Use Networking to Grow Your Practice

Filed under: The Advisor's Blog

shake-handsFor years, your training as a CPA may have centered upon the intricacies of the tax code or mathematical calculations. Not the most socially engaging of topics! So when the time comes to grow your practice through networking, it’s normal to feel a bit lost. Even if you aren’t naturally gregarious, there are steps you can take to learn how to network, develop relationships, and attract new clients.

Opportunities are all around you. The most successful CPAs never miss an opportunity to make a new connection. Whether you’re at a school function, a charity ball, or just chatting with neighbors at the pool, every meeting is an opportunity for professional growth. At first it may feel difficult to be “on” all the time, but with practice you will be able to do this effortlessly.

Be prepared. The key is to be prepared with answers to common questions, so that your answers spark more conversation. For example, simply replying “I’m a CPA” is a conversation-stopping answer to the question, “What do you do?”. On the other hand, describing your profession with detail and enthusiasm leads to more questions. Try answers like, “I consult with business owners on taxes and other issues. I recently helped Business X restructure their accounts payable system so that now they get paid faster.” When you give details this way, you actually open up avenues for further discussion.

Make a plan. Trust is not instantly given; it is earned. It’s unlikely that you’ll gain a new client from a five-minute conversation, but repeated meetings will build trust and a personal rapport. Develop a plan to gradually deepen your relationships, by inviting contacts to lunch meetings, community events, or taking the time to call or email them personally about new services. Develop your networking plan around these two rules:

  • Don’t ask for too much too soon
  • Don’t ask for too little too late

Remembering those two important rules will prevent you from appearing too pushy, or (equally disastrous) too passive.

Develop your social skills. Here’s an interesting fact: A study on consumer choices* found that people regularly choose to work with professionals based on their “likability” rather than their actual job competence. In other words, degrees, certifications, and years of experience often mattered less to potential clients than the personality and confidence level of the professional in question.

Some of you may be under the impression that social abilities are inborn, and you either have them or you don’t. But the truth is, anyone can learn to improve their social skills. If you don’t feel that you’re a naturally confident, outgoing person, find a mentor who displays these characteristics. Observe them and mimic their behaviors. There are also self-help books, seminars, and courses on the topic. Consider these things part of your continuing education, because social skills are essential to marketing yourself.

Use, but don’t overuse, social media. Social media is a cutting-edge marketing tool, and professional use of sites such as LinkedIn is expected to grow in coming years. However, it is important to view social sites as a tool to marketing; use them correctly, but don’t become overdependent on any singular method. A recent article from the Journal of Accountancy** reports that workers with an extensive digital network were 7 percent more productive than their non-digital peers. Yet, workers with the strongest face-to-face networks were 30 percent more productive. The lesson we can learn from this is that yes, digital networking can improve performance, but it should primarily be used as a way to make new contacts who then become part of your real-world network.

Remember that any tool is only useful when used correctly. A social media presence is extremely important in today’s business world, but take the time to learn about social media networking so that you can promote yourself successfully online.

Practice makes perfect. Even if you don’t consider yourself a natural at networking, these skills can be learned. Hold practice sessions with friends or coworkers. Team up with referral sources like attorneys and financial advisors, and host receptions together. Join civic organizations and attend events. Observe what works and what doesn’t work, keep honing your strategy, and be patient. In most cases, it takes some time before an established relationship yields business results. Focus on nurturing relationships, and the rest will come in due time.

*“How Social Networks Network Best,” by Alex Pentland, Harvard Business Review, 2009

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