This is the first part of a two-part series on profiling professionals for strategic partnerships.


A raindrop falls in the mountains of Colorado, landing in a small stream. Simultaneously, a human is parachuted into the same valley without a map, GPS, compass or other form of guidance. Which will find the ocean first-the inanimate element of water or the most intelligent life form on the planet, the human?

It may surprise you to find that the drop of water will find the ocean first. Why? Because water, given its inability to think or reason, follows one simple rule of physics-it takes the path of least resistance. Often, it is the questions, perspectives and actions of humans that create unnecessary obstacles to progress. So, barring a highly-trained outdoorsman or the winner of Survivor, the water will consistently beat virtually any human to the ocean in such a scenario.

What does this have to do with advisors? Well, the simple lesson is that many advisors create impediments for themselves by approaching new endeavors with rigid plans and preconceived notions. More specifically, when it comes to finding an appropriate professional partner, such as an attorney or an accountant, to help you expand and enhance your business it pays to take the path of least resistance. This means you should set your agendas, your pitchbooks and your sales banter aside. Instead, start following the professional and let his or her needs provide the direction.

You would never start a meeting with a new client by saying "You need a 50% allocation to international small cap in your portfolio." Can you imagine looking a wealthy prospect straight in the eye and saying, "You need $5 million of second-to-die. I can feel it." Just as physicians won't prescribe medication prior to a diagnosis, neither should an advisor. The same logic holds true when you meet with and evaluate each candidate for a strategic partnership.

Without question, you will need to prepare some questions ahead of time so you are clear about the type of information you want and each meeting runs as efficiently as possible. But after that, the most important thing you can do is listen. By understanding the priorities, concerns and motivations of another professional, you can more accurately assess how well your business will complement theirs and whether there is an acceptable fit in your respective expertise and working styles. And when an attorney or accountant discusses their problems and goals, they may also (directly or indirectly) tell you how you can add value to their practice.

Their responses will give you critical insight into their most pressing issues and, if warranted, give you the ammunition you need to continue your discussions, build a working relationship, and eventually strengthen your professional affiliation in ways that can lead to new business.

The most successful advisors have in-depth knowledge and insights into the worlds of their strategic partners, and they do it by leveraging one of their well-honed skills-client profiling. They use the same investigative and interpersonal skills they rely on to build client relationships and redirect them toward professional relationships-a technique that can be easily adapted by any motivated advisor.

The Professional Profiling Tool
As mentioned, the approach to profiling potential professional partners is similar to the one most advisors use when profiling potential clients. To capture the essential information that makes up a comprehensive profile of an accountant's or attorney's business, it's important to focus on the following nine areas:
The professionals as people.
Their goals and objectives for their practice.
Their perspective on various financial services and products.
How they are managing their practices.
Their current clientele.
The marketing approaches they employ.
How they are compensated and how this is impacting their lives.
Their relationships with financial advisors.
Their openness and willingness to working with you.

Through these nine areas you can gain a thorough appreciation of any professional's particular-if not idiosyncratic-life and world:

1. The Person. You want to understand the professional's background, motivations, specific skills and expertise, current practices and the history of their business. You also should focus on them as people in order to establish and maintain rapport.

Sample questions:
How did you get into this business?
What is your area of expertise?
What do you enjoy most about your work?

2. Practice Goals and Objectives. The best strategic partners are accountants, attorneys and other professionals who want greater financial success or more balance between their work and their lifestyle without giving up critical income. This area will help you determine if the professional you are profiling will respond to the added value you can provide.

Sample questions:
What are the goals and objectives for your practice?
How do you see your client base growing?

3. Financial Product Issues. You need to determine each professional's level of knowledge and comfort with the financial products you provide. Your capabilities should be complementary, not competitive, to theirs and accepted by them. Any conflicts in this area can be a red flag when evaluating their potential as a partner.

Sample questions:
How do you manage your own money? What grade, A-F, would you give the experience overall and why? What were your best and worst experiences with other product providers?

4. Practice Management. To help your strategic partners achieve greater success, you must have a thorough understanding of their practices including such things as revenue models, prospecting methods, management responsibilities and client profitability. This knowledge can help you adapt your efforts to fit more effectively with their approach.

Sample questions:
What is the main focus of your practice?
Who is your biggest competitor and why?

5. The Professional's Clientele. In order to leverage the current client base of an accountant or attorney, you have to know the size, net worth and needs of their typical clients. A clear sense of the professional's clientele can help you gauge the potential pipeline of opportunity. Clients that don't fit the profile of your target prospects can be another red flag when evaluating their potential as a partner.

Sample questions:
How many clients do you have? What does having a client entail?
What markets are you in? Do you work with many business owners, executives, retirees, MDs...?
What does your "typical" client look like?
What percentage of your clientele is charitably inclined?
What are average fees per client per year?

6. Marketing. Most advisors can add significant value to attorneys and accountants through marketing and prospecting support, which can help strengthen a partnership. With an understanding of their current marketing activities and results, you can identify how to best enhance their efforts.

Sample questions:
How do you get new clients?
What are the three biggest sources of new business for you? Why?
Do you have a marketing plan?

7. Compensation. An overwhelming percentage of accountants and attorneys are looking for ways to boost their income. You want to understand how they generate revenue and if there are ways to modify their compensation arrangements or generate additional business that can help them reach their goals.

Sample questions:
How do you generally charge your clients?
How interested are you in exploring different forms of remuneration?
How has your compensation changed over the last three years?

8. Financial Advisors. Every accountant or attorney you meet with will have referred an affluent client to another financial advisor in the past. You should understand the extent and nature of their advisory relationships, as well as the experiences, biases and other perspectives that can influence a potential partnership.

Sample questions:
How many financial advisors are you currently working with?
What has been your best and worst experience working with a financial advisor? Do you have undivided loyalty to any other financial advisors? What is it based on?

9. The Close. Your overarching objective is to create a pipeline of new, affluent clients from your strategic partnership with an accountant or attorney. Each meeting should include an assessment of the candidate's receptiveness to a potential partnership.

Sample questions:
Would you be interested in working together to better serve your clients and make your practice more successful?

How do you feel about someone like me helping you enhance your practice?

What are the best ways for me to be a resource for you?

What is the next step?






The next article will discuss the most effective way to implement the profiling tool as you identify, meet with and evaluate professional partners.

Brett Van Bortel is an authority on advisory practice management and the head of Van Kampen's advisory consulting services division.