Raising rainmakers

Firms should start early to nurture business development skills in young CPAs.

After years of intense technical training, many CPAs find it difficult to turn their attention to the new role of cultivating clients and attracting referrals. Firms can put strategies in place that teach up-and-coming talent how to look beyond a compliance mindset and uncover the strategic opportunities that lead to new business.

This means giving young CPAs a place to turn to get the answers and support they need to develop a robust networking identity and learn the skills they’ll need to bring in new business. This article examines the challenges of business development and suggests state-of-the art strategies to set CPAs on the path to developing rainmaking skills early in their careers.


The authors’ interviews with and assessments of hundreds of clients over the past 23 years show that in the general population, there are three kinds of networking identities. About 20% are “Naturals.” Building business relationships comes easy to them. About 10% are “Naysayers.” They resist taking a business development role. They can be heard saying things like, “I didn’t sign on to sell! My good work should stand for itself. Why do I have to go out and toot my own horn? Anyway, I thought the marketing department was supposed to find new business.” The majority—about 70%—are “Neutrals.” They get in gear and adopt the skills when they are told it is expected of them, when they see positive role models, and when they have a program that gives them an organized, methodical way to acquire skills.


CPAs should start early in their quest to get out of neutral and begin developing their own approach to building relationships. When CPAs start early, they can:

  • Take advantage of mentoring by experienced people in the firm before those business development experts retire.
  • Continue to build relationships with peers from school, so that when those contacts need to hire an accounting and tax expert, the former classmates see their CPA peer as the natural and only choice. Cohort groups, such as college friends, represent deep, broad, and diverse networks that have been known to bring business benefits down the road—if the individual members have the skills and resources to create business opportunities out of social interactions.
  • Invest the time it takes to make networking identity and skills a natural part of their repertoire (see the sidebar “Eight Networking Competencies”). Each person has a unique style of interacting with others. The goal is to make networking a way of life and a natural activity—not something else on a CPA’s to-do list.


CPAs who are the most successful at client cultivation have found a way to feel natural and comfortable, not forced and phony, with business development. Many people have the misconception that networking is manipulative and fake. It’s often pigeonholed as something only job seekers and salespeople do. CPAs must reframe their beliefs about the role of networking in the business world. Whether they are extroverts or introverts, CPAs can learn the relationship-building skills necessary to succeed at business development.

CPAs should realize that trust isn’t built in seconds, or even a few weeks. Unlike the fellow who said, “I tried networking last Thursday. It doesn’t work,” professionals who are successful at client development have a robust and positive mindset. They connect, converse, and collaborate with business growth in mind and make themselves and the firm visible and trusted in the community. That long-term relationship-building investment pays rich future dividends.

Cheryl Heusser, a CPA at Snyder Cohn in North Bethesda, Md., got involved early in her career with Rockville Economic Development Inc. (REDI), a nonprofit that supports startup entrepreneurs. “I was there to meet people, listen to their problems, support their success, and offer workshops,” she said. Heusser volunteered on the tenant review committee, so she heard many entrepreneurs pitch the reasons they should get space from which to launch their businesses. As their businesses grew, many of them chose Heusser—and Snyder Cohn—as their CPA. They knew her. They’d experienced her character and competence. They trusted her.


Gaining the confidence and competence to build relationships that yield business is an ongoing process. These five strategies can help make the skills part of the firm’s approach to attracting business.

Create personal marketing plans (PMPs). Everyone, from the most senior partner down to the most junior associate, needs a PMP. Depending on the level of the employee, elements might include activities such as participating in two professional or community groups, inviting clients to lunch outside of engagements, or taking time to promote a new service to an existing client.

At Keiter, a Richmond, Va.-based CPA firm, these strategically thought-out plans include creating several answers to the often-asked question, “What do you do?” (see the sidebar “Answering ‘What Do You Do?’ ”). Emphasis also is placed on gauging the amount of trust that exists in relationships and learning to take appropriate next steps, such as inviting contacts to a sporting event or offering to introduce the contacts to someone they would like to meet.

The authors’ studies with clients over the past two decades show that it takes about six contacts with someone before they know who you are and what you do and six conversations before they begin to trust in your character and competence and can introduce you accurately to others. When CPAs show newer staff members how to use these six conversations to build trust, two of the biggest mistakes in networking are avoided: (1) asking for too much too soon or (2) too little too late.

