It used to be, when an accountant or lawyer in Orem, Utah, had a question about insurance products, he’d make an educated guess. Or maybe he’d Google the issue. He may have even risked telling his client that he simply didn’t know the answer.

These days, he just calls Ray Johns.

Among CPAs and attorneys, Johns, a financial advisor with RW Johns Financial Group, has become the go-to guy for insurance issues in his town, thanks largely to a unique study group he founded last year.

Composed solely of lawyers and accountants (and, of course, Johns), the group meets regularly to discuss hypothetical case studies and potential solutions. The get-togethers help the professionals hone their skills, while allowing Johns to educate them about insurance possibilities. The idea has brought Johns millions of dollars in referrals — and a brand new iPad as the grand prize winner of Life Insurance Selling’s “What’s Your Big Idea?” essay contest.

“Accountants and attorneys—it’s a hard group to break into, to get past the front door on,” Johns says. “But they all want to be a part of this group now. It’s considered prestigious to be asked. It’s really just been a tremendous success.”

The initial light bulb

“Success” wouldn’t be the best word to describe Johns’ previous efforts to build referral relationships with CPAs and attorneys.

Johns had initially taken a one-on-one approach, developing individual relationships with accountants and lawyers. They’d get to know him, he thought, and then send him their clients for insurance — a constant stream of referrals! Except it hadn’t worked that way.

“The returns were spotty, at best,” Johns said. “Some flat out just didn’t know how to refer. One CPA told me, ‘Ray, I became a CPA because I don’t know how to sell.”

So Johns went back to the drawing board. A former vice president of operations for a manufacturing company, he had previously been in charge of ensuring the efficiency of all processes — and now he was sure there were ways to go about building alliances more effectively.

Johns knew clients would go to their CPAs and lawyers for all kinds of advice, even things accountants and attorneys don’t really know about, like insurance. “The client assumes their lawyer or accountant knows everything, but they don’t always know,” he says. “But they don’t want to tell the client they don’t know, because that doesn’t look good.” But what if there were a way to help those CPAs and attorneys build on their education, while simultaneously boosting his standing as an insurance professional worthy of referrals? What about a study group?

Johns floated the idea to a few CPAs and attorneys he already knew and asked for their input on the group’s structure and organization. “They were all for it,” Johns says.

So he arranged for several CPAs and attorneys to gather at his office. A week ahead of time, one of them circulated a hypothetical case study, revolving around a client problem that often came up. Johns provided a lunch spread, and within a few minutes, the group’s members were heavy into discussion.

“It just ended up being a tremendous success,” Johns says. “Once they got comfortable with each other, they were throwing out ideas about ‘This is what I would do…’ and ‘These are the tax ramifications…’”

Once they’d finished, Johns asked if the meetings were something the group member would like to continue doing. Everyone said yes. He asked if they knew of other CPAs or attorneys who would like to join. They most certainly did.

  Making it work

Today, Johns’ group has 12 members and counting. It meets roughly quarterly, and members take turns providing each session’s case studies. Members rarely miss a meeting, Johns says, and one even showed up to the group’s June get-together in shorts and a T-shirt. He had delayed leaving on his family vacation, just so he wouldn’t miss the study group.

“The beauty of these meetings is that everybody lets their hair down, and nobody’s afraid to admit, ‘No, I don’t know this,’” Johns says.

Johns recruits new members for the group through the referrals of existing members, which helps Johns get in touch with prominent attorneys and CPAs he wouldn’t have had access to before. “These were people I always wanted to contact, but I previously had no way to get in,” Johns says.

He takes all prospective new members out to lunch before his or her first meeting and explains the study group, and he follows up with each of them afterward, too. “At this point in time, they’re falling all over themselves to spend time with me,” he says — and that’s when he brings up referrals.

“I ask them if they take referrals and they always say yes, of course they do,” he says. “And after I’ve asked them for some of their business cards, that’s when they turn to me and ask, ‘Do you take referrals too?’ And now we’ve built this rapport.”

That rapport has turned out to be quite lucrative for Johns. His first referral from a group member resulted in a $5 million case. The second? $20 million.

“These are the people who know who has money, who needs an estate plan,” Johns says.

Of course, not all members have worked out. Johns lets those who aren’t a good fit “fall by the wayside,” he says.

More often than not, though, he’s dealing with the opposite problem. Worried that a large group could become unwieldy during discussions, Johns has become more selective about recruiting, which only makes the club more desirable to other CPAs and attorneys.

“Everyone wants to be a part of something successful,” Johns says.

High tech, high touch

The group isn’t the only way Johns stays in touch with his attorney and accountant partners, though. He makes a point of taking individuals out to lunch frequently, and he’s added all of the group’s members to his e-mail system, which allows him to send birthday greetings, relevant articles and other messages.

“The bottom line with CPAs and attorneys is that you always have to remind them you’re there,” Johns says. “I try to send things off so that my name is always in front of them.”

That frequent attention, Johns says, is what has helped make his practice so successful. When Johns started out as a financial advisor in 2000, he was a career changer who had recently moved from California to Utah — where he didn’t know anybody — and had seven children to support.

“So, I was highly motivated,” Johns says, laughing. “I just did the hard things that no one else wants to do and built a business.”

From the start, Johns, 58, knew he didn’t want to spend his days on the road, visiting clients at their houses. It was more time-efficient for customers to come to him, so he made his office a place they’d want to visit. Each visitor gets a beverage and a menu when he or she arrives, with choices like warm cookies and cashews.

See also: Creating clients for life

“We try to create a comfortable environment, where they want to come here,” he says. “I want to be the Nordstrom of financial services.”

With his new iPad, Johns hopes to increase client comfort even more. He plans to use the tablet in presentations to better demonstrate how the products and strategies he’s proposing will work — especially on those occasions when he does meet with clients outside the office.

“If I’m out having lunch or a cup of coffee with a client, I can pull up the iPad and show them the things I do and how I do it.”

 

For more producer profiles, see:

Succeeding As an Advisor — at 23

He Shoots, He Scores!

Larger Than Life