From the January 2010 issue of Research Magazine • Subscribe!

Centers of Influence

Here's how to find and approach the key people in a niche.

These are challenging times. The markets seem to be rebounding, but clients are still nervous and cautious -- with good reason. They've been severely rattled, both financially and emotionally, and they're taking a new look at everything associated with their financial advisors, from the services and value propositions they're being offered to the possibility of finding a new advisor with whom they might be more satisfied. Advisors are faced with the challenge of finding betters ways of connecting with current valued clients as well as with prospects.

Clients -- especially affluent clients -- are recalibrating their expectations with regard to how much their financial advisors know, or should know, about them. This comes as no surprise to elite advisors, who long before the recent market meltdown embraced the best practices of cultivating extensive knowledge, information and insight about clients in their niche.

With such thorough knowledge of their clients at their command, elite advisors are far more adept at establishing solid in-depth relationships with fewer but wealthier clients and thereby building a niche-centered practice that is both more profitable and more enjoyable. But to develop such a niche in the first place, you have to know a lot about the clients in that niche. For many advisors, just jumping in and learning more about the clients in their targeted niche is a pretty daunting task. Fortunately, there is a systematic and sensible way to go about cultivating this kind of in-depth client information.

In our CEG Worldwide coaching programs, we teach advisors how to identify and interview what we call Centers of Influence -- "COIs" -- the movers and shakers within a niche. As the "go to" people within their community, these COIs will have a great deal of knowledge about affluent individuals in their niche -- affluent individuals who are your potential clients -- including their common interests, challenges and the problems they need solved, both in the financial and non-financial domains.

COIs are often individuals such as these: trade association executives and affinity group leaders; trade press publishers, editors and reporters; lawyers, accountants and other consultants specializing in the niche; leading lights and esteemed niche members.

COIs understand the unique needs of, and have in-depth insight into, the members of their community. They know what clubs niche members belong to, where they congregate, what they enjoy doing and whom they enjoy doing it with, and the kinds of charitable boards they're on and the causes they support. COIs also know people such as attorneys and CPAs whom you might leverage as part of your strategic alliances and expert network, and they know possible venues, such as the Kiwanis Club, Chamber of Commerce or the local cardiology association, where you might be able to get invited to give a group presentation. Perhaps most importantly, COIs have in-depth knowledge of niche members as human beings and therefore know what's most crucial to them at a fundamental level, both financially and otherwise.

Finding COIs

Clearly, if you want to learn about clients in your targeted niche, there's no better place to go than to the COIs in that niche. Fortunately, as part and parcel of being movers and shakers in their communities, COIs are highly likely to be driven to share their insights with others who also want to serve their communities, such as a financial advisor who wants to offer extraordinary value to niche members. Moreover, COIs tend to be highly affable and approachable people (or they wouldn't have become COIs in the first place).

We therefore recommend that advisors who want to be successful on purpose conduct between five and 20 COI interviews in their target niche. The first step (assuming you already have a targeted niche) is to identify who these COIs are through general networking, asking your current clients, local trade press inquiries and online searches. The quantity and quality of the information that can be generated from a honed Internet search can be astounding, if you know what you're doing. If you don't know what you're doing, you may want to hire someone to do the searching for you.

After identifying your five to 20 COIs, call each one up and request an appointment. Explain that you are revamping your business to specialize in the needs of those in this particular niche, and that you would like to talk to the COI about the unique needs, concerns and issues of the individuals in this community. Setting up a time to have breakfast, lunch or even coffee is best, since these times of the day (as opposed to dinnertime or the evening) are most conducive to business-related discussions.

Interview Goals

When you first arrive at your interview appointment, thank the COI for taking the time to meet with you and share valuable insights into the needs, problems, and challenges faced by individuals in their niche community today. Emphasizing "today" is important, because the needs, problems, and challenges faced by individuals today are tremendously different than those from 18, 24 or 36 months ago. By focusing on what's important today, you impress upon the COI the timeliness of your inquiry.

Keep the following goals in mind for your interview:

o Identify explicit key concerns and challenges of niche members, as well as underlying themes, issues, and problems.

o Learn the language -- the vernacular -- f niche members (for example, if your targeted niche is dentists, you should know that dentists fully consider themselves to be doctors just as much as physicians -- or medical doctors -- are doctors).

o Learn additional ways to identify niche members who are ideal clients for you (you can directly ask how to reach niche members and also inquire into where niche members hang out, what publications they read, and so on)

o Uncover the identity of additional COIs whom you can interview.

The best way to achieve all of these goals is to ask the COI a series of deep, open-ended, thought provoking questions, and then listen intently to the answers you receive. Either take detailed notes, or better yet, ask permission to record the interview on a digital recorder so that you can be free to pay attention in real-time while later on being able to carefully listen to and dissect the COI's responses. Importantly, during the entire interview you should be thinking about your value proposition to niche members and how the COI's responses can help you further hone and refine that value proposition.

You should also keep in mind the article or white paper you will write based on what you learn from your interview. When you are going through the process of changing your business to specialize in the needs of a targeted niche community, you need to not only become intensely familiar with and involved in the community, but also to externally position yourself as an expert in the needs of the community. As the old saying goes, "Hawkers are Talkers, and Writers are Experts."

Your written piece should speak directly to niche members and position you as the top-of-the-mind go-to person for financial needs. This article should not be a sales piece about your firm, but rather an opportunity to show your target niche the depth of your knowledge and understanding of their unique challenges and how you can deliver extraordinary value to niche members. Make sure, then, that you include a list of challenges and important next steps for niche members to consider.

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