An Interview with Tony Altham, Referrals Expert | Punch!

An Interview with Tony Altham, Referrals Expert

Recently I was lucky enough to be able to pick the brains of business networking and referrals expert Tony Altham to learn about the value of referrals to a business. Tony is the executive director of the Business Networking Institute (BNI) Staffordshire, managing business referral groups where he delivers coaching and training to help his members maximise their ROI through referrals and networking.  He’s also the Managing Director of AdGiftsOnline, a promotional merchandise and gift company supplying businesses in the UK and internationally.

I was able to get some of Tony’s time to gauge his thoughts on the value of referrals, the elements of a good referral scheme, and some other burning questions on how to make the most of client recommendations.

Catherine: Hi Tony. Firstly, what is the value in having a referral marketing program in place?

Tony Altham: For me personally, as well as for the thousands of business people I know and work with, it’s the pipeline of regular enquiries that come to us and our respective businesses, on an almost daily basis.  Strong contact networks with the right people who are genuinely interested in your success and who are motivated to help you achieve it, mean that opportunities come to us rather than us having to continually prospect and cold call for them.

My referral partners spread the word for me and I likewise do the same for them.  Imagine hundreds of people listening and looking for business for you as an unpaid sales team.  They pick up enquiries that I would otherwise know nothing about and I in turn do the same for them.  Many of my biggest clients have come from my referral partners and I win far more of the business that is referred to me, because I’ve been recommended.  A recommendation is an endorsement and referral jobs are rarely down to price alone.

One of the Mortgage Brokers I work with has estimated that he has a 171% conversion rate via his referral network.  That might sound crazy, however he converts 91% of the referral enquiries that he receives into mortgage business (Domestic and Commercial) and he then receives further referrals and renewal business from at least 75% of all the first time opportunities that come to him from his contacts.  By comparison, when he was buying leads he had a maximum 10% conversion rate and 90% of his initial time in dealing with those leads was unproductive, plus he paid out a lot of money in fees.

Catherine: If you were to start putting a referrals scheme in place tomorrow, what would your first steps be?

Tony Altham: I’d identify who my best clients are or are likely to be, then find out who else works with those people but importantly isn’t in competition with me, so we can potentially work together to help each other grow our respective businesses.

Following that, develop a clear plan of how I can make a difference for the people I want to work with and approach my new referral partner so I can help them to understand how to introduce me, while also learning how I can reciprocate with introductions to my clients and contacts.

Aim for small wins initially until you get to a level of confidence where an introduction becomes a recommendation and then develop the opportunities to collaborate with bigger customers on more profitable projects.

Although I do network online as well as my face to face meetings, I would also look for a local business referral group to visit with the aim of building a strong contact network that will enable me to multiply my time and resources with the help of other people.  It’s what I know and I know it works consistently.  The extra and often hidden benefits are that individuals get support from other members and grow in confidence so that they become more successful in business, sooner.

Catherine: What elements do the best referral programs have that make them successful?

Tony Altham: Structure, commitments, accountability and a clear and definite focus on business.

What I mean by this is that they provide a structure for business meetings and a formal business agenda.  They establish commitments between the referral partners so everyone is similarly motivated to help each other succeed and they operate as a business that is focused on generating business.  If you have a member of staff who is not helping your company or organisation, you find out why and then how you can help them with support and training.  You take them from a position of can’t do to can do.  The best referral organisations do this, however if you have a ‘can do but won’t do’ person on your team they are not a good referral partner and you cease working with them.  This is the accountability element of the programme.  It isn’t about I’ve helped you so you now owe me.  It’s about commitment to the group and helping in any way you can.

Catherine: Are there any UK businesses that have really impressed you with their referrals scheme?

Tony Altham: There are hundreds of business networking groups and thousands of networking meetings available for people to attend.  For those who really want to get out and meet new people there are no doubt events every day of the week and throughout each day, but there is a massive difference between ‘busyness’ and business.

Many years ago, when I started my career, I used to turn up at pretty much any event that I considered a networking opportunity and people would say that ‘I would go to the opening of an envelope’ which was interesting, because I saw them at all the same events I went to.  It took me some time to realise the difference between networking and referral marketing, but once I did my business grew massively.

Now, I personally focus my time and energy on face to face marketing in BNI (Business Network International) because it’s the global market leader and provides the best business referral structure, the most comprehensive support resources and by far the most effective training for members.  I’ve seen many other organisations come and go over the years and I’ve met people who think BNI is too structured, but they come to BNI when they realise that it’s the members using the structure that delivers the results and referrals that they so badly want and need.

Another key is that you want the best people in your network, so an organisation that invites applications but takes up references and doesn’t accept everyone, means it is better at delivering those very good people.

Catherine: How can sales and marketing work together to make a referrals program run smoothly?

