4 simple ways to set your firm apart and drive referrals

Follow these four tips to get the referrals you need to grow your RIA firm.

Key Points

  • Referrals are the most effective way to grow your book of business.

  • Increase referrals by clearly communicating your value and differentiators.

  • Positively shape perceptions to turn clients into advocates and prospects into clients.


Word-of-mouth continues to be the lifeblood for RIA firms, with referrals accounting for 68% of new clients according to the 2021 Schwab RIA Benchmarking Study. However, a referral does not guarantee new business. 

One problem is that many people don't understand the value of working with an RIA—or what they receive in return for paying fees—according to Maribeth Kuzmeski, president of Red Zone Marketing and a consultant who has worked with leading advisory firms for more than 20 years. With 48% of investors citing competitive fee structure as an important reason for picking a wealth manager,1 it's possible that many potential clients are going to look at price before they consider the full benefits of working with your firm. 

That's why Kuzmeski says advisors must communicate the true value of their services. Leaving your value open to interpretation impacts the effectiveness of referrals, because people don't always know how to explain what you do in a way that's compelling or consistent. This can also make it harder to differentiate your firm from others. As a business owner, it's imperative that you own the messaging that others then share with the world. 

You don't have to change what you do to set your firm apart. You just have to change how you describe what you do. Kuzmeski lists four ways advisors can capitalize on their unique value and their referrals:

1. Exploit your uniqueness

Sometimes the trait an advisor considers their main strength or differentiator isn't what clients talk about when referring them, says Kuzmeski. "And perhaps it's not what you should lead with." 

For example, many advisors often describe their services as being better. But people don't buy based on better—or even on need. They buy on want. And what they want, according to Kuzmeski, is you. "Eighty percent of the reason that people do business with you is you. You are the lead story." 

Your story of why you're in the advisor business is what prospects and clients remember most. So if you want to capture their attention and give them a message to remember, make your story clear and feature it prominently.

Remember: not better, different.

2. Hone your niche message 

Niche marketing is not restrictive. It's targeted. According to Kuzmeski, the biggest mistake advisors make in marketing is failing to think about their audience. 

Consider this all-too-common scenario: An advisor at a networking event for business owners is asked, "What do you do?" The advisor responds, "I'm a financial advisor." It's a reply that can end a conversation before it even begins. It may describe your industry but it says nothing about you or those you serve.  

Instead, Kuzmeski suggests answering that question with a simple, repeatable statement of value (SRSV). Think of it as an elevator pitch.

Focus your message on your audience. Your target is the person to whom you're speaking.

  1. Describe what they want that you offer. This is not what you do but what your audience truly wants. You may have to do some digging in conversation.
  2. Share how you are different than most. You don't have to be unique but you should have a key differentiation. 
  3. Have a story that proves it. Give an example of what you do.   

For example, the conversation might go like this …

Prospective client: "Oh, what do you do?" 

Advisor: "I'm a financial advisor. My firm specializes in working with business owners, and in fact, to date we've helped 60 business owners successfully sell their businesses and move on to the next phase of their lives." 

Notice how the message is tailored to the audience: business owners at a business event. Notice how there's no jargon—only language focused on wants (sell their business and move on) and how the story that proves it all (helped 60 business owners) is succinct. Simple. And, most importantly, memorable.

Kuzmeski recommends that advisors develop a bank of SRSVs to attach to the different niches they serve. The key to making an SRSV work is figuring out what your specific audience wants. 

Remember: Speak to desires, not needs. 

3. Create a memorable presentation of value

According to Kuzmeski, the average attention span is eight seconds. Make your value proposition visual to seize your prospects' attention. This can increase retention from 30% to 70%.

Visual doesn't have to mean a slick brochure. In fact, in the eyes of a prospect, brochures are often created for the express purpose of selling them something. You don't want this to be a sales pitch—few people enjoy being sold to. You want this to be a clear presentation of value. Kuzmeski says this can be as easy as sitting down with a client or prospect, pulling out a sheet of paper, and writing down the three main things that you do, while explaining it verbally. This simple act of visually reinforcing your value in front of your client or prospect can make a big difference. 

The way you express your value is important, too. How might you upgrade this standard value proposition? 

Advisor: "My team has 250 years of combined experience." 

Being experienced is not enough. You have to explain why that matters. How about this …

Advisor: "I've been in this business for 25 years. I've been through 13 major downturns of the market. There's one thing that I do on this team, and I’ve been doing it for a long time: Protect clients' assets." 

See the difference? It's the value that you, and only you, provide to clients that wins attention and fuels engagement.

Remember: Make your presentation of value memorable. And, remind your clients, not just your prospects, of the value you bring and why it matters.

4. Go viral

The goal with your online presence is to go viral—to become known and spread brand awareness. Do this by simplifying what you say and hanging your hat on your unique story. And above all else, make sure your online reputation isn't damaging your referrals.

Referral acquisition might begin with word of mouth but it does not end there. Today, what your clients say about you to their networks can become meaningless if what they say doesn't match what people find online. 

Kuzmeski says nine out of 10 people will search for you online before coming to meet you. What are they searching for? A reason not to meet with you, she says. Don't give them that reason. 

Does your online presence match your story? Kuzmeski recommends adding a personalized summary on LinkedIn that explains why you're in business, updating your website, and cutting 90% of the text on your site. What will be left, she says, are your best words—your most convincing messages. 

Your online strategy should include three basic features:

  1. Your message: What you are saying to differentiate yourself or get someone's attention
  2. A call to action: What you want prospects or clients to do (e.g., "Download our free guide")
  3. Some ongoing communication: What's happening and how your business is evolving (e.g., LinkedIn/Twitter posts, blogs, personal appearances at events, email campaigns)    

These steps will help ensure that your online presence delivers a clear and consistent message that your networks can amplify.

Remember: Your online presence is an integral part of your referral marketing, not a separate strategy.

Every connection point counts

Referrals are essential to a thriving advisory business. Make every connection count by being clear about the value you bring to clients. Know your audience, give them what they need, and speak to what they want. Don't be afraid to be different because that is what makes you successful as an advisor. Focus on your unique traits, and you should see more hard-earned referrals convert to clients. 

"This business is all about taking advantage of what's right in front of you," says Kuzmeski. "It's just tweaking the things that you're already doing, making it a little bit better, a little bit more compelling, a little bit more powerful. So that your clients, who are your main source of new business, have a story to tell: your story."

Maribeth Kuzmeski, PhD, is the president of the consulting firm Red Zone Marketing. She and her firm personally consult with some of the nation's top financial professionals and advisors managing from $300 million to over $1 billion in client assets. She and her firm also work with entrepreneurial-minded corporations and salespeople on unique marketing messages, strategic marketing planning, recruiting, and business growth. Kuzmeski teaches at Oklahoma State and Columbia University School of Professional Studies, is a frequent speaker at international conferences, and contributes to major publications. She also hosts a podcast featuring inspiring businesswomen and is the author of seven books. 

What you can do next

  • Enroll in our Virtual Practice Management series, Forming Your Foundation. These programs will help you identify and reach your ideal clients by developing a strong ideal client persona and client value proposition. 
  • Consider a custodian that invests in your success. If you're thinking about becoming an independent advisor, contact us to learn more about the benefits of a Schwab custodial relationship.