Strategically leveraging relationships is a business development tool that small business owners, including CPAs, have used successfully.
Business strategist and sales coach Deep Bajwa; accountant Micah Fraim, CPA; and networking expert and author Michelle Tillis Lederman, CPA (inactive), each built businesses in different ways, but all three used the same guiding principle: They didn't do this alone but, instead, established solid relationships with others who helped them expand their respective networks.
Bajwa, founder of U.K.-based Opulence Events London and The Well Heeled Coach, focused on a few key people to build her business and attract affluent Asian customers with budgets of up to $1.64 million. She now plans luxury weddings at locations such as the Natural History Museum and The Savoy Hotel in London.
"Eighty percent to 85% of my business is referral-based," said Bajwa, who spoke at the 2020 AICPA Women's Global Leadership Summit in November.
Fraim, meanwhile, started his own public accounting firm in 2013 in Roanoke, Va. Initially, he used social media to make connections. He posted on LinkedIn and Facebook and sent messages to potential clients. He conducted email marketing and sent out a regular sales blog. He attended networking events, eventually developing trustworthy bonds with an attorney and a marketing expert, among others, who in turn referred valuable clients. And later on, he launched a podcast.
"We've had some luck with Facebook ads, but largely it's been finding the right people, building good relationships with them, and getting the referrals," Fraim said. He recently took on a CPA partner and restructured his business model in order to provide a more valuable service offering. His firm name is now Fraim, Cawley & Company, CPAs, and he has more than 500 clients, he said.
Lederman, author of The Connector's Advantage and founder and CEO of Executive Essentials, a training, coaching, and leadership-focused consulting firm in South Orange, N.J., is known as a "people expert who inspires organizations and individuals to build real relationships and get real results."
She founded her company in 2004, connecting with potential clients through friends, former classmates, and co-workers. "I hired someone I met at the dog park," Lederman said. "A connector is someone who prioritizes relationships in everything that they do. When you prioritize relationships, then your network grows, and your relationships expand."
Strategic networking step-by-step
Bajwa, Fraim, and Lederman offered the following tips for building a solid network:
Make a list. Create a stakeholder map of key contacts you want to know to build your brand. "Be selective on who you want in your world," Bajwa said in her presentation at the Women's Summit. Make plans to connect with them, either at an event or online, on sites like LinkedIn and Instagram. "I call it 'networking with intent,'" she said.
Leverage social media. The coronavirus pandemic has forced people to converse online, so use that to your advantage. "The pandemic gives you a built-in excuse to connect with the network you already have," Lederman said. Be strategic. To meet new people on LinkedIn, Facebook, or another social media platform, comment on postings, encourage debate, share articles online, join networking groups, and invite others to comment.
"I did everything in my power to connect with local business owners," Fraim said. "Just be visible."
Attend networking groups or programs. Consider joining local civic or service groups, or business mixers. Many have offered virtual networking options since the pandemic started.
"At the beginning, the biggest struggle is getting people to know you even exist," Fraim said. He advises attending events to converse with people and hand out business cards but not coming on too strongly. "I actually avoided doing a hard sell of any kind because it's really not effective," he said.
Polish your pitch. Be specific and thoughtful when telling people what you do. For instance, don't just say you're a wedding planner or a coach. Instead, Bajwa said, she tells people, "I am a wedding business coach. I help female wedding suppliers learn how to scale their business, all the way to the luxury end of the market, so not only can they live a life they love but also make more money." This gives a potential connection "something to hold onto," she added.
Let others have the stage. When meeting new people, ask questions, such as what they think about the speaker or what brought them to the event. "Talk about the environment, the event, the news," Lederman said. "We connect on our common experiences and passions, not necessarily on our common jobs."
Be sincere. Networking won't work if you are a taker. "Too many people want something from someone else without wanting to give something back," Bajwa said. Think about how you can help the other person, and what value you can bring. It is difficult to "want to build a connection with people unless you know what is happening with them, what is happening in their world," she added.
Fraim agreed: "Be who you are, because if they don't like the person you are, they won't be happy with you."
Follow up judiciously. After brief meetups in person or online, know how and why you will have the next point of contact with a potential connection. Perhaps you offer to send some information, or you schedule a lunch. "But don't overdo it," Lederman advised. "Don't send an email every week. [Instead], promote them on social media, or say, 'Congrats' or 'Happy Birthday,' but don't ask anything in return."
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— Cheryl Meyer is a freelance writer based in California. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Sabine Vollmer, a JofA senior editor, at Sabine.Vollmer@aicpa-cima.com.
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