referral relationship

What builds referral relationships?

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You have identified a prospective referrer and have begun to build that referral relationship. What do you actually want to say in that first meeting? What is your objective in that first introduction?

The basics

First, focus on being yourself and letting the referrer get to know you. The therapy business is so much about the quality of the relationship. We should never be too eager to deviate far from that central theme. Referrers are not as interested in your programs. They want to know who you are. From a referrer’s point of view, if you are pleasant and enjoyable enough over lunch, you probably will be okay as a therapist. So stay in comfortable territory. Tell plenty of stories that illustrate who you are. 

Only secondarily do you want the referrer to know about specific services you can offer the clients they send. I often made the mistake of being too oriented toward promoting my latest and greatest program. Later I would realize that I did not do a very good job of actually listening to what my referrer wanted to say.

Of course the referrer may be looking for a specific service. You should address that need as honestly as possible. There is no need to over-promise. Offer what you can and help referrers find others who can help them with things you are not equipped to handle. But on the other hand, don’t be afraid to say yes to new areas a referrer may be looking for help with. Doing so may lead you down a new and fruitful path. And once you commit get the supervision or support needed to actually follow through. This is one way to broaden your skills.

Tell stories

People like stories. A story will stick longer than anything else you say. Fortunately, nearly every day we have another story based on what happens in our therapy. We can often use the latest events to illustrate the relevance of what you do. I never hesitate to use a case to illustrate a point, making sure I do not give enough details to ever identify the actual client. I might say, “Yesterday I met with someone who had the same difficulty as the person you are talking about. Here is what I did . . . .” The point is that I want to show them that I know about the cases they are considering referring. And yet I am careful to be respectful and helpful to both my client and the referrer.

The six-month window

When you are new to an area and just starting out, referrers expect you to show up soon after arrival. They want to see you within that first six months. When you connect, you are sending the powerful message. You are saying, “You are so important to me that I made it a priority to visit you soon after my arrival.” 

A story

My attorney of many years retired. He passed his practice on to a younger associate, Robin, whom I had never met. I wondered how long it would take the new associate to visit me. Sure enough, about two months after the transition Robin emailed me to set up a time to visit. She came to my office and was very pleasant and likable. She had read over the file to see what work her firm.

Robin made a good impression by being prepared. She sent me a follow-up thank-you email. A month later she sent me two tickets to a Cubs game. The transition of loyalty was complete. I felt valued. Robin had conveyed that I was going to get the same high quality of care I had been used to. And I have not been disappointed. In subsequent interactions she has been all she seemed to be from those early encounters.

The intro

If you are brand-new to a firm, referrers will want to know where you came from and why you joined the organization. What attracted you? And this is exactly what you should be telling them. But the window is only there for a few months. If you show up a year or two later, the referrer is thinking I guess I’m not that important to you, ’cause it sure took you long enough to come by.

Some personal examples

When I began my practice many years ago I thought a logical place for me to begin was with clergy. I had been a youth pastor in a couple of churches prior to graduate school. I quickly discovered that while I was interested in clergy, they were not much interested in me. They were suspicious of all therapists. I learned that part of that was because they had seen so many therapists come and go in the community. They wondered if my interest was just temporary like the rest. I realized I needed to stick it out for the long haul.

One of my early marketing efforts was to serve as the secretary for the ministerial organization in town. That way I knew they would open my mailings. Even with that effort I felt I was never fully accepted as a permanent member of the community. It took about five years of regular attendance at their monthly meetings to convince them I was for real. Yes, five long years.

Then, after about ten years, one of the clergy called me and invited me to a monthly breakfast with four or five clergy from the larger churches in town. I had not been aware that they had been having a book group over breakfast.  Apparently at one meeting an idea for an ecumenical marital workshop came up. Of all the therapists in town, they invited me to come. They asked me to help them with their workshop idea. My colleagues and I provided an annual marital workshop for their church members every February for the next ten years. 

Other things came out of those breakfast meetings as well, for example, an invitation to facilitate a church’s small group discussion on gays in the church. Another was the opportunity to lead a large church staff on a retreat regarding changes in family life. None of these would have happened without years of faithfully attending meetings and going to breakfasts with these pastors. “Good luck” happens to those who consistently show up over the years.

More relationship-building ideas

Here is a list of non-planned for, “spontaneous” marketing opportunities that occurred in one especially intense month of marketing activities. Fortunately, most months have not been that busy:

  1. October 8 – With two weeks’ warning, a local church called to ask me to fill in for a therapist who had canceled a talk on the topic of marital friendship at the last minute. Sixteen people came.
  2. October 17 – I had a few minutes as I was driving by a large Catholic church and decided to stop in to meet the new priest who had just come to that parish. He was ill, but I ran into the assistant priest and one of the sisters. We chatted for ten minutes. 
  3. October 19 – We had recently hired a new support staff person, and though we did not know it at the time of hiring, her mother was the assistant principal at a nearby Catholic high school. With four of my colleagues, we met with the social work/guidance staff at the high school for thirty minutes. They were interested in whether we offered a sliding scale and who does our academic testing. 
  4. October 24 – While visiting a client at the inpatient unit of a local hospital, I spontaneously introduced myself to a new child and adolescent psychiatrist I had heard of but not yet met. We chatted for two or three minutes. I followed up with a note.
  5. October 27 – With about one month’s notice, one of my clients asked if I would represent our center at a health fair that her church was offering the community. I invited another colleague to join me, and we spent a Saturday from 10 am to 1 pm at the fair.

Also read:

Marketing favorites that are not a big stretch

Types of marketing: What works for you?

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