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Embracing a Virtual COI Strategy

Ben Jones, host of BMO’s Better Conversations, Better Outcomes podcast, offers timely advice and actionable tips to bring your virtual Centres of Influence (COI) strategy to life.

September 2020

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Ben Jones

Head of Intermediary Distribution

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When it comes to building referral networks, a digital-friendly approach is now table stakes for Advisors seeking to grow their business. For a deeper look, Ben Jones, host of BMO’s Better Conversations, Better Outcomes podcast, offers timely advice and actionable tips to bring your Centres of Influence (COI) strategy to life.

When was the last time you used Google to find a contractor for a home renovation project instead of asking a trusted friend or neighbour for a referral? My guess is probably never.

The same holds true for prospective clients in search of a Financial Advisor. In fact, the new reality of social distancing and remote working has only magnified the value of Centres of Influence (COI), where a good word can make a world of difference, and trust is the most valuable currency available.

Look for COIs beyond the norm

As part of a business development strategy in a digital-first world, COI alliances offer new leads that are both warm and sustainable. However, while many Advisors claim to have a robust game plan in place for securing referrals, not everyone is equally disciplined about the process.

According to COI expert and author of The Game: Win Your Life in 90 Days, Sarano Kelley,1 the trick is to step back and redefine who in your network qualifies as truly influential.

Kelley emphasizes that a COI is anyone with sway over an important network of individuals. Traditionally, these would be accountants, tax experts, estate planners, bankers, insurance brokers and the like. Breaking away from this rule, an Advisor should also look for people who are seldom top of mind. For example, this could be a membership manager at your ski or golf club, a real estate agent in your community, or even the manager of a private airport, or president of a car club. These are people who have secured the confidence and respect of their community, but more often than not get overlooked on the influence spectrum. For this very reason, they present a great opportunity for Advisors to leverage unique relationships in a highly competitive landscape.

The new reality of social distancing and remote working has only magnified the value of Centres of Influence (COI), where a good word can make a world of difference and trust is the most valuable currency available.

So how do you go about building, or in some cases rebuilding, the foundation for a successful COI strategy? One way to start is by re-segmenting your client list – not necessarily according to your biggest investors, but by those with the deepest connections with you. Again, the goal here is to find people you may not have considered before, and who could effectively become an ambassador for your business. Also, if you have a niche that you focus on, think about what those clients have in common. What are their shared interests and passions? What clubs do they frequent? Which services do they consume? Engaging in this form of network thinking can help you build a list of traditional and out-of-the-box influencers to those clients.

Optimize referrals from within

The next step is to create an intentional strategy for discussing referrals with your existing clients. In a virtual setting, your best new COIs are the people already in your book. Yet, even with your closest contacts, there has to be a plan for sharing information in a way that does not put them in an uncomfortable situation. Advisor coach and author of Ineffective Habits of Financial Advisors (and the Disciplines to Break Them),” Steve Moore, refers to this exchange as story time.2

According to Moore, story time involves two components. First, a customized soundbite, which clients can easily repeat in related conversations, such as: “We’re really proud to be one of the top 25 wealth managers in Ontario, and more importantly, we’re the only one located in Timmins.” These repeatable details not only increase the chances of contacts retelling your story, but also frames the way you want them to talk about you with people in their circle.

In a virtual setting, your best new COIs are the people already in your book.

The second aspect is to prepare an anecdote for every situation, even if it’s just small talk with clients at the start of a meeting. The client may ask how things are going, to which you can respond with an answer that earns referral mileage. For example, you could say, “I’m glad you asked – as it happens, one of our clients recently referred us to a colleague who was looking for help with an estate plan gone wrong.” Using the classic problem-solution template, you can go on to explain how you fixed the complexities and offered superior services.

Of course, these stories must be relevant and true; however, the ultimate goal is to convey your value-add and dependency on referrals as a source of business growth. The positive reinforcement can dramatically increase the likelihood of clients making a connection when they see friends or family facing a similar challenge. At that precise moment, you want them to think, “Oh, my Advisor is capable of solving these types of problems, and he does take referrals.”