Take advantage of opportunities. Many relationship-building opportunities occur throughout the day, and professionals need to be attuned to finding them. Successful CPAs make an effort to reach out as they walk through the parking lot with someone from another company in their building, when they talk with other parents at a picnic, or when they meet someone new at a client site. They see every chance meeting as an opportunity to connect. They are prepared to be spontaneous.

Teach others. Senior partners or mentors can offer “ride-alongs.” They can take a more junior person along when meeting with a prospect or when meeting with a current client to explore new services the firm offers. Mentors can encourage newer CPAs to observe firsthand how to approach the relationship-building process and encourage junior associates to seek out several role models. They shouldn’t be afraid to copy what others do.

Two things surprise many people in professional services. The first, as shown in a study reported in the Harvard Business Review, is that when people had to choose between working with someone who is competent or someone who is likable, they regularly choose likability over competence (see “Competent Jerks, Lovable Fools, and the Formation of Social Networks,” by Tiziana Casciaro and Miguel Sousa Lobo, Harvard Business Review, June 2005). The second is that likability can be learned. It’s a skill, not an inborn trait. Younger associates will notice that successful business developers smile as they shake hands, that they listen intently when others speak, or that they refuse phone calls when working with clients. The younger associates will then feel more comfortable adding these behaviors to their routines to boost likability.

Use social media, but with caution. LinkedIn, for instance, is a great way to stay in touch with key people. Many people don’t need the services of a CPA firm today but will in the future, so reconnecting is a way to remind them that the people at the firm are resourceful and accessible. Social media is a valuable business tool, but CPAs need to beware of overdependence on online networking. MIT professor Alex Pentland, Ph.D., reported in another Harvard Business Review article that people in one company who had the most extensive personal digital networks were 7% more productive than their colleagues, but people with the most cohesive face-to-face networks were 30% more productive (see “How Social Networks Network Best,” by Alex Pentland, Harvard Business Review, 2009).

Show how to fit networking in. Most people on your staff don’t have much extra time, especially during tax season (see the sidebar “Four Ways to Fit Networking Into an Overcrowded Life”).

Answering “What Do You Do?”

Using the BEST/TEST formula transforms typical answers into memorable conversation starters. Tell one thing you do best—one talent or skill. Then give the “test,” an example of how you saved the day, solved the problem, or served the client. This kind of answer begins to teach the listener about your character and competence. And a BEST/TEST answer makes it easier for your conversational partner to introduce you to someone else.


In 20 years of working with all kinds of firms to help them put networking tools to work in the service of business goals, the authors have noticed that each firm has a distinct networking culture that falls somewhere along this continuum:

Unaware → Discouraging → Encouraging → Enculturated

Implement these five steps to move the needle toward “Encouraging” or better yet, “Enculturated.”

At the partner level. The Natural networkers might be tempted to say, “No one taught me how to network, so why can’t our associates learn on their own?” But imagine how much faster and sooner younger associates in the firm will uncover opportunities when they are given systematic approaches and concrete tools.

At the practice leader level. Embed reminders of networking best practices in activities with staff. Before a tax practice meeting at Keiter, department head Jen Flinchum, CPA, led a five-minute exercise. She held up three restaurant gift cards. She said, “I’ll give these three $20 gift cards to the three people who can answer these networking skills questions correctly.” Then she gave a short quiz to test the skills in Make Your Contacts Count, the book that accompanied the training course her associates were taking. After the exercise, she added, “By the way, when you use your card, be sure to take a client or prospect to lunch with you!”

Reinforce the skills in many ways. Invite partners or the marketing director to answer questions sent in by associates. At one firm, the practice development coordinator created a “Brand You” campaign and prepared one-page tip sheets on topics such as “Small Talk,” “Handing Out Business Cards,” and “What to Do and Say at Business Events.”

Host panels and lunch-and-learns. Recently at Keiter, two leaders, Ben Sady and Vince Nadder, CPA, led a panel discussion on business networking. Each attendee was invited to turn in a question for the panelists to answer. Here’s a sample list of the kinds of things they wondered about:

  • Do you find that the “soft sell,” i.e., taking months or even years to ask for their business, works better than the “hard sell,” i.e., “Do you need a CPA?”?
  • What is your “go to” question that you ask to try to connect to people?
  • How do you find things to follow up on with people?
  • What personality trait of yours do you believe positions you to be a great networker? Are the traits learnable?
  • How do you balance networking and productivity?
  • What do you think makes you particularly good at networking? What are other people not doing?
  • How do you keep track of and pick whom you need or want to network with next? Is it random, or do you have a method?