Tony Altham: Previous research indicates that 98% of people in business acknowledge receiving business by recommendations and referrals at some point, however only 3% of those same business people develop a formal business and marketing strategy to incorporate the generation of business referrals as part of their business development plans.  Sales and Marketing are complimentary and should work hand in glove together.  When you develop a strategic approach to your referral marketing they do exactly that.

When you identify the key people you want to work with and be introduced to, a strong referral network enables you to enlist the help of the other members of your group by being specific about the introductions you are keen to achieve.  In so many cases, one person will name someone they are really looking to work with and by being specific they make it easy for the others to help them get that introduction.  Referral partners aren’t there to do all the work for you, but they are there to open doors where they can.  They don’t need to know how to sell your business products and services, only to notice the opportunities and how to make the introductions for you.

When someone knows, likes and most importantly trusts you enough to place their own reputation on the line by recommending you, the stage is set for you to win more business enquiries and convert more of those enquiries at the profit margins you want to work for.  Marketing is packaging the brand and services, identifying the target market and the sales is converting the enquiries received at your prices.

Catherine: We know that you’re a big advocate of face-to-face networking.  What networking best practices that you’ve learnt can be applied to the world of digital?

Tony Altham: However and wherever you network, I strongly believe that manners and courtesy are critical. The same process applies whether it is face to face or online, in that you have to be seen, so you have to appear where the people you want to work with will notice you.

People need to know you as best they possibly can and they have to reach a stage of believing that you can and will do what you say you will do. You don’t connect with someone online and immediately ask them for business because it’s bad manners and discourteous.

Finally they have to trust that you will deliver on your promises.  When you attain all 3 of these you have earned the right to ask for referrals with most people.



One-to-one, one-to-few, one-to-many, programmatic, lite…it’s understandable why account-based marketing can seem daunting at first! But regardless of the ABM terminology being used, the basic principles are the same. Putting more resources into fewer target accounts who are more likely to convert, and provide a greater ROI. Which kind of ABM approach you should adopt depends on a number of factors. In this blog you’ll find out what the 3 types of ABM are, and which is right for your business.

the three types of ABM

So you’ve decided that adopting an ABM strategy is right for your business and that’s definitely a wise choice.


It’s understandable that you might have some concerns, running an ABM programme requires a shift of mind-set. It takes sizeable marketing ‘balls’ to shift resources from more typical marketing strategies to account-based marketing.


But that’s exactly what organisations are doing – the number of companies with an advanced ABM programme doubled from 2017 to 2018. And why?


Simple – because in a recent study, 97% of marketers reported a higher ROI from ABM than other marketing campaigns. Any successful ABM campaign is one that balances these three measures –


  • The likelihood of a given target account buying
  • The resources required to acquire them as a customer
  • The potential ROI to your business if they convert

The differences between the 3 types of ABM are driven by a need to align these factors, so let’s look at exactly what each approach involves and what factors should inform your ABM strategy.

One-to-one ABM

The original and probably best known of the 3 types of ABM, and the approach you’re most likely already familiar with.

One-to-one ABM is a strategic approach that treats your most valuable target accounts as their own individual markets. This means engaging with each of them in a specific and bespoke way.


A typical one-to-one campaign would involve targeting 5-10 key target accounts, the ones whose business would make your year or even change the direction of your company.

The resources required to engage with each account in a one-to-one ABM campaign are significant. With that in mind, it’s vital that you have deep insight into how likely the target account is to buy. Intent data is a great way to choose your target accounts based on whether they’re starting a buying journey.


By focusing on 10 accounts that you know are likely to buy, you can allocate more resources to engaging with each, knowing that they are more likely to convert and provide you with a great ROI.

You should consider one-to-one ABM as your strategy of choice if –


  • You can research the accounts in detail and gather detailed insights on how likely they are to buy
  • Your products and solutions are high-value and high-consideration
  • You’re selling into a mature or even saturated market
  • Your opportunity to close rate is high
  • You have clear and genuine points of differentiation from your competitors
  • Each account has a large number of key stakeholders from whom you need buy-in
  • You have the resources available to create content bespoke to each account
  • You have the available people resources to engage and nurture each target account

One-to-few ABM

One-to-few ABM, or ABM Lite as it’s also known, is a way of using the one-to-one ABM principles and applying them at scale to a greater number of target accounts.

For example, you might be dedicating 40 days per month to your top 5 accounts in a one-to-one strategy.


If you then wanted to reach out to your top 30 accounts, you most likely wouldn’t be able to scale up the same approach unless you have 240 days worth of resources available to do this. So what’s the answer?


Your best strategy would be to focus on small groups of target accounts, rather than individual accounts. These groups can then be treated as their own individual markets, in the same way as individual accounts were with one-to-one ABM.


The most common way to organise accounts into groups of 5-10 is by sub-sector. If you’re targeting the retail sector, your sub-sectors might be fashion, groceries, DIY and homeware.

You can then build specific content that will resonate with that sub-sector, identifying trends and solving their challenges.