Never too late to go digital

Whether you have a COI network or want to start building one from scratch, taking things virtual is really the best way to be engaged in this environment. Video conferencing tools and meetings are crucial to maintaining the human touch, especially given how challenging it can be to create new relationships in a digital world. To this end, Sarano Kelley advocates the importance of a mastermind group, which, unlike a study gathering, brings together of peers to discuss professional development.

There is a method to making this work:

  1. Select participation: Begin with the list of COI allies, ranging between six to 10 in total. The mix of connections could include people you currently work with or know from the past, as well as some new non-traditional associations.
  2. Defined purpose: Once you have the list, state the objectives of your group. Well-worn clichés like “networking,” “mutual success” and “referrals” often fail to entice because people quickly realize they do not create value. The focus could instead be on mining each other’s collective wisdom about the current economic environment, as well as opportunities and challenges across individual businesses.
  3. Rules of engagement: Next, set the guidelines for the group. Where will you meet, and how often? Which video technology is most suited to engage all participants? Should video be mandatory? Being able to read each other’s body language is a crucial part of in-person meetings, but in a digital environment “virtual fatigue” can quickly take over. If you plan to meet once a month, consider getting together twice instead, for half the time.
  4. Governance parameters: It helps to outline the operating values the group wants to embrace. Some examples could be holding each other accountable, being willing to give and receive constructive feedback and, most importantly, checking your ego at the door.
  5. Fixed agenda: A clear list of meeting topics is paramount, especially to avoid the real possibility of idle chatter and catching up, where nothing is really accomplished. Each person could provide an update since the last meeting, followed by a challenge session centered on problem-solving, and a wrap-up with action items for the next gathering.

Of course, these points are only meant to provide direction. What is more important is to use your observations to benchmark what works and what does not. What are the key discussions that help build these relationships, and clarify the intentions of working together for mutual success? What creates confidence in a COI, and gives them comfort that you are not going to damage their trusted relationships? Your mastermind group can serve as a forum and testing for innovative strategies, though it’s important to remember it will only be as effective as you intend it to be.

Trusting in the business of trust

There is no doubt that going digital is a challenge for most, if not a reckoning for many. The key here is to avoid getting overwhelmed. Having said that, there are clear trends in the market: Advisors thriving in the online space are often those who pursued a disciplined new-client strategy well before the pandemic.

Some have managed with video calls, while others have gotten ahead with blogs and podcasts, using multi-media to pull people to their perspectives. Advisors who have floundered in recent months are in large part the late adopters, relying heavily on traditional business development strategies like conferences, speaking engagements and meetups.

There are clear trends in the market: Advisors thriving in the online space are often those who pursued a disciplined new-client strategy well before the pandemic.

Even with digital success, many Financial Advisors fail to actively seek out referrals, and instead just give them. One of the things that works really well is making sure that you have a strong value and client alignment with a COI. Take the time to interview these contacts before entering into an arrangement, and understand where their strengths lie. Conversely, don’t be shy about sharing exactly the types of clients you succeed with. This meaningful discussion builds trust over time, and with consistent interaction can lead to beneficial referrals.

In fact, if you find that you are only giving referrals and not receiving any back, it makes a lot of sense to get to the root of the disconnect. Sometimes, it may be something that can be cleared up quite simply, like your COI being unaware that you are currently accepting new clients, or the perception that a client is not large enough to be referred to you.

These conversations are hardly easy to initiate. However, if negotiated well they can yield immeasurable results, particularly when you are limited by proximity and currently confined to cyberspace. For those who feel that they have missed the virtual boat during the pandemic, the reality is that the bar for digital engagement is low, but the possibility for success is high. Ultimately, asking smart questions and having a human dialogue are all that it takes, combined with a rigorous plan to win trust and earn mutual respect in a way that ensures better business outcomes for all.

To learn more effective practice management tools, and for other savvy virtual tips to help build your business, contact your BMO Global Asset Management Regional Sales Representative.

1 Sarano Kelly, “Fostering Success with Centres of Influence,” BMO Global Asset Management podcast Better Conversations, Better Outcomes.

2 Steve Moore, “Start Selling Through Clients,” BMO Global Asset Management podcast Better Conversations, Better Outcomes.

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