It is pretty accepted that our practices are best grown through referrals, and that beyond our clients it is important to cultivate centers of influence (COI’s) such as CPA’s and estate attorneys.
After having been exposed to a wide variety of coaches (Bill Cates, Rainmaker, Strategic Coach, CEG, etc.), I have found no easy answers.  One of the biggest obstacles is competition.  From what I have seen, most COI’s are heavily prospected to the point of being desensitized, unreceptive and often jaded.  Virtually all have their guard up when approached.

Another challenge is that, for any referring source, their best hope is to breakeven, i.e. that I meet the expectations they have set.  And perhaps if they have had bad prior experience they fear something less will occur, which could cause them embarrassment and perhaps even impair their client relationship.  So I have to ask myself, “Why in the world would a COI choose to refer me instead of another advisor?

Given these challenges, I have and continue to develop my process which seeks to instill three essential perceptions in the COI (not necessarily in priority order): 1) Competence, 2) Integrity, 3) Likability. 

1. Competence: Beyond demonstrating knowledge, I also must show a capability of effectively applying that knowledge to help clients.  I need to have a client service process that is thorough, concise and understandable.  I have found that the most effective tools are:

a. Process Flow Charts: We developed a five step client process that fits into an easy to understand flow chart.  This is an attractive piece that I use to clearly describe the step by step efforts I take to assure clients are benefiting from my thorough, highly personalized approach.

b. Client Events:  We invite COI’s to events so they can see first hand my client relationships and how I care for them.  They can expect that any clients referred to me will certainly receive the same treatment.

c. White Papers and Published Articles:  We created a library of papers on timely key issues facing specific client segments and how these can be addressed. This not only shows my competence, but provides an array of material I can offer to help the COI support his/her target niche.  I typically offer one at a time in the context that each is a work in progress and I would greatly appreciate their reviewing and making suggestions.  This shows my deference to their expertise and lays the groundwork for how we might work together.

2. Integrity: We can boast honesty all day long, but how does that really get conveyed?  The key ingredients are:

a. Sincerity: This is the starting point, which is so often lost under the pressure of trying to be what I expect the COI wants me to be.  It has taken me a while to just be myself. And that always works best, period.

b. Candor: I do not have all the answers, am the first to admit, and am quick to commit that I will get the answers quickly.  Prompt follow through then becomes critical.

c. Transparency: I proactively describe how I make my money and the steps I take to help assure the client understands what they pay and what they get.

d. Client Centric: I need to show that my client’s needs come first, end of story.. 

3. Likeability: If done well, this can be strong enough to compensate for less than a stellar job in the other areas.  I proceed under Andrew Carnegie’s famous observation, that the most important person we want to better know is ourselves.  So I work to take an interest in the COI’s practice, his/her challenges, be considerate and supportive.

I have found it essential to start with an existing connection, such as the current CPA or attorney of my clients.  So for each top category client I have created the following process:

1. Initial Contact: Early in a new client relationship I inquire about their current CPA and attorney and whether they are providing good service.  If they are not, I have a referral opportunity to one of the COI’s with whom I am already working.  If the client’s current relationship is good, I explain how our value added service has me coordinate with the advisor to the client’s benefit, and request an introduction.  During the introductory phone call, if the COI and I are hitting it off, I will suggest that it would be to our mutual benefit if we could meet for lunch, and will set a date.

2. Initial Meeting: The goals are to determine the COI’s competence, learn about his/her business, identify areas where I might be able to augment his/her efforts, and to see if we can connect on a personal level.  I have very concise phrases to describe my service model, target client base, and may show one or two articles in which I have been quoted by a recognizable publication for credibility.  I will also explain what he/she can expect from me in supporting his/her relationship with our mutual client, along with stories to help the COI visualize, relate and remember.  I want to end with a legitimate reason for another contact, so will give him one of my white papers on topic that seems most applicable to his/her practice, and ask for comments and feedback so we can better serve both of our clients.

3. Follow Up: My goal is to stay in touch at least monthly with a face to face quarterly.  Each time I will bring something to discuss that I am confident is of interest to the COI.  I will continually offer to be a resource for information and problem solving as needed.

In my experience, some COI’s are more naturally comfortable and eventually receptive to a referral relationship while others are not.  My goal is to build relationships with as many of the former as possible.  So I strive to meet with at least two COI’s per week, one that is new and one with whom I have already met.  We will do extras to make their jobs easier, like accompany a client to first meetings to facilitate the process, proactively sent year-to-date tax data in the fourth quarter, offer year end planning support, and be the first to send year end 1099’s and tax info as soon as available after Jan.1.  As I continue to continuously apply and refine the activities outlined above, we are seeing a definite upturn in our referral business.

Mitchell Kauffman provides wealth management services to corporate executives, business owners, professionals, independent women, and the affluent.  He is one of only five financial advisors from across the U.S. named to Research magazine's prestigious Financial Advisor Hall of Fame in 2010, and among a select list of 100 over the past 20 years.

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