True story: At the church I attended as a college student, a young life insurance agent was in charge of handing out the programs to churchgoers as they entered the chapel for Sunday services. When he handed me my copy, I was stunned. There-- right under the list of speakers and hymns and announcements--was his name, address, phone number, and his life insurance company's tagline: "Is your life Beneficial?" I don't know if his was, but I made up my mind right then and there that mine would never be.
Attorneys and CPAs may feel the same about the way unskilled advisors attempt to network with them. Certainly, there are right ways and even great ways to network with such professionals in hopes of turning them into valuable referral sources--and maybe even clients. But there are wrong ways as well. "I'll often do a presentation for free for an organization, and somebody will come up to me afterwards and try to sell me something," says Kate Zabriskie, president of Business Training Works, a training firm based in Port Tobacco, Md. "That happens all the time. Do not do that! It's hideous."
In fact, when it comes to networking with attorneys and CPAs, knowing what not to do is almost as important as knowing what to do. According to Zabriskie, there are any number of things to avoid. For one, she doesn't like cold calling. "I wouldn't do it," she says. "Would you respond to somebody who cold-called you? It sort of has an ambulance-chaser feel to it." For another, she cautions not to make the assumption that anyone wants to hear what you have to say. Again, she speaks from experience. "In my business, we get calls all the time that are basically a three-to four-minute infomercial that we didn't sign up for and that we didn't want. They never ask questions; they just talk about themselves. That's a bad approach."
Sometimes bad approaches can become good approaches--with a little tweaking. For instance, Michael Eisenberg, a Los Angeles-based CPA/PFS, is not a fan of mass--or even targeted--mailings. "They don't work," he says. "If it comes unsolicited, chances are that it's not going to make it past my secretary." But tweak the idea just a bit, and voil?!. "If I'm aware that something's coming, either because someone called me or I called them, then of course, I'll read it. If someone just sends it to me, I'm not even interested. I don't know who he is, and I don't know what it's about."
In a similar vein, newsletters can work--or not--depending on how you produce them. Mail or email a newsletter that's a re-hash of what you read in Money Magazine or heard on CNBC, and most attorneys and CPAs will chuck it. On the other hand, give them something fresh or something topical, and you may have a new reader. "If there's something like a new ruling, or if they point out something that I hadn't known before, I'll read it," says Salt Lake City attorney Langdon Owen, who is quick to add, "What doesn't work for me or for any other ethical attorney are referral fees or other compensation for a referral. When I refer somebody to a CPA, I don't expect anything back, and likewise, a CPA shouldn't expect anything back because of a referral."
Finally, advertising is another hole you don't want to pour money into, according to Donna Stein, managing partner at corporate communications firm Donna Stein and Partners, in Verona, N.Y. and an adjunct professor of public relations and financial communications at the Newhouse School at Syracuse University. Money is a very personal thing, and wealthy people generally aren't going to pick their wealth manager out of an ad in a newspaper or magazine, she says. "You really have to click with a person for them to trust you enough to give you their money. I think the wealth management industry is more of a networking, personal contact type thing, more than anything else."
In fact, according to the experts, pressing the flesh with little or no expectation of something in return is the single best way to connect with attorneys and CPAs. Everything else pales in comparison, Zabriskie maintains. "The best way is to try to meet these people in places where you are not talking about work," she explains.
And before you meet them, do your homework, says Phil Wilkins, CEO of Diverse Wealth Systems, a strategic consulting firm in Lexington, Ky. A master networker knows who will be attending a seminar or other event. She'll know something about what they do. "And she'll try to connect people in the audience to one another," Wilkins adds. "There are some real positive synergies in that. Bottom line: You don't forget who connected you."
That said, there are a variety of ways to encourage such encounters. According to Wilkins, one of the best is to partner with CPAs and attorneys to offer seminars and workshops for business owners on topics like succession and estate planning and the resulting legal, tax, and wealth management issues. For example, you may agree to target family-owned businesses that have been operating for 15 years or longer with 100 or more employees. In the end, workshop participants might include clients of each of the partnering professionals, as well as people from the larger community. "You end up leveraging each other's data bases," Wilkins says. "All three professions can benefit, and so do their clients."
