Of three main routes to business growth — capturing additional assets from existing clients, getting new clients via referrals from existing clients, and forming strategic alliances with other professionals — it’s this third option that may be the most productive in today’s market. The time-honored, field-tested, best practice of building strategic alliances works in both good times and bad, and is an offense activity that should be a regular part of every advisor’s playbook.
Which professionals should you aim to build strategic alliances with? The No. 1 choice is certified public accountants. Statistically, clients regularly name CPAs as their most trusted advisor, and our research has consistently shown that clients want to obtain financial products and advice from CPAs. Moreover, CPAs are under enormous fee pressure, and are facing demands from their clients to offer wealth management services. As this first chart shows, the majority of CPAs have multiple, powerful reasons for providing their clients with financial services.
Many CPA firms have failed at offering wealth management services in the past, and may still be mired in a kind of analysis/paralysis with respect to doing so. Still, a strategic alliance with a financial advisor — especially one framed around the “economic glue” of a formal fee-sharing arrangement — offers CPA firms a substantial revenue opportunity. A CPA firm can gain a significant competitive edge without having to hire, supervise and logistically support an in-house financial services provider. In short, the right strategic alliance amounts to a win-win-win for the CPA firm, the firm’s clients and the financial advisor.
After CPAs, the next best bet for forming fruitful alliances is attorneys who specialize in trusts and estate planning. To find potential strategic alliance estate planning attorneys in your area, ask your clients and centers of influences whom they work with. In addition, you may want to check out ACTEC, the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel, whose www.ACTEC.org website publicly lists roughly 2,600 high-level practitioners. Estate planning attorneys work with clients during critical “money in motion” junctures in their clients’ lives and are powerful sources of referrals.
While CPAs and estate planning attorneys are generally the best professional advisors to create strategic alliances with, the following professionals are also worth considering:
o Association executives working in your target niche market (you do have a target niche market, don’t you?)
o Business brokers
o Consultants working in your target niche market
o High-level insurance brokers
A 12-Step Process
Use the following 12-step process to create a successful strategic alliance with a CPA firm.
First, determine the most suitable potential partners. Ask existing clients for referrals, making it clear that you’re looking for someone with whom they have a high-level trusted relationship, not just someone who does their taxes. Look for local movers and shakers by reading through local newspapers and business journals.
Second, narrow down your list to the top five candidates. You can do considerable due diligence on the Web, and you should feel free to ask around with respect to the positioning and reputation of potential strategic allies.
Third, make an initial call to your top five candidates to explore a working relationship. Invite the CPA to lunch, stating that you have valuable research to share on how some CPAs are successfully offering wealth management services to their clients. Such research is available in trade journals and at http://CEGWorldwide.com/research.
Fourth, open the exploratory meeting by explaining that this is a mutual discovery process to determine whether you’re a good fit for each other, with the ultimate goal of delivering extraordinary value to the CPA’s clients. Fifth, conduct an interview of the CPA based on a specific interview guide that you use with all candidates — you’ll want to collect the same information from everyone so that your due diligence is valid. Ask where their CPA business is going, whether they have a niche target market, and what financial services, if any, they’re currently offering. Take notes, or better yet, use a digital recorder so you can stay fully focused and present during the interview. Sixth, share the industry research that you said you’d bring to the meeting.
Seventh, make a decision and close the meeting. From what you’ve already learned you should have an idea of whether this particular relationship has potential and is worth further exploration. If it is, then invite the CPA to take the next step, which is for you to come to his or her office and do an in-depth interview with the CPA’s partners. But if the chemistry isn’t there, then close the meeting, thanking the CPA but saying it doesn’t appear that there is a great match between what you’re looking for and the CPA firm’s direction. Remember, if you know it’s a “no go,” then make that clear right then and there. Nothing burns more bridges and builds bad reputations faster than stringing someone along and failing to get back to someone after you’ve “left the door open.”
Eighth, identify opportunities to work together. Review your recordings or notes on the best candidates, and think through specific areas where you can offer value. Identify where there are crossover benefits and the potential to work together. Then, ninth, draw up an action plan for the potential strategic alliance, and tenth, make an appointment to present the action plan to all the key stakeholders in the CPA’s firm. Remember to be quite clear about the “economic glue” that holds the strategic alliance together, that is, a formal revenue-sharing agreement applicable to advisory fees (but not to commissions, which involves licensing on the CPA firm’s part). For your own protection, make sure you’re up-to-date on all state and federal guidelines with respect to revenue-sharing agreements.
The eleventh step is to get a commitment from all the key stakeholders, and the twelfth and final step is to implement the strategic alliance plan.
Alliances with Attorneys
This 12-step process is easily adapted to attorneys, with the biggest difference being that the vast majority of attorneys are not looking for revenue sharing: Over 80 percent of CPAs expect a formal revenue-sharing agreement, while less than 10 percent of attorneys want one. Instead, the payoff for attorneys is that you’ll teach them how to turn their existing book of clients into an ongoing revenue source. Attorneys are notorious for failing to regularly contact their clients, which gives you the opportunity to in effect become part of their client-relationship management process. You’ll be in contact with any referred clients fairly often, so you’ll be able to let the attorneys know about their clients’ relevant activities.
There are other differences between creating strategic alliances with T&E attorneys and with CPAs, which “The Key Differences” chart above highlights. In difficult markets such as these, a strategic alliance with CPAs and estate planning attorneys is a great investment in terms of your time and the potential returns you can achieve.
Patricia J. Abram is a senior managing partner with CEG Worldwide in Florida; see www.cegwordwide.com.