Consider one-to-few ABM as your strategy of choice if –


  • You have a small addressable market of target accounts
  • You’re selling high-value, high consideration solutions or products
  • You have to get buy-in from 3-4 key stakeholders at each account
  • You’re able to gather insights into the challenges facing each target sector
  • You have the resources available to create sector specific content
  • You have the available people resources to engage and nurture each target account
  • Your product or solution has clear points of differentiation from its competition

One-to-many ABM

One-to-many ABM takes the ABM approach and scales it so the principles can be applied to a larger number of target accounts.


How many? That’s up to you, as there are no hard and fast rules as to where one-to-few ends and where one-to-many begins.


Similarly, you might be wondering where to draw the line between one-to-many ABM and just ‘marketing’? Well you’re not alone, there’s not a clear agreement even among leading practitioners of ABM.


It depends on the lifetime value of those accounts to your business, the greater the value, the fewer you should go for.


The average number of accounts for a one-to many campaign according to the ITSMA sits at around 100. However you may choose to go for more than this and dedicate fewer resources to each, or use an approach closer to the one-to-few model, and dedicate more resources to engaging with each account.

You should consider one-to-many ABM as a strategy if –


  • You want to increase brand awareness whilst also creating engagement at key accounts
  • Your solution is new to market, or the market need educating on its potential
  • There is one or a couple of key stakeholders at each target account
  • You have the available people resources to engage and nurture each target account
  • Your pipeline to close rate is low and could be improved
  • You don’t have access to information on which accounts are starting a buying journey
  • You need some accounts to convert more quickly in order to see ROI sooner


In these times of uncertainty, making the most out of your marketing budget is more important than ever. In Account-Based Marketing you reduce the number of accounts you target significantly and then increase the amount of resources you spend on them. This makes the actual account selection process very important because you can’t afford for an account that receives significant resource to just fall by the wayside. So with that in mind, here a five tips for best practice account selection.

Have you thought about targeting different industries?

People are getting scared and more cautious about taking meetings and calls. So, who is engaging?


Some industries are booming at the moment such as:


  • Video conferencing technology
  • Project management tools
  • E-learning
  • Ecommerce
  • Gaming

With an influx in demand, they might just be looking for your solution. But for industries heavily effected, you need to rethink your GTM strategy to be as humane as possible; if your solution is something that would be deemed essential to these businesses – keep helping. If it’s more of a luxury, consider targeting different industries where an influx of demand means they might be on the lookout for your solution.

Sales and Marketing, Name a Better Duo

We always talk about the importance of sales and marketing alignment, but it comes into play with regards to account selection as well. A common mistake is allowing one department to select all of the target accounts for a campaign.


If the sales team are solely responsible then you run the risk of them giving you all of the ‘problem’ accounts that they have yet to achieve any traction with. As Jamie Hardin, Senior Marketing Manager of ON24 explains “ABM should be viewed as augmenting the current strategy, not a ‘Hail Mary’ initiative on an inactive account.” Similarly, it would be foolish for marketing to be solely responsible without using the information that sales already have on the accounts that they’ve been engaging with.

This could be information on which accounts are reaching a contract renewal date, previous positive conversations with the clients, or even contacts that could have used your services in a previous role at another company.

By combining the information marketing has alongside insights from sales, your account selection can lay the foundation for a successful campaign.

Are you intent on this?

Utilising intent data is the best way to select accounts. This helps you understand which companies are in a buying window based on the websites they’re visiting and the content they’re consuming. However, platforms such as Bombora and Nexus aren’t at everyone’s disposal, which is why a combination of the above tactics gives the next best chance of selecting accounts that are most likely to convert.


Account selection is perhaps the biggest factor in the success of an Account-Based Marketing campaign. Good accounts, that fit your ICP and are showing intent are bound to be successful, whereas accounts that aren’t selected on insight and reasoning are likely to fail. There’s never a sure fire way to pick accounts that are destined to convert, but by following these tips you’ll have a solid foundation for your ABM programme.

Do it early!

One of the most consistent mistakes we come across with account selection is doing it too late in the ABM journey. After first defining your ideal customer profile or ICP (link to other blog) and selecting your sector, you should be looking to choose your accounts. Prioritising selection early on in the process will give you ample time to gather insight into them, allowing you to really personalise your message that will resonate with the target DMU.

Make Sure They Fit Your ICP

Using an ICP to frame your account selection ensures that your target accounts are most likely to be a good fit for your business. It also ensures that you don’t fall for those ‘dream’ accounts that you may have put on the list because you want the logo on your website, or you’ve always dreamed of working with. If they aren’t right for the programme, you shouldn’t be targeting them. It’s not about if you want them, as much as it’s about if they want you.

So, you’re thinking about adopting Account-Based Marketing…

Fantastic! But there are three different types of ABM; one-to-many, one-to-few, and one-to-one. So, which one is right for you? Luckily, we have a handy little calculator that will tell you exactly that.