Wilkins also recommends doing something to establish yourself as the expert in your market area, especially if you're new in the business. For example, he suggests approaching your local chamber of commerce and offer to put together a panel to discuss business issues that you and other advisors encounter in your practices. And guess who you invite to sit on the panel? "Don't forget," Wilkins says, "they're interested in growing their practices as well."
Target this idea at an even narrower audience, and you might make even better connections. Local, state, and national CPA and bar associations are always on the lookout for qualified speakers to address their members on a variety of topics.
Both Zabriskie and Wilkins recommend becoming a board member of a local hospital, museum and other prominent institutions in an effort to give back to the community. Cast your bread on those waters, and you may get back more than 10-fold--although you shouldn't expect that, they say. That's why it's important to "Get on boards that you truly believe in and that you want to be a part of," Wilkins warns. "Don't join just to attract business because that's going to shine through. But when people see that you are involved and engaged in the community, that you are giving back, that will make you attractive; that's what separates you from everybody else."
But be careful what boards you join. For example, former Sen. Alan Simpson once counseled that if you're going to run for national political office, don't run for the school board; you'll offend too many people. Zabriskie agrees. "Anything super political may create problems for you. In fact, if you've recently moved into a new community, I wouldn't join an organization for at least three or four months--until you get the lay of the land."
Of course, joining boards is not the only way to give back to the community while building referral relationships. William Newell, president of Atlantic Capital Management in Holliston, Mass., found that hosting continuing education seminars for attorneys and CPAs fostered better professional relationships, which in turn led to quality referrals. "Up until 12 years ago, I didn't have a whole lot of luck approaching attorneys and CPAs," he says. Then I realized that I needed to follow the law of reciprocity--that if I provided a service to the professional community, I would have higher visibility and better credibility."
At about the same time, he became aware of CPA Law Forum, a San Diego-based company that essentially offers wealth managers a turnkey system for providing continuing education--including an operations manual, marketing brochures, start-up mailing lists of attorneys and CPAs in their license area, and help with securing state approval of seminar offerings.
"We recommend that the financial advisor offer 10 two-hour seminars a year," explains Scott Maches, vice president of the Forum. "That allows you to provide up to half the 80 to 120 CE hours CPAs need every two to three years. It also makes it possible to be in front of them constantly."
After 12 years, Newell has pared down the number of meetings he offers to three three-hour meetings a year--one every four months strategically designed to address taxes in January, Medicare and other government programs in May, and estate planning in September. Anywhere from 20 to 40 people attend the seminars--sometimes with their clients--at $45 a pop to cover expenses. For their dollar, participants get to listen to legal, tax and investment experts from around Boston and the Northeast. Other than to introduce the speakers, Newell rarely, if ever, speaks.. "And we do not solicit business in any way, shape or form," he says.
In the months following, Newell invites some seminar participants to lunch to talk about what he does. For his efforts, he has developed referral relationships with two or three firms. And he assumes that other business comes to him as a consequence of his higher profile in the community. "There are a lot of people in the professional community here who know my name, and that has a certain amount of leverage," he says. "Call it good will. It's hard to quantify, but people know me."
In any event, you can only network with so many attorneys and CPAs. In fact, in your effort to curry favor from the local professional community, you could cast your net too wide and end up with more relationships than you can manage well--or as Zabriskie calls it, [more than] you can feed and care for. What do CPAs and attorneys expect in return? "Often," says Zabriskie, "it's referrals, and if you're getting referrals from lots of different professionals, then you have to refer back. Eventually, you could run out of people to refer. I would rather have five really good relationships and alliances than 50 that were marginal."
Make no mistake: Quality networking takes time before it pays off--at least six months, Zabriskie says. Maches estimates two, three years, or more., But if you are patient and professional, you will see a payoff. Just remember, that in the end, a job well done will generate more referrals than even the friendliest handshake.
Gregory Taggart (firstname.lastname@example.org), a former practicing attorney who has worked in insurance and financial planning, teaches writing at Brigham Young University.