If you’re like most firms, attracting and developing new business is a top priority. One of the best ways to do this is through referrals.

Referral marketing is critical to developing new business. So critical, that in a recent Hinge Research Institute study on firms’ marketing priorities, 61.9% of respondents cited generating more referrals as their top marketing initiative.

But you might think your referral strategy doesn’t have much to do with your professional services firm’s brand. You may think that most referrals come from current clients who appreciate your work and recommend you to others. But in reality, that’s not how it usually works.

According to Hinge’s research on referrals, 81.5% of firms receive referrals from people who aren’t clients.

So what’s driving referrals if not your clients?

It’s simple. Your brand.

How Your Brand Influences Referrals

Of the three major types of referrals—experience, reputation, or expertise—only experience-based referrals rely on direct interaction with your firm. The rest of referrals come from avenues that depend on your brand to do the selling.

According to our research, the majority of referrals come from its general reputation (46.4%) and expertise (48.1%). Since your firm’s brand is its reputation and visibility within your target market, most referrals (94.5%) are linked directly to the strength of your brand.

So where exactly do these reputation-based and expertise-based referrals come from if they’re not coming from your clients or others who know you? Let’s take a look.

Reputation-Based Referrals

These types of referrals come from individuals or organizations that have not worked with your firm directly but know you by reputation. They hear about your firm through friends or colleagues (55%), but almost as many (45%) will simply “know” you have a good reputation.

And how has this reputation been developed?

Sources of reputation-based referrals

Through brand experience—every customer interaction, your website, social media posts, online reviews, and every published word your firm releases.

So when thinking about how to grow referrals, it’s important to also think about how to grow your brand’s reputation in your target market.

Expertise-Based Referralsblogoffer-middle-RethinkingReferralM

These types of referrals happen when your brand is positioned as the expert in its field. There are several ways that your brand can successfully develop its position as an expert, but the most common sources for expertise-based referrals, according to our research, is hearing an expert speak, reading blog posts or articles by the brand or their visible experts, and interacting with the brand on social media.

Sources of expertise-based referrals

To grow expertise-based referrals, it’s important that your brand and those associated with your brand, are visibly sharing their expertise through a variety of mediums. So if you’re not already promoting your expertise through multiple channels, consider how you can add these types of efforts to both your brand building and referral growth strategies.

SEE ALSO: Top 7 Referral Marketing Ideas for Professional Services Firms

How Referrals Can Fall Flat

Getting a referral is only half the battle. Our research shows that over half of buyers – a full 51.9% – report that they rule out firms without talking to them. This means that beyond building your brand to attract referrals, you also need to look for proactive strategies that will keep referrals engaged throughout the buying journey.

How can you best do this?

In our research, we looked at how buyers initially engage with firms and what types of issues make them rule out a firm before they speak with them.

How Buyers Check Out Professional Services Providers

How professional services buyers check out potential providers

The first place buyers go to get more information is a firm’s website. Online searches, such as a Google search, asking friends or colleagues if they’ve heard of the person or firm, and social media are all places buyers go to get more information before contacting the firm. And it’s through these venues that they will either continue to engage with your brand or rule you out as a potential service provider.

There are a lot of reasons buyers may rule you out, but the top reasons all revolve around your messaging. If your messaging isn’t clear about what you do, what benefits you offer your clients, and how you can help them, you won’t get buyers to take the next step and contact you—they’ll move on.

Along these same lines, it’s crucially important that your messaging and your brand presentation are relayed clearly and professionally on your website—the first place most buyers go to learn more about you (80.8%). If your website is unimpressive, doesn’t convey the right culture, and doesn’t provide a clear message that focuses on how you can help potential buyers, it’s likely you’ll lose your referrals right then and there.


To cultivate successful referrals that result in new business, make sure that you’re focused on the right things. Build your brand reputation at every opportunity in a professional manner with clear, prospect-focused messaging that lets potential buyers know how you can help them. Then, demonstrate your expertise through educational and relevant content that helps your target audience improve their own business, as well as through creating more opportunities for experts within your firm to share their expertise and build their networks. And, make your website a priority. Properly designed to showcase your prospect-focused messaging and domain expertise, it can, and should be, one of your top performing business development assets.

Additional Resources:

How Hinge Can Help:

It’s time to rethink your referral marketing strategy. The Visible Firm℠ is the leading marketing program for delivering greater visibility, growth, and profits. This customized program will identify the most practical offline and online marketing tools your firm will need to gain new clients and reach new heights.

Elizabeth Harr