Think Different When Working with Centers of Influence: Part 1

Posted by Kristine McManus

August 15, 2017 at 10:00 AM

working with centers of influenceDo you remember Apple’s iconic ad campaign from the late 1990s, urging people to “Think Different” about computers? I’m frequently reminded of that campaign (which I loved—and no, I don’t care about the grammar issue) when I speak with advisors about working with centers of influence (COIs).

Here’s just one example: an advisor called me to discuss the difficulties of getting referrals from local CPAs who could be great COIs for his business. For the past three years, he had diligently tried to establish a good working relationship with a local CPA firm and hadn’t made any headway. The advisor had hosted luncheons, brought in speakers to deliver continuing professional education credits for the accountants, and even sent holiday cards. Still, no introduction or referral from any of the CPAs.

At this point, I thought I knew where the conversation was going. But to my surprise, the advisor wasn’t calling to discuss a change of course. Instead, he was looking for some additional ideas that might help him crack the CPA code. “What should I do next?” he asked. He was speechless when I told him to just stop! After making no progress in three years, he had to move on.

Does any of this sound familiar? If you’ve been trying to make inroads with a CPA (or attorney, another highly tapped referral source) with zero to show for it, then it’s time to think different.

COI Redefined

So, who makes a good COI for your business? To answer this question, throw out your preconceived notions and focus on this: a COI can be anyone who knows you and what you do for a living and is in a position to send qualified prospects in your direction. That’s the definition I use when working with advisors—and most advisors find it freeing. If you’ve been trying your best to work with the traditional types of COIs, and haven’t gotten anywhere, then stop. After all, the classic definition of insanity is continuing to do the same thing and expecting a different result.

How did this work for the advisor I mentioned above? Once he accepted that the CPAs had already given him their answer to working together (zero referrals in three years seems fairly unambiguous), he was ready to work on new ideas for his practice. The advisor was pleasantly surprised when we came up with atypical COIs who were also in a position to move his business forward. “But I already know these people,” he said, nonplussed. “This is easy!”

Since the advisor started thinking different—and working different—he’s had a number of introductions from the police chief, a high-end real estate agent, and a restaurant owner in his town. Not only has the advisor received several high-quality introductions to A clients, he has also been able to host fun, creative client events leveraging his COIs’ strengths. Instead of staffers having to call clients in the week before an event, hoping to boost flagging RSVPs, now the advisor is getting requests from clients asking if they can bring a friend to his jam-packed event. The advisor is delighted—and somewhat chagrined to think of all the opportunities wasted while he chased after the elusive CPA unicorn.

Sound too good to be true? Let’s look at another example of an advisor finding success with an atypical COI.

An Outplacement Firm: Jim Lynch’s COI Success Story

When Jim Lynch of JCL Financial Group, LLC (Newtown, Pennsylvania) first started working with an outplacement firm in New Jersey, he had no idea that roughly 75 percent of his firm’s new business would come from this one source. But Lynch feels strongly that time spent in developing good working relationships is time well spent, and his long-term approach has served him well. Here’s his story:

Some years ago, Lynch’s father, a Johnson & Johnson executive, got laid off and was assigned to an outplacement firm. The firm helped with job searches and interviews, but no one on staff could talk to Lynch’s dad about all the financial issues he suddenly faced. Years later, Lynch approached that same outplacement firm with an offer to give workshops to its laid-off clients. Lynch told the firm that, in addition to help with résumé writing and interview skills, what laid-off clients needed was someone to talk to about the financial decisions they needed to make.

Workshops in 12 different offices ensued. From the beginning, Lynch had a strategy: He would offer education and help to everyone, and he would not pitch any product. People needed to understand the impact of taking a distribution from their 401(k) or IRA prematurely, as well as when and how social security would kick in. Lynch’s educational approach paid off, as participants started to encourage their peers to attend his workshop. In addition, the word-of-mouth about Lynch’s services spread. As the outplacement firm expanded, Lynch was invited to participate in more and more events.

The drawbacks. Lynch’s service model requires him to sit down with anyone who asks for an appointment, even if they are not an ideal client. But he says that most of the workshop participants are in their early 50s to early 60s, so most of the people he’s meeting have enough in their 401(k)s and investable assets to fit his firm’s profile. The ones who don’t meet Lynch’s $500,000 minimum are still helped with good advice and ideas, even if the call to action is a suggestion to talk to T. Rowe Price or Vanguard.

Tips for Working with an Outplacement Firm

Does working with an outplacement firm sound like something that might work for you? If so, Lynch offers the following tips: 

  • Don’t cold-call a firm. Your call would be one of many the firm already receives and won’t put your firm in the best position.
  • Pay attention. People get laid off pretty regularly, so pay attention to your clients and their families.
  • Ask the right questions. When this happens to someone you know, in addition to offering practical financial guidance, ask about the outplacement counselor he or she has been assigned to. What firm has been retained, and what services are offered?
  • Request an introduction to the counselor. Remember, a warm lead is likely to be more effective than a cold call.

And for the cynics reading this, you might be interested to know that Lynch does not pay any fees to the outplacement firm, and there is no formal referral program between the two firms. Either partner could stop the relationship at any time. But so far, the outplacement firm is trying to serve its corporate clients and laid-off executives the best it can, and Lynch has happily been an important part of its solution and success.

Stay Tuned!

Jim’s story is just one example of thinking different to find COI success. I think you will find that once you expand your definition of a great COI for your business, you’ll start to notice opportunities that you might have overlooked. I’ll share more examples of atypical COI success in tomorrow’s post, including an advisor who formed working relationships with a local college and a reporter. Stay tuned!

Do you work with any atypical COIs? How did you go about establishing those relationships? Please share your thoughts with us below!

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