You may be surprised to uncover a health tip in an article about revenue growth, but that's exactly what I've got for you. It's guaranteed to minimize stress, and it has nothing to do with food or exercise. It's "the research call," an information-gathering strategy that does not require you to engage in the traditional approach to active rainmaking.It is the first stage in a successful rainmaking process. If properly conducted, it leads to lead generation which, in turn, will lead to opportunity development. And if opportunities are well-mined, the result will be an increase in lasting and productive client relationships.

The research call differs markedly from traditional business generation, in which the emphasis is, "Get out there and do great work."

In a highly competitive and demanding marketplace such as today's CPA profession, unfortunately, great work often isn't enough. You need to concentrate on a carefully identified industry niche - I use the term "ecosystem" - in which three conditions co-exist: The pond must be big enough. It cannot be over-fished. And you must be careful not to take the big fish head on!

How's your shorthand?

If you're picturing yourself swimming around in a briny world of sea creatures and coral, you'll need to add a pair of glasses and a steno pad to that image. That's because conducting a research call is much like being a reporter. Your goal is to learn all you can about the ecosystem in which you are swimming. This research will provide the information that you need to build your business, from a new niche to new offerings within your current business. Leads are a byproduct of the process.

In order to get an appointment with an interviewee, introduce yourself and say, "We're growing our construction practice, and I'm trying to learn as much as I can about this industry niche. May I spend some time with you and pick your brain a bit?"

Remember a trick that all good reporters know: Accomplished people love talking about themselves, and that's what the research call is all about. Get prepared for the interview by crafting questions that will optimize your time together. Don't ask, "How's business?" and certainly don't ask for business. The following are the types of questions to ask:

* How would you characterize the business climate for your industry?

* What two or three key issues top the list of concerns?

* How do you keep up to date on what's going on in your industry?

* Which professional associations are most respected?

* Which publications are most respected?

* What advice do you have for someone building their practice?

Perhaps the most important question to ask is, "What other thought leaders in the niche should I meet?"

By gathering a couple of other names, you've begun a process I call the "exponential two-name game." In fact, it's not a game at all, but a strategic pathway that will lead to qualified leads and significant new business.

Finally, as you are leaving and thanking the individual, always ask, "Is there any way I could be of help to you?" Sometimes the question will be met with a polite nod and a gentle hand on your back as you're ushered out the door.

But in other cases, the response could be dramatic. In a recent research call (which I always execute before launching a new offering), my interviewee indicated that if I launched the offering he would be interested in being one of my first clients. But remember: This is not the primary purpose of the call. A pad full of notes and an acquaintance is the result you're really after. The rest will come.

A system worth perfecting

The research call, and leveraging the information gleaned, has a number of advantages over other business-building techniques. Among them:

* You are not asking anyone to buy anything.

* You don't need to be highly experienced.

* It's effective in any industry or niche.

* It's a powerful alternative to sitting in your office struggling to produce a marketing plan.

* It's considerably cheaper and more potent than producing four-color brochures.

* It is an antidote to desperation - that dreadful feeling that you don't know whom to contact, and the number of leads in your pipeline is dwindling.

* CPAs are familiar with research. It's part of their daily lives. The only difference is that this research is not in books or the tax code, but rather research with the assistance of other people.

* It works. In fact, it's the same type of strategy used by successful CEOs and politicians who identify the environment in which they want to operate and target those in it who know the most.

Finally, because you have identified those swimming where you want to swim, the likelihood that the contact will ultimately result in business is high - much higher than if you spend your time lunching with "random" bankers and lawyers.

Even though you are not overtly seeking business, your interest and proximity to the prospect will result in solid leads. If you fear that you have no time for this methodology, think about this: Just two research calls a week will yield 104 targeted, face-to-face encounters per year.

What if?

Let's say that you dutifully pursue the strategy for at least a year, but it does not generate leads. The likelihood is that you're swimming in the wrong ecosystem, perhaps one that is saturated or is populated by too many big fish.

I speak from experience.

In the wake of the dot-com bust of the early 1990s, I chose to remain in that ecosystem for eight or nine months, swimming as fast as I could. Eventually I concluded that the ecosystem had, in fact, dried up. A decision to abandon it and seek new, more fertile ground became my best strategy.

Gale Crosley, CPA, is the founder and principal of Crosley + Co. (www.crosleycompany.com), and consults with CPA firms on practice growth issues and opportunities. Reach her at gcrosley crosleycompany.com.

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