During the past decade, accounting and auditing firms have experienced a significant change. During better times, business was easier to acquire and maintain as clients deemed accountants and auditors to be authorities that dare not be questioned. Client fee sensitivity, competition, increased legislation, specialisation, and poor public image have made the practice of accounting and auditing considerably more difficult. It now takes much more effort to manage and sustain a successful practice in general, and a small practice in particular.

While the term “networking” is well-known, the concepts of “professional” and “effective” networking are foreign to many. As the accounting and auditing profession continues to evolve as a business, the key components of building a successful practice largely remain unchanged. At the core of most successful practices is client service built on a commitment to excellence, expertise, ethics, responsiveness and cost-effectiveness. The basics-knowledge and expertise in a given area of the profession are a vital component of any client development activities. Once the basics are established, however, you have to distinguish yourself through relationships and contacts. The foundation of building a client base through networking includes maintaining existing clients through expanded business relationships to better understand the client and meet its needs. This includes the concept of cross-selling opportunities for those existing clients to expand your representation into other areas of their business. A second foundation of building a client base is the acquisition of new clients. A common denominator in both of these building blocks to growing and sustaining a successful practice is acquiring and sustaining meaningful relationships with clients, potential clients and others that can refer business to you.

Networking must be the personal responsibility of each trainee accountant, audit manager or partner. It involves maintaining regular contacts with clients, lawyers, industry leaders and fellow accountants. Success is predicated on building relationships, making contacts and systematically working on business development each day. Networking often has a negative connotation. This is due to the fact that many salesmen abuse networking to sell. According to Bob Burg from his book Endless Referrals, the golden rule of networking is: “All things being equal, people will do business with, and refer business to, those people they know, like and trust”. Networking is “being a valuable business and personal resource, such as doing what you can to help other people reach their goals and desires, and expecting nothing in return” – Dave Sherman.

Experts agree that effective networking involves determining your networking purposes and goals. You should identify possible contacts and develop a plan to ensure building upon these contacts. Be involved with organisations and forums in which your best contacts, potential clients and referral sources are involved. Accountants and auditors should develop a client development plan that includes a personal plan of action on networking with colleagues and/or potential clients. Use existing contacts to make more introductions at events. Determine one or two of the best organisations, whether national, provincial or local organisations, business forums or other gatherings of prospective referrals, and set a plan in motion to an active networking.

Effective networking involves a commitment of time, energy, and resources to produce meaningful results. Care for the network, which includes personal contact with clients and potential clients through e-mails, calls, newsletters, and visits. One commentator equates effective networking with a gardener caring for his or her garden. If you come across an article that may be of interest to a client or potential client, send it to them with a note pointing out the importance of the material. Remember client birthdays, acknowledge important achievements, or determine a client’s favourite hobby or sports team. Use this information to build relationships. The fact that you are thinking about the client will pay huge dividends. In this light, the use of technology to care for and feed your network cannot be overstated.

Once you establish mutual points of interest with the client and/or your network, set concrete steps to build the relationship. In order to be successful in connecting with your client and potential client, “find out what they want; find out what they need; find out who they are”. This type of relationship building takes time, but it will provide a big benefit in the long run. Effective networking should include building relationships with other accountants and auditors. This can be accomplished through attending discussion groups and member functions. This type of relationship can be expanded through conference calls, video conferencing or working groups or other subsets of a group. One good way to build a national network of contacts is for you to refer business out to colleagues you meet at member activities. As you have the opportunity to send business to others you meet, you likely will see an increase in the number of referrals that come to you. When the referral does come to you, ensure that you follow up with a personal ‘thank you’ note. One of the major obstacles to effective networking is the fact that it is time consuming. It often takes a commitment of years to build a mature network of contacts. Young accountants and auditors, however, must make the commitment to start building the network early. If they become actively involved in networking opportunities early in their career, by the time they reach partnership, or consideration for partnership level, they should be able to point to the dividends and potential dividends from the network that they have spent years building.

Cost is another obstacle to effective national networking. It is important for an accountant and auditor to discuss with his or her mentors the importance of networking. If you develop a detailed plan with the goals and objectives clearly defined, a partner has a roadmap of what you are trying to accomplish and milestones to gauge your success. Networking is the very foundation of all business development activities. As a business development tool, it requires maintaining regular contact with people for the ultimate purpose of developing business. Effective networking involves defining possible contacts, determining your networking purpose, developing a plan of action, and committing the time and energy necessary to produce meaningful results. By constantly reaching out and nurturing existