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    Marketing: Centers of Influence: Six Steps to Structuring a Referral Program

    Setting up formal connections with other professionals will help your current clients by giving them access to advisors you’ve already vetted and will help you gain referrals and new clients for your law practice.

    Jenna Weber Atkinson

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    Water drop rippleMany studies have shown that the number-one way the top-performing professional services firms grow their business is through referrals. Referrals can include those from current clients, internal referrals or cross-selling, family and friends, and centers of influence (also known as COIs). Although all these avenues are important for business growth, this article focuses on how to create a structured referral program for centers of influence.

    Who is a Center of Influence?

    When defining the term center of influence, the focus should be on “influence.” These individuals are the trusted advisors who have influence in their clients’ lives. Examples of COI professionals for attorneys include certified public accountants, financial advisors, insurance brokers, real estate agents, and bankers. These are professionals who often work with a similar clientele and provide services complementary to those of an attorney.

    Why Create a Center of Influence Program?

    There are two main reasons it is beneficial for your firm to create a COI program. The first is to create connections that allow you to provide better solutions for your clients. A client who has a team of trusted advisors working cohesively on comprehensive solutions is served much better than a client who is being pulled in different directions by disconnected advisors.

    Jenna Webercom weberj sva Jenna Weber is a business development coordinator for SVA Professionals, Madison, where she creates and implements business development strategies and awareness campaigns that drive business growth.

    The second reason is that for attorneys, relationship- and trust-building acumen are crucial for a successful business. By creating a structured plan to transfer the skills you use daily with your clients to building a network of COIs, you help put your practice on the fast track to consistent growth with ideal clients. Overall, a COI program is a cost-effective, win-win situation for both your clients and your firm.

    By following the six steps below, you will have a clear process to build strategic and lasting business relationships with a select group of COIs, who will help you provide enhanced client service and will be positioned to refer ideal clients to you.

    1) Commit to a Program

    The first step to creating a beneficial COI program is to have the commitment of everyone in your firm to the success of the program. Get buy-in from the governance, partners, or whoever else is necessary to support a COI initiative. Building a strong COI program will take a considerable amount of time, so it is essential to have executive support in your efforts.

    2) Develop a Strategy

    Once you have buy-in from all the necessary individuals, the next step is to create a COI program strategy. As with any effective marketing campaign, being able to identify your goals and track progress is an important starting point. Questions you need to consider include the following:

    • What goals are you trying to achieve with this program? (Make sure they are “SMART”: specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time bound.) An example of a SMART goal for a COI program would be: To cultivate three center of influence relationships that generate four profitable leads by Dec. 31, 2013.

    • What professionals would make good COIs for your firm?

    • How many COIs is each program participant required to develop a relationship with? The most successful programs focus on quality, not quantity, of COIs. A good number to shoot for when starting a COI program is five per person. This number allows adequate time to build relationships with each partner and also gives you a good variety of people and professions with which to share referrals.

    • What will be the expectations of parties involved in the referral relationship?

    • How will you track referrals given and received from each COI? If you are currently using a client relationship management system, this is a great place to track where prospects are coming from.

    3) Create and Follow a Structured Process

    Once you have determined your goals for the program and how to track your success, it is time to create your process. Set timelines for each milestone. These will be unique for each firm, based on the goals the firm has set for this initiative. Document your plan, both to guide your efforts and to make sure your process is consistent and replicable. This structure allows you to coordinate what might otherwise be one-off activities, which are likely to be less efficient and effective. Questions you should consider include the following:

    • How will you ensure there is not duplication of effort with one COI within your firm, so that only one person in the firm is developing a relationship with a particular COI?

    • How will you make the initial contact with the COI?

    • How frequently are you going to touch base or meet in person with the COI?

    • How will you nurture your COI relationships?

    4) Focus Your Efforts

    Now that you have set up a process, you must identify which COIs would be the best fit for your firm. Make a list of your top 20 COI prospects and begin to reach out to them to set up meetings to discuss the opportunity. You should be able to narrow your list from 20 to the top five relationships based on your discussions. Try to quickly narrow your list of prospective COIs, so you can focus the majority of your time on professionals who will be the best long-term fit for your practice. Remember, quality is more important than quantity in a COI strategy.

    5) Add Value

    The best COIs receive numerous inquiries for these types of referral relationships. It is important to differentiate yourself and your firm and be able to clearly and concisely articulate what value you bring to the COI and his or her clients. Create “case studies” to show real examples that showcase your technical expertise and clients’ positive results. This helps the COI understand the value of working with you to solve specific types of client issues. Always be looking for ways to share relevant industry information and trends, because being able to help the COI better serve his or her clients elevates your status as a valuable resource.

    6) Go the Distance

    Finally, make sure you have realistic expectations for the COI initiative. Building meaningful professional relationships takes time. In many cases, you might not see the full value of the relationship until after the first year. Schedule regular, in-person meetings to touch base. Although exchanging phone calls and email can be helpful, in-person meetings are almost always more effective. These meetings allow you to continue to showcase your expertise and allow the COI to experience firsthand what makes your partnership valuable. Executive teams should consider discussing COI program progress at individual employee reviews. To solidify the COI initiative as a priority at your firm, tying individuals’ progress to their compensation or bonus structure can also be helpful. If you have an effective and consistent execution of your COI strategy over time, you will reap the full benefits of your time and efforts.


    Creating a center of influence plan helps you provide better service to your clients and other trusted advisors provide better service for their clients, and it ultimately helps you grow your business with quality referrals. Remember, success in this type of initiative does not come quickly, but if you put in the time and effort, the rewards will be worth the wait.