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Building a ‘Ferrari’ Referral Network

Ever wish you could turbo-charge your referral efforts? The need for speed has never been greater for CPAs. If your referral program is plodding along when it should be setting the pace, there’s good news: a network-building strategy that is innovative, focused and proven.Caution! This is not your father’s Oldsmobile!

No Free Lunch

CPAs have traditionally sought business through bankers and lawyers, what I call the “free lunch” program. Over chicken Caesar salads and a couple of Diet Cokes, the CPA and prospect politely discover that they know a number of one another’s colleagues and clients. The CPA expresses appropriate interest in the banker or lawyer’s area of activity. By the time the CPA has paid the bill and coffee is served, it’s become clear that he or she is looking for referrals and would appreciate any the banker or lawyer have to offer.

The problem with this type of strategy – and the equally common “wine-and-cheese-meet-and-greets”- is that it’s difficult to build preference. It’s hard to stand out from the crowd when you are in fact, one of the crowd. The same could be said for networking via Rotary or Chamber of Commerce meetings. Don’t misunderstand – both are fine organizations that deserve support. They’re just not necessarily the best places to turn prospects into buyers in today’s environment.

Start Your Engines

Many CPAs have evolved beyond the lunch/Rotary strategy and have embraced the niche approach in recent years. The thinking goes something like this: Rather than spend time on lunches and Rotary meetings, attend industry organization functions and advertise in targeted publications. Definitely a step up from lunch, but still not enough. I advocate taking niche to a whole new level, revving up the engine for faster and better results.

A method built around an ongoing research call program simultaneously achieves several objectives. It helps us gain a better understanding of the ecosystem within the target niche. It heightens visibility among desired prospects. It provides the foundation to craft a strategy that will distinguish us in a crowded marketplace. And it ultimately gets us face-to-face with buyers. The best I’ve ever seen at this is attorney John Yates at Morris, Manning & Martin. He truly became the “gearmeister” of the Atlanta technology community several years ago utilizing a similar approach.

You Make the Call!

This method centers on four categories of business associates. Seeking out information from them in a strategic and deliberate matter will get you to a buyer with a differentiated offering based on a high-value solution that can be replicated.

A research call is distinct from a cold call. Explain to the target that you would like to pick his or her brain as part of your effort to grow within a particular niche. As you establish credibility and collect information, you also identify the names of others you need to know.

Thought leaders comprise the first category. These are heads of associations, editors of publications, writers, speakers, trend watchers – those whose opinions are respected and requested. The next category is “providers to the niche.” Think attorneys, bankers and insurance brokers firmly ensconced within the niche. For example, if your sights are set on technology-based business, seek out a banker who exclusively serves the high-tech community.

The third group is likely buyers, including current clients and perfectly profiled prospects. Having identified a technology niche with a focus on distribution companies, your perfectly profiled prospects are distributors of a certain size within your marketing area. The fourth category is competitors. Find out their strengths and focus by talking to them. Identify complementary opportunities in order to avoid “head-crashing” by offering the same service in a limited geographic market. When I was involved with network integration, I made it my business to visit software companies and other network integrators. I positioned my company as a quality provider for the first group, and as an extension to their company in peak times for the second group.

This approach is especially valid in a post Sarbanes-Oxley environment, in which CPAs are leveraging one another’s capabilities like never before. Similarly, you may remember when IBM owned its markets and collaboration was unimaginable. Today, a multi-provider environment for technological solutions is common in that environment, and CPAs aren’t far behind.

As you build knowledge and enhance visibility through these research calls, you also build your lead base, learning who the buyers are and what solutions they require. Integrate a research call program into your daily schedule. Once you begin to hear the same names within a given niche, you will know you’re getting to those whom you need, and who need you.

Once you have thoroughly researched your niche, continue to inventory contacts within the four categories. Build value as you provide content, ideas and reconstituted creative offerings. As you evolve your niche knowledge, share it. Hire a contract writer and get what’s lodged between your ears into publications read by others who will benefit and, as a result, perceive you as a trusted resource.

Following this protocol will get you moving at an impressive pace. And guess what? When you’re building a Ferrari referral network, there’s no posted speed limit!


What types of questions will earn you the biggest payback as you execute your research call program? I recommend asking the following:

  • How would you characterize the current business climate?
  • What two or thee key issues are most important in your niche?
  • Who are the thought leaders in your niche?
  • What professional associations do you find most valuable?
  • What publications do you read?
  • What advice do you have for those seeking to build a practice in your area?
  • Whom would you recommend as further contacts?