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A topic of great interest to many readers is how to approach and work with centers of influence (COIs), meaning the attorneys, accountants and other professional advisors who presumably have some sway over their clients’ choice of life insurance professionals, investment managers, financial planners, trustees and many other types of consultants and niche players, all of whom I’ll refer to as “specialists.” I talk about networking with COIs in my article “The Advanced Life Insurance Market May Soon be in Retreat.”

This article ratchets up the conversation a notch or two to talk about COIs in a specialist’s own firm. These are the individuals who actually stand between you, as the specialist, and the potential buyer of your goods and services. They include but are by no means limited to the account executives at your multi-line insurance firm, the relationship managers at your financial services firm or the partners with overall responsibility to clients at your professional services firm. They decide whether, when and under what terms they’ll introduce you to their clients. We call these COIs “gatekeepers.”

The distinction between a COI and a gatekeeper is hardly theoretical. A specialist is free to call directly on any client of a COI. That’s called prospecting. But a specialist isn’t free to directly call on the client of a gatekeeper without the gatekeeper’s permission. That’s called trespassing, until of course, the gate is opened.

Seek first to understand…

Importance of Empathy

The frustration with COIs that I hear from all kinds of specialists pales in comparison to their frustration with gatekeepers. “We don’t get it” say the specialists. “We’re all in one organization. Why don’t they bring us in?” The simple answer is that it’s about empathy. Show me a gatekeeper, and I’ll show you someone who’s capable, politically savvy, exquisitely pressed for time, very big picture, very big revenue-oriented and quite justifiably protective of the relationships that generate that revenue. I’ll also show you someone who’s besieged by all kinds of specialists looking for access to their clients. The specialist who shows that they acknowledge the gatekeeper’s position and the risk they associate with a referral will almost always prevail over the specialist who doesn’t.

Then to be understood…

Streamline Initial Presentation

The empathic specialist who’s about to make a big “ask” of a gatekeeper shouldn’t just illuminate the gatekeeper’s path to “Yes.” They should also shorten it so that it’s a quick trip. The key to accomplishing both objectives in an initial presentation to a gatekeeper is to assume that the gatekeeper knows little if anything about the specialist’s service or the value they bring to clients, doesn’t speak the specialist’s language and won’t have an interpreter at the meeting and, at least early on, is likely to be more focused on the risk of saying yes than the reward.

Genius is 1% inspiration, 99% preparation.

Be Able to Answer These Questions

Let’s put these notes to music by reversing the roles and pretending that you’re a gatekeeper. You’ve granted a specialist some time to tell you why you should introduce them to your clients or maybe even a particular client. While you want to be helpful, you’ve learned over the years that the best way to avoid a bad case of referrer’s remorse is to not depend on the best intentions of strangers. So, you’ve developed a list of questions, perhaps abridged too far, that you provide to the specialist in advance. Here they are:

  • Can you tell me about you, your background and experience?
  • What service do you provide? You’d like to hear a clear, crisp, linear, jargon free and, until later, example-free recitation of the service provided by the specialist. This is a critical inquiry because if they’re not clear to you, you doubt they’ll be clear to the client.
  • Who’s on your team, what do they do and what are their credentials and experience? This question gives the well-prepared specialist the opportunity to inspire confidence in their ability to deliver a quality work product.
  • Who are the most likely buyers of your services and what makes them so?  You have dozens of clients. You need to know with whom and why you’ll have the greatest chance of success.
  • When you do a project for a larger company, with whom or with what department do you typically work there?  They could help you reach out to the right contacts for an introduction.
  • How do you and your team go about a project, what’s your process, what should a client expect to happen once they engage you and how long does a project typically take? You’re looking for a methodology and a timeline, as will the client.
  • To what extent would the individual in my position typically be involved in the project? If I’m not involved, how do you keep me informed as the project progresses? You just need to know enough so that if the client brings up the project, you’ll sound informed and engaged.
  • What are the benefits to the client, both economic and otherwise, of engaging your services? Or, complete this sentence, “As a result of working with us, the client will…”- This is about the specialist’s value proposition or, more to the point, the ability to state one.
  • What does your service cost and how are we paid?  Again, a reasonable question.
  • Let’s talk downsides, hypothetically of course. Does your service present any potential conflicts or risks for me or our organization and, if so, how do we handle the conflicts and mitigate the risks?  May as well get this one out on the table.
  • Who’s our principal competition in this space? How do we stack up against them? Consider in your answer qualifications, reputation and, of course, cost.
  • Will you provide me with a script or talking points for a call to a client to make an introduction? The talking points should also prepare me for any issues or objections that you know from experience that I’m likely to encounter in that call. By the way, if a call goes well, are you ready to start the project tomorrow?
  • Share some examples of projects where you were introduced by someone in my position. Tell me about the client, how you were introduced by our colleague, something about the project and how things went. – That is, you’re asking for references.

I hope this article gives some helpful insight to all kinds of specialists who deal with all kinds of gatekeepers. By the way, I know what a lot of you are thinking. You’re thinking about all those clients you brought in on your own, clients whom your colleagues would be very interested in meeting if, of course, you say, “Yes.” Perhaps you now know a little more about how to fit the shoe when it’s on the other foot. I bet you can’t wait for the phone to ring.

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