If you are looking for referrals, don’t ask, says Stephen Wershing, president of the Client Driven Practice in Rochester, N.Y. Instead, incorporate your policy of accepting referrals into your marketing plan.

This approach requires that you understand your own business before you expect anyone else to do so. Then, you can begin to communicate your story to clients without having the awkward, “who do you know” conversation.

Wershing shares the first two steps to developing a referral marketing plan:

1. Know your brand
If you think your “brand” is defined by a logo and your website’s colour scheme, you’re wrong, Wershing says. Your brand is whatever makes your practice distinct and compelling to others.

A part of that brand identity is the ability to describe your niche — another area that advisors often misunderstand.

“Advisors think a niche is a demographic or a profession or an industry,” Wershing says. “And it’s not.”

Your niche refers to the need that you serve within that demographic or industry. What is it about the service that you provide that helps clients with specific needs that distinguish them from other people?

For instance, you might think your ideal clients are young professionals between the ages of 25 and 35. Realistically, that description applies to a vast portion of the population that includes people you would not serve. To narrow that description down, take a closer look at your client roster and what you do for them. Perhaps you provide financial planning for young professionals in precarious employment situations. One of your specialties would be enhancing emergency funds for clients who freelance and work in creative industries.

2. Be smart when talking about referrals
The best way to ask for referrals is to not ask at all.

Asking for referrals, Wershing says, “asks clients to prospect and qualify for you — and that’s not fair. That’s not what they signed up for.”

A better way to allude to referrals is by asking your clients for their advice on dealing with prospects. Tell your existing clients that you value their opinion and are wondering if they can provide you with some guidance on how to appeal to other people like themselves.

For example, you might say: “I want to put an even greater focus on working with hard-working single moms. They’re dealing with short-term issues like daycare and also worrying about long-term saving for their kids’ education. I know I can help with this planning but I need to connect with them first. Do you have any ideas on how to go about this?”

This approach informs your clients that you’re looking for new clients. But your clients won’t feel that you have asked them to provide names and phone numbers of their friends and family members.

This is the first instalment in a two-part series on referrals.

Next: Getting clients to say the right things about you when you’re not around.