How to Develop Professional Relationships in a Digital World
Do professional relationships still matter in the digital universe? And if they do, does their impact and importance remain at the forefront of acquiring new clients?
You might wonder why a tech guy is writing about networking in a CPA-focused magazine. My expertise on this subject rests on an unknown backstory to my company’s progress. I started the business with no employees in my parents’ spare bedroom. The year was 2000. Today, I’ve brushed past the 170-person mark in a two-story Moorestown headquarters that we own. It would be easy to say that focus, technical expertise, hard work, becoming a TV personality with an 10-plus year run as FOX-TV’s tech expert, and luck — yes, luck, the element most business people hate to acknowledge — all played a role. But there was a glue that brought these components together.
That glue which is the backstory to my tech success and one that you must consider if you wish to grow your accounting practice: Networking.
I can succinctly sum up my approach in three words: “Every night out.” I know it sounds like hyperbole, but as a 21-year-old, I was out virtually every night at functions, meetings, coffees, dinners, receptions, it didn’t matter. You name it, and I was there.
I understand that the scale and style (no one would ever call me a wallflower) essentially fit some of the criteria for becoming a networking maven. I’ve lost count on the number of inroads — yes, gaining new clients — that I’ve achieved from all these networking events.
Before going further, you must decide on a singularly important issue. If you wish to grow your business, networking must be a component to your expansion even in this digitally connected world. There’s no way to escape it. If you’re satisfied with your current size, then you don’t have to take the plunge. You will grow modestly, if at all.
The specifics that you can apply almost immediately include the following:
- Occam’s razor. When faced with two conflicting choices, choose the simplest. Ask yourself two simple questions: “Who do I want as clients?” and “Where can I find them?” The answers will help you home in on an organization, conference or similar vehicle to find them.
- The time commitment. This is the tricky one, especially if you’re not 21, unmarried and, well, free of all social encumbrances. Perhaps once a week or even twice a month is all that you are willing and able to commit. Decide on a limit and then follow it for a year. But you must commit.
- Is this networking stuff working? One of the most frequent questions people ask me is how long they should stick with a networking event. I normally suggest that they give every regularly scheduled networking event up to one year before making a judgment. Then it’s simple. Did you get at least one client, and what was the financial value of the business? It will allow you to calculate a cost-to-effort ratio and decide whether to continue. This is especially true if there is a fee to belong to the organization. I’m always surprised how few people use this barometer. If your networking efforts are modest relative to the time you’re willing to commit, I would consider a six-month trial.
- Don’t sell, solve a problem. Tech people like me, and accountants like you, are fortunate. Everyone at some point has a computer-related problem. Most businesspeople, at one point or another, either have an accounting problem or, at the very least, want to run an idea past their accountant before leaping. That’s where you come in. Don’t try to close the deal the first time you meet. Let them talk about their accounting issues. Ask them about their accounting approach or their accountant. I have a client who loves his accountant. And he says so. This person is unlikely as a prospect. At an event, be polite, chat a bit, give him or her your card and move on. But when you see someone puzzled about an accounting issue or, better yet, if you see them groan when they bring up their accountant, you’re in a field of clover. Provide a solution. Even better, demonstrate the breadth of your knowledge by offering several solutions. It’ll impress them.
- The follow up. Every time you read about networking, the advice is to follow up and become ruthlessly adherent to this rule. Then why don’t we do it? The bottom line is that you must follow up if you promised to do so. And don’t allow three months to go by. Do it within a week, with a phone call or, even better, a short, hand-written note. For the 40-plus crowd, that still has great cachet value.
- Social media. No, we can’t ignore this. It’s the digital business card. Here’s the quick rundown:
- Facebook —You can have a personal and a business site.
- Twitter — Breaking news and “topics of the day.”
- Instagram — It favors photos and videos. I’m not sure potential clients want to see you crunching numbers.
- LinkedIn — Often regarded as the best for B2B. Here’s your chance to shine by strutting your accounting knowledge.
I have a friend who is a public relations expert and wrote a 250-page book on the subject. He never pitches his business. When he’s out and about, he’ll ask for a prospect’s card and send them his book. It establishes his expertise.
But you don’t have to write a book. I know of a CPA who sends out year-end tax tips to her clients. She should send that same tip sheet out periodically to potential clients as her “book” and include a note. It’s selling without selling, and it’s the follow-up to your networking. It works.
This article appeared in the May/June 2020 issue of New Jersey CPA magazine. Read the full issue.