If they’re not hosting a group outing at the skeet shooting range, insurance planner Elaine Eisner, J.D., private banker Joseph Swiderski, CFP, and their entourage might be found, brooms in hand, sliding stones on the local curling sheet, or perhaps, rods in hand, fishing for walleye on Lake Erie.
No, Eisner and Swiderski aren’t out to revive the old “American Sportsman” television series. For Eisner, who with her husband Scott Gohn runs Eisner Gohn Group in Beachwood, Ohio, and Swiderski, a high-net-worth-focused wealth manager at First Merit Private Bank in nearby Cleveland, these are work outings — examples of two closely aligned advisors bringing their centers of influence (COI) relationship to life to generate new business for their practices while having some fun with clients and prospects in the process.
Swiderski and Eisner frequently co-host and co-brand events such as these. “She’ll bring clients and prospects, and I’ll bring clients and prospects, and they all get to learn about us and what we do in an informal, informative way,” Swiderski says of his teaming arrangement with Eisner. “And because Elaine and I are friends people sense that so they let their defenses down, which allows for more frank and productive conversations.”
Eisner calls Swiderski, whom she has known for about a decade, her “COI of the year.”
“We look at it as a mutually beneficial relationship,” she says. “He has added a lot of value to our work with clients and we have done the same with his clients.”
A relationship that started innocuously enough with sporadic phone conversations, lunch meetings and the occasional exchange of leads has blossomed into a COI partnership that produces a steady two-way flow of prime referrals. “It takes time to find the right (center of influence) relationships,” Eisner observes. “But when you do find them, it’s very rewarding.”
The Gold Standard for Prospectors
Among the many strategies advisors use to generate leads, centers of influence stand out for their ability to deliver the most desirable types of prospects. “I’m at a place in my career where I’m able to pick and choose the clients I take on,” says Andrea Blackwelder, CFP, ChFC, co-founder of Wisdom Wealth Strategies in Denver. “For me, with the centers of influence piece, it’s not about quantity (of new clients), it’s about quality. I’m looking for a really good fit. They can introduce me to people who are a great match to my skills and values.”
As powerful as centers of influence can be at generating highly qualified leads and highly desirable new clients, productive COI relationships such as the one Eisner and Swiderski share don’t happen by accident. Cultivating and sustaining them takes patience, careful planning, focus and a knack for relationship-building.
COI relationships tend to be most productive when they’re part of a broader lead-generation strategy, says Andy Barkate, MS, president of California Retirement Plans in Bakersfield, California. “It’s hard to rely just on centers of influence for all your new business.”
Barkate says high-profile marketing — advertising in print or on TV or radio, even hosting a radio program or appearing as a subject-matter expert on TV — is a particularly good complement to lead generation via COIs. “They reinforce one another well. Each provides credibility to the other.”
From advertising to media appearances and beyond, “everything ties together” into a coherent marketing, lead-generation and referral strategy, he says. Clarity, Selectivity Key to Targeting COIs
Barkate has branded himself and his practice as retirement income specialists. Eisner markets herself and her practice primarily as insurance planning experts. Blackwelder has found a niche in the high-net-worth world focusing (although not exclusively) on airline pilots.
Each has a clearly defined area of specialization, one that makes them more readily referable for COIs. Indeed, successfully leveraging COI relationships starts with clearly identifying with whom to pursue relationships, then defining your value proposition as an advisor and as a firm so those COIs not only understand how you can add value for the clients they refer, the people they’re referring to you understand it, too.
“You want to make sure you’re not lumped into this massive group of advisors who all want to work with the accountants, attorneys and insurance agents out there,” Barkate suggests. “We always try to segment ourselves within that group, to represent ourselves as doing something unique and adding value in ways other advisors can’t.”
“With centers of influence, you need to convey what you do and where you add value,” echoes Eisner. “That means you have to be really clear on your own value proposition.”
Having had mixed results as a young advisor casting a wide net for COIs, Swiderski found success once he narrowed his range of targets. “I decided I would start with three accountants, three attorneys and an insurance agent, and go from there.”
Selectivity is crucial in cultivating COI relationships, adds Eisner. “You don’t need to go after 20 CPAs, for example. Pick one or two who you like personally, who complement and add value to the services you offer, who are good at what they do, and who you trust are going to be your advocates.”
Besides the obvious COI targets — CPAs, estate attorneys and the like — Eisner advises seeking relationships down less-trodden paths. For her, the registered investment advisor and banking channels have proven especially fruitful. “Look for people who don’t play in your sandbox. I really like using smaller investment banks (as COIs). They’re the ones buying and selling companies,” so they know business owners who could benefit from her insurance planning services, she explains.
Eisner also suggests advisors “stay within their own generation” with the COIs on which they rely. “You want to find people in similar career stage as you who can grow with you and your business.”
Barkate says the people he meets through civic and business groups are his most productive COIs. “You meet people from different walks of life who you normally might not meet. When you meet someone through an avenue like this, you get to know them at another level and that introduction (to a prospective client) comes more easily.”
Sometimes the best COIs reside within your own client base. Blackwelder, for instance, says she “just had a breakthrough” on the COI front with a client who happens to be a CPA. Having experienced Blackwelder’s skills and approach from the client’s seat, the accountant recently began referring his clients to her. Due diligence is important when evaluating a potential center of influence. Whoever the potential COI is, be sure that person will advocate for you, is responsive to you and shares your values, beliefs and approach to business. “It’s important to have frank conversations with them about this stuff,” Swiderski says.
Patience also is a virtue in building COI relationships, notes Blackwelder. “Any center of influence worth its salt takes time to cultivate.”
Maintaining healthy COI relationships also takes time. “We make sure to touch our centers of influence at least quarterly,” Eisner says. “We try to continually educate them around where we add value and how we complement what they do.”
Then it’s a matter of finding creative ways to touch the prospects a COI provides. The avenue could be a face-to-face meeting over lunch or otherwise, an informational seminar, a social outing, a phone conversation or something more original. Eisner’s firm, for example, recently hosted an olive oil tasting where she not only brought her own clients and prospects (she asks clients each to bring a non-client friend) but had an estate planner, registered investment advisor and CPA on hand as well, each with a handful of their own clients and prospects in tow.
In planning the event, Eisner was careful to invite only one COI from each field. “We didn’t want to put clients in a position where they’d be cornered by two estate planning attorneys. It has to be comfortable for everyone.”
Eisner figures she and Swiderski talk about once a week, whether it’s to plan joint events, to talk business or chat about personal stuff. They’ll also occasionally take a person who’s a client for one and a prospect for the other to lunch. “When we sit down with a prospect face-to-face in this type of setting, our success rate is really strong. I don’t think we’ve had one fail (to lead to a new client relationship) yet.”
To develop productive COI relationships like the one Eisner and Swiderski share, it has be part of an advisor’s job description — a strategic priority. All the better if those responsibilities also afford you the chance to work on your skeet shooting or curling technique.