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The Power of External Relationships

Posted on 02-08-2010
The Power of External Relationships

By Karen Love 

Director of Practice Growth
PKF Texas

When you build a network of external relationships, you create a conduit of opportunities for your practice. The purpose of building your network is not to turn everyone you meet into a client. It goes far beyond collecting a stack of business cards and generating leads. The goal of establishing strong external relationships is to set your practice apart in the eyes of your community.

There are benefits to building and maintaining a far-reaching external network. It’s something a practice of any size and budget can do. When individuals within your practice become visible, trusted and even admired, the less selling you’ll need to do. Strategic relationship opportunities will materialize. Prospective employees will seek you out. People will refer business to you even if they are not clients themselves. You can accomplish this with a basic understanding of your practice’s strengths, a strategic approach, and an attitude of serving, not selling.

Be Strategic

When I first joined PKF Texas, the practice was one of Houston’s best-kept secrets. It has now become an organization well-known for its positive work environment, its community involvement, the advice it offers, and the way it helps its clients succeed.

Understanding who needed to know about us was essential. Since we have special expertise in serving technology companies, one of our strategies was to sponsor a local “Fast-Tech 50” awards program. This is a great fit with our brand. It positions us as a champion of up-and-coming technology companies gives us unique access to the leaders of those companies.

Define your own target relationships by looking within your organization. What do you do better than your competitors? Who has the greatest need for your services? What are members of your firm passionate about? Then deliberately put yourself—and key members of your practice—in situations that offer opportunities to connect the dots.

Leisa Holland-Nelson, president and COO of ContentActive, LLC, is a client of PKF Texas. We send business to one another whenever we can. That relationship began years ago, when we met at a networking event hosted by the Houston Business Journal and sponsored by PKF Texas. Our circle was enhanced when we both participated in a gathering of local businesswomen hosted by the Greater Houston Partnership–a group that serves as the region’s chamber of commerce and economic development entity.

“If I hadn’t been strategic about building an external business network, I would not have a business,” Holland-Nelson says. “It’s definitely a two-way street. The most important thing you can do to build relationships is to listen. Take the time to find out what someone is doing now, and what they think they want to accomplish. You may be able to offer a better solution, or point them to someone who can. In the best relationships, your contacts become your advocates.”

Structure, Lifestyle Fit Essential

At PKF Texas, we have made external networking a part of our corporate culture. We allocate budget for it. We include it in job goals. Relationship-building activities may include participation in professional associations or community volunteer opportunities. We emphasize the importance of giving first—finding ways to help another person or group connect with people and resources.

Team members are accountable for reporting back the results of their outside involvement. They are responsible for following through on any commitments they make, and leads they develop. We help them do this by prepping with a brief orientation called “B4UGo” (Before You Go). They learn that even if they’re not officially part of the practice growth team, they are our ambassadors, helping connect people and resources. The extra benefit to this is employee retention—younger workers are especially attracted to companies who encourage and support their community engagement.

Can people who are not social by nature help your practice build its network? Yes, says Byron Hebert, director for PKF Texas’ Entrepreneurial Advisory Group. “Most accountants would rather ‘drive’ a desk than drive to a network event. Even if networking does not come naturally, what’s worked for me is to make it a part of my lifestyle. My wife is a banker, and we have developed a network of business acquaintances who have now become friends, and we socialize with them. It doesn’t have to be a grind—you can make it fun.”

Getting Extra Mileage from Your Networking

We expand the reach of our outside activities by offering resources—not simply business cards and promotional materials. One of our most successful forms of communication has been the PKF Texas “Entrepreneur’s Playbook.” In this small booklet we have compiled excerpts from a weekly business advice radio show we host. It covers helpful topics like budgeting, fraud prevention and cash management. We post an audio version of the show on our Web site. 

We also use our blog, FromGregsHead.com, to publicize and promote our community activities and partnerships, as well as the accomplishments of our clients. An amazing side benefit of the blog is that it has brought a great amount of traffic to our Web site, without added cost.

You can get extra mileage by using the medium or forum that is best suited to your target audience. That might be your Web site, print, email, podcasts, TV or radio.

We believe in the concept of perpetual outreach. That means staying flexible and nimble, and finding ways to serve in ways that set our firm apart. Set your external network in motion and be ready for the opportunities that spin your way.

Building Your External Network

Trying to figure out where to start? Consider these, and scan your business community’s events calendars for others.

  • Chambers of Commerce 
  • Economic Development Groups
  • Tourism Bureaus (Destination Marketing Organizations)
  • Professional Associations
  • University Foundations
  • Research Foundations
  • Alumni Associations
  • Minority Business Associations
  • United Way Organizations
  • Health-related Nonprofit Groups
  • Environmental and Green Causes
  • Small Business Development Groups
  • Speakers’ Bureaus