[IMGCAP(1)]The Research Call is an information-gathering technique that helps you penetrate target markets by identifying the people who know them best, then actively learning all you can from these individuals by interviewing them.

I use the term “active learning” because a Research Call is effort. It’s the polar opposite of traditional, passive strategies like hanging out a shingle and hoping someone will wander in. Or taking a lawyer to lunch in the belief that your persuasive charms and the quality of the Dover sole will be sufficient to attract business.

 

EKING OUT AN ECOSYSTEM

The Research Call is the first step in a successful rainmaking process. Done right, the interviews pave the way for strategy development, leading to lead generation, which opens the door to opportunity development. In turn, opportunities yield productive engagements and lasting client relationships.

The Research Call planning process starts with identifying an ecosystem, commonly known as a buyer group market. I use the term “ecosystem” because it gives CPAs a way to visualize the richly populated, sometimes murky client environment. The ecosystem in my growth model is a pond-like place with lots of elements (market conditions such as market size, competition, regulatory changes, etc.) swirling around and constantly re-aligning.

The most important “residents” of the pond are what I call the critters. These are the individual players who have an impact — direct or indirect — on your ability to reach and influence decision-makers.

Probing an ecosystem is not a spectator sport. If you stand on the bank and stare down into a pond, you don’t see much, maybe a critter or two swirling close to the surface. But get in and swim around and a whole new world emerges. Elements redistribute; some come to the light while others go deep and unseen.

 

PREPARE TO GET WET

How do you identify the critters in your chosen ecosystem and determine which have the most potential to take you where you want to go? My Research Call planning exercise leads to a comprehensive contact inventory document based on four contact categories:

  • Thought leaders (writers, speakers, association leaders, professors).
  • Likely buyers (current and prospective clients).
  • Competitors (those within and outside your geography).
  • Other providers (traditional sources like lawyers, bankers and insurance agents, plus all non-traditional sources who provide goods and services to your target buyer).

The exercise is visually represented by four boxes on a screen or a horizontal sheet of paper. Each box occupies a corner of the page. The name of the category is on top of the box and below is a simple grid with fields for name/contact information, title and organization.
Using brainstorming with others and the Internet, you complete the fields. The result is a detailed roadmap of your ecosystem.

The more individuals you identify and the more Research Calls you conduct, the closer you will be to the elements of strategy and new, profitable business. At the end of the day — and at the bottom of the pond — you’re left with rich, briny market intelligence, the mother’s milk of firm growth.

 

DEEP DIVE

Let’s take a look at the four categories. For the sake of this discussion, we’ll imagine that the ecosystem is the construction sector.

  • Thought leaders. Think widely and well outside the box to come up with those who live and breathe the construction space. List those who are well-known writers and speakers — the people who give Ted Talks and present at conferences — as well as lesser-known experts. Look for leaders of trade groups and those who teach and train, especially the overlooked university professors running construction sciences departments. Don’t limit yourself to your immediate geography — experts are everywhere, and a Research Call can be made just as easily by phone or Skype, if need be, as in person.
  • Likely buyers. The most comfortable way to approach this category is to start with current clients, asking for recommendations of others you should interview. Add non-clients to your inventory as well.
  • Competitors. I get some funny looks when I suggest sitting down with competitors, but I promise you, this is a productive strategy. Identify targets that go beyond the obvious, such as CPAs you see at state society meetings. Seek out competitors that are upmarket, down-market and side-market. Add competitors outside your geography. Add competitors that are not CPA firms. Sit down with them and compare industry trends and what offerings they consider best in class. Dig deep. A good Research Call takes you out of your comfort zone into a new world of possibility.
  • Other providers. This category is filled with potential treasure. Talk to those who serve the construction business by providing everything from equipment to bricks, computer software, and insurance policies. These people are regularly calling on your potential clients and their insight is valuable. The Research Call works because people love to talk about what they know and do.

COME ON, LET’S DO THIS

If you’re serious about growth, the Research Call is the most promising activity you can pursue. And the contact inventory exercise (“Critters in the Ecosystem”), is an essential tool to plan your Research Calls.

I know it’s much easier to make a lunch date with a lawyer you’ve known for years or grab breakfast with an up-and-coming banker. But if you want to get on the path to strategic growth, you’ll have to leave the comfortable world of random connections and immerse yourself in the ecosystem where market intelligence lives.

It’s occasionally messy in there, but swimming in the right pond with the right critters is exactly what you should be doing.

Gale Crosley, CPA, is the founder of Crosley+Co., and consults with accounting firms on revenue growth. Reach her at gcrosley@crosleycompany.com.

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