Networking when you aren’t networking

How to seek referrals from friends and family—without the awkwardness.

June 1, 2015
by Sarah Johnson Dobek and Kari Schott

For CPAs building a network from scratch—or just looking to expand the one they already have—friends and family are a great place to start. These are people who already trust you, which can make the process of generating referrals and opening doors much easier. But crossing the boundary from a social conversation to a business discussion can be awkward. CPAs are often reluctant to approach friends and family for referrals for fear of making a mistake or sounding pushy. Following a few best practices, though, can make it easier to network with people you know well—without offending them. 

1. Showcase your passion for your work in conversation

Think and act like a business owner by taking ownership for improving and growing your business in areas where you contribute. Understand your firm’s mission and vision, as well as its growth strategy, niches, and ideal clients.

Then, when conversations with friends and family turn to discussions about work, your investment in your career will be evident. When you speak with the passion that can only come from taking ownership of what you do, friends and family will likely respond positively, wanting to be included and finding ways to help.

Amelia Walsh, CPA, a principal at Kositzka, Wicks and Co. in Alexandria, Va., discovered this first-hand. “I naturally share stories with friends and family that revolve around new accounting developments, market trends, or little-known regulatory implications,” she said. “Often, these topics pique the interest of a friend or family member.” In one instance, Walsh discussed a particular employment benefit with a friend, who then talked about the benefit with her employer. The employer contacted Walsh for more information about implementing the benefit and ended up engaging Walsh’s company for accounting work.

As Walsh noted,“The more you talk about what you do—which is easy when you enjoy what you do—the more others look to you as a subject matter expert on both a personal and professional level.”

2. Describe your work in a way that everyone can relate to

While most people know that accounting has something to do with taxes and finance, you probably still have a surprising number of friends and family who don’t understand exactly what you do. When speaking to them, keep things “simple, succinct, high level, and in layman’s terms,” Brian Mandell-Rice, CPA, managing partner at Hein and Associates LLP in Denver, advised. “You can always go into more detail as they ask questions, but always keep the discussion at a level they will understand.”

A good way to describe your job is to think about what benefits you provide to clients through the services you provide. Do you save them money? Protect them from IRS audits? Help them plan for the future? Most people will be able to relate to nontechnical aspects of what you do, and they may even realize that they need your services or know someone who does.

“I make sure my friends and family know what I do in a meaningful way,” said Alpa Patel, CPA, tax partner at Dixon Hughes Goodman LLP in Atlanta. “For example, if there is a tax law change that will affect them personally, I usually bring it up and discuss ways I am planning to handle the change within my client base. The result is usually a deeper conversation about my practice.”

3. Know whom you want as clients

Since the ultimate goal of any referral is to be introduced to someone whom you might be able to do business with, it is important to know whom you are looking for. When you talk about work, describe the types of people and companies you work with (but be mindful to respect client confidentiality). 

Remember to speak in nontechnical terms. You might describe a business owner struggling with cash flow. Or you might describe a CFO with tax issues beyond his or her expertise. Even if the person you are talking to isn’t a potential client, chances are that he or she can relate to your stories. You will have opened the door to introductions and referrals.

4. Get to know your friends’ and family members’ business background

Leveraging your friends and family for networking starts with an understanding of what you each do for work. The easiest way to do this is to connect with them on LinkedIn, which lets you learn about each other without a direct overture. LinkedIn also provides a second benefit in that it gives you access to your contacts’ network. Being able to see to whom they are connected (your second-degree connections) can provide you with valuable information and help you see opportunities for future business.

5. Set up a more formal meeting when necessary

There’s an art to being able to delicately incorporate “shop talk” into your conversations. You want to be careful not to turn a social situation into a sales call. If you are getting into what may become a heavy conversation around your work, plan a follow-up with the person you’re talking to. Suggest a lunch, drinks after work, or meeting at his or her place of business. 

Whether you are a seasoned pro or just beginning to build your network, applying the best practices above will help you to grow and leverage your network.

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Sarah Johnson Dobek is founder and president of Inovautus Consulting, an accounting marketing growth adviser. Kari Schott is a consultant at Inovautus Consulting.