefit your clients and where you can mutually refer work to one another will always win over a long list of COI referrals.

Referral or Lead Groups

I admittedly don’t know very much about referral or lead groups. I know several advisors who have used them successfully, which is why I’ve included them as an option here.  

However, I’ve also seen them work poorly, and end up being more trouble than they’re worth. When looking at a referral or lead group, ask yourself a few questions:

  1. Is this going to help me get ideal clients in my niche?
  2. Does the group require that I submit a certain number of referrals or leads to other members? Are they a good fit for my clients?
  3. Is referring people here in my client’s best interest?

If you can’t find a lead group that matches your needs, don’t be afraid to get creative and make your own! Finding a small group of local COIs or advisors who work with different client types and creating a type of referral list or system together can help you to always do what’s in your clients’ collective best interest and still find leads from other colleagues who know your target market.

Paying for Leads

Paying for leads isn’t my cup of tea. I prefer to recommend that advisors focus on building genuine, long-lasting referral relationships. However, the topic of paid leads has come up multiple times in conversations recently, so I wanted to touch on it here. 

If you do choose to pursue paid leads, make sure you’re taking a balanced approach. It’s critical that you know and understand any disclosures, or compliance implications, before embarking on a paid leads mission. Personally, if I were a client, and I knew that my CPA had referred me to an advisor because they were paid to do so, I wouldn’t feel awesome about it. But that’s the type of information you’ll need to disclose in order to maintain transparency.


There are several hurdles you may face when working to grow your referral list. Most commonly, I hear advisors worried that they haven’t been in business long enough/have a clear enough list/add enough value to ask for referrals. This is just imposter syndrome cleverly disguised as being humble! As an advisor, you absolutely add enough value to ask for referrals from fellow advisors, clients, colleagues, and COIs. Don’t ever doubt your worth.

Another hurdle advisors face is that they hate networking. Maybe the idea of talking about the types of clients they want with other professionals makes them uncomfortable Maybe they don’t want to ask clients for referrals because it feels awkward. On the other side of the spectrum, some advisors are happy to ask for referrals and do it all the time, but haven’t seen it pan out successfully yet. 

For each of these situations, I have one cure-all solution: develop a script. Whether you’re doubting your worth, are uncomfortable networking, or just aren’t getting the referrals you want with your current strategy, a script that clearly defines your ideal client, the value you bring to the table, and how people can send referrals your way is the way to go. This could be an email template, a few notes you jot down before a meeting, or a PDF of information that you send out to your network as you look for referrals. A script with clear communication and friendly messaging can go a long way in navigating around some of your referral-receiving roadblocks!

Have Questions?

I’d love to help! Working with a coach to develop a referral strategy can be a huge weight off your shoulders, especially if the idea of asking for referrals makes you uncomfortable. Reach out to me with any questions—I’d be more than happy to help point you in the right direction.


About Arlene Moss, Executive Coach

Arlene gets a kick out of helping financial advisors get over being overwhelmed and take on their frustrations so their businesses soar. Arlene works to ensure XYPN members are able to help their clients prosper while creating a sustainable business model. Through XYPN Academy and one-on-one coaching, members get the support they need to grow their businesses and overcome the challenges that come their way.

Subscribe by email