In a rich give-and-take, participants learned tools and strategies from Sady’s and Nadder’s experiences. They learned how to remember names, start conversations, follow up, and ask good questions. In addition, they heard success stories from two leaders who know how to acquire clients. The attendees were reminded that “Networking is part of our culture and a ‘must-have’ competency.”

Hold practice sessions. A few times a year, plan a reception to practice newfound skills. Although networking is about building relationships anywhere and everywhere, rather than simply attending events, people are more motivated to pay attention to skill-building when they know a special event is coming up. Invite the partners, or current clients and prospects, to a reception. Celebrate the firm’s anniversary or the opening of a new office, or team up with a law firm or other natural referral source and host a joint event.

Most relationships will be established long before they yield business results. Help your CPAs start now to build the kinds of trust-based connections that will result in a rich mix of clients down the road. With intentional skill development, young CPAs can make networking an art, not an accident.

Four Ways to Fit Networking Into an Overcrowded Life

1. Invite someone to walk with you or enjoy a guest pass at your fitness center.

2. Instead of inviting one person to lunch, ask two people who might like to know each other.

3. When you drive to a meeting, ask a contact if he or she would like a ride. Use the ride to get to know each other better.

4. When you work on a committee or the board of a charity you support, make it a point to get to know the other members. Show genuine interest about the work they do and the companies they work for.

Eight Networking Competencies

No one is born with innate knowledge of how to connect and converse in ways that build trusting relationships and attract clients. When CPAs learn the competencies listed below, they are prepared to contribute to their firms’ business development goals.

  1. Commit to a networking identity. Appreciate how personality (introversion, extroversion, communication styles, and shyness) and mindset (attitudes and misconceptions) affect the ability to build relationships.
  2. Take a strategic approach. Target specific organizational and career outcomes (macro) and build conversational agendas for specific networking events and encounters (micro).
  3. Envision the ideal network. Identify WorkNet (the people you work with every day to get the job done), OrgNet (the people in other parts of your organization), ProNet (the professionals outside of your organization, in your field, and in other careers), and LifeNet (family and friends) contacts and appreciate the benefits, challenges, and leveraging opportunities faced in developing each area.
  4. Develop trusting relationships. See relationship development in six stages (accident, acquaintance, associate, active, advocate, and ally) and manage the trust-building process by teaching character and competence.
  5. Increase social acumen. Become more comfortable, confident, and professional by mastering relationship rituals, such as remembering names, exchanging business cards, ending conversations, and joining groups.
  6. Showcase expertise. Use examples and stories to teach contacts about expertise, experience, talents, and interests.
  7. Assess opportunities. Choose optimum networking opportunities and make participation pay off.
  8. Deliver value. Contribute to the organization’s networking culture and capitalize on networking to affect the bottom line.


There are three types of networking identities. About 20% of people are Naturals at developing business relationships, while 10% are Naysayers, who resist business development responsibilities. The rest are Neutrals, who are willing to adopt the skills when they are told to do so.

CPAs should start early in developing their networking identity for three reasons: (1) to take advantage of mentors before they retire; (2) to build on relationships with peers from college; and (3) to have enough time to learn networking skills and to make business development a natural part of their repertoire.

Firms can teach CPAs five strategies to develop the skills needed to foster professional relationships and bring in new business.

Firms should establish an atmosphere that encourages networking. Even better, networking should become ingrained in their culture.

Lynne Waymon ( lwaymon@contactscount.com ) is CEO with Contacts Count LLC in Silver Spring, Md. André Alphonso ( andre@sagelearning.net.au ) is a principal in Contacts Count LLC and managing director–India for Forum Corp. Pamela Bradley ( pbradley@keitercpa.com ) is a human resources manager with Keiter, a Richmond, Va.-based CPA firm.

To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Jeff Drew, senior editor, at jdrew@aicpa.org or 919-402-4056.


JofA article

How to Network and Find New Clients Across Borders,” Oct. 2013, page 32


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