How Your COIs Determine Your ROI

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The center of Influence can be very vital for your company's sales and long term sustainable growth. However, it is also crucial to find a right mix and strengthen the relationship with them to add value to your business.

In his 2011 book, The Mackay MBA of Selling in the Real World, Harvey Mackay lays out the three toughest sales for a person to make: his company, his product, and himself. Although Mackay didn’t rank them explicitly, for most people, selling yourself is by far the most difficult.

Someone who is really good at singing his or her own praises is the exception. And, typically, gets invited to parties less and less. And is single. Just kidding.
Talking about how wonderful you are, personally or professionally is uncomfortable and hard. Unfortunately, it’s also necessary to let people know what you do and how you do it. And you can rehearse your killer elevator pitch forever. But it is probably still tough telling complete strangers that you are the next coming! And for a professional such as a lawyer, doctor or CPA, such self promotion is often frowned upon.

So how can a professional get the word out, develop a consistent following, build a steady flow of new clients and do it all without compromising his or her integrity?

The answer is in three letters: COI. COI is business shorthand for Centers of Influence. A COI is a person with whom a professional purposefully, carefully and diligently crafts a relationship so that the COI becomes a constant source of referrals. Put another way, a good COI becomes your cheerleader. The COI does your promotion for you!

While I can’t stress the importance of developing multiple COIs in your professional practice or other business too much, I can give you some guidelines and thoughts on going about that process.

Types Of COI:

  • Most business people look for relationships in which referrals of prospects and clients can flow both ways. For example, a realtor and a mortgage broker may agree to feed each other names of potential clients. And while those “win-win” relationships are fantastic, most COIs will not fit into that mold.
  • An insurance agent may develop a relationship with a leasing agent at an apartment complex. And while there may be the random occasion when the insurance agent has a client looking for an apartment, it is much, much more likely that the leasing agent will have a new tenant looking for insurance. The flow is likely to be much greater from the leasing agent to the insurance agent.
  • A doctor who specializes in orthopedic medicine might align with a general practitioner for referrals. But the orthopedic doctor will have infinitely fewer patients looking for a GP than the GP will have looking for an ortho.

So, while there are COI relationships in which the referrals flow both ways, they are NOT the rule.

Competition For COIs:

It is very easy for us to convince ourselves that the best COIs already have referral relationships. That’s an excuse not to try! But, in my experience, you will probably be much more successful than you think for some very good reasons:

  • First, even if someone has a pre-existing relationship with someone in your field, the average life span of that relationship is remarkably short. This is because most salespeople develop the COI, then don’t cultivate and nurture it. More on that in a minute.
  • Second, every company has disgruntled customers. And when a COI recommends a salesperson to a client, that COI is putting his or her own reputation on the line. It only takes one unhappy client and the COI is going to start thinking about using someone else. And if you are “on the radar” it might be you!
  • Third, many professionals – and most COIs worry about the legal ramifications of referrals. So a growing number of them will not make an all out endorsement of one salesperson. Even if the transaction doesn’t result in some legal issue, a bad experience reflects badly on the COI. Instead, some COIs will offer a short list from which the client can select. In this way, the COI can, at least arguably, deflect some blame for a bad situation to the client. “Hey, I didn’t pick him, you did!” (OK, the COI may not say that but he or she is thinking it!) So even though the COI has a relationship elsewhere, you can still be “on the list.”

Care And Feeding:

The single biggest error that salespeople make with their COIs is establishing the relationship then sitting back and reaping the benefits. Or, similarly, if the referrals don’t start rolling in immediately, just abandoning the idea and looking for someone else instead.

Since most COI relationships do not involve an equal number of referrals each way, it is imperative that you constantly and consistently cultivate the relationship. Here are some suggestions:

  1. Put reminders on your calendar to take the COI to lunch on a monthly basis, or to play golf. Don’t necessarily make it the same day each month. But do it regularly.
  2. Hand deliver logo items to your COI every month or two. The best cultivators actually have a plan for this type of activity. They have 8 or 10 different “freebies” and a schedule of what gets sent and when. Choosing the right item can help keep your name in front of the COI. For example, I have used a letter opener with my realtors face and name on it for years!
  3. Learn your COI’s interests then make it a point to look for relevant information about those interests. Knowing what you COI likes to do can do wonders for building a long-lasting relationship. If the person likes history, when you see that a historical exhibit is being unveiled at a local museum, at least send the COI the article. At best, send him tickets. If your COI is a private pilot and you see a book that might be interesting, let him know about it. Better yet, pick up a copy for him and put your name on it somewhere!
  4. It is very tempting to give up on COIs. In fact, most salespeople do just that. Spending the time and effort (and, maybe a little money) and getting nothing in return seems like a waste. But it isn’t. A professional is not likely to just trust you with clients from the start. They need time to get comfortable with you and your reputation.

Don’t be surprised if it takes six months or a year before you start getting some business. But, most likely, you will!

How To Find COIs:

Finding COIs is pretty easy. Getting your message to them might be a little tougher.

Chances are, whatever industry you are in, there are typical relationships. Investment advisors like to pair up with HR directors in hopes of getting referrals of pre- or recent retirees, for example. But there are also many other more creative options. I am doing some work with a very progressive pain doctor. I am recommending that he develop some chiropractors as COIs. They work almost exclusively with pain issues and there are times when they have to refer the patient to an MD for prescriptions and/or surgery. Chances are, with some thought, you can come up with 6 or 8 potential COIs.

But, then, of course, the issue is how to contact them!

Sometimes you can meet potential COIs at professional societies, service clubs, or even socially. You may need to go a step further, though, and using LinkedIn’s advanced search feature is an excellent strategy. Simply type in the occupation and zip code and up pops a list of possible COIs. Many will connect with you just for the request! And, of course, asking current clients, friends, and acquaintances is always an option.

In short, use the same techniques to find COIs that you do to make sales!

Finding and caring for a small group of COIs is the most important thing that a professional can do for the long term success of his or her business or practice. And, given a little time, you will be amazed at the results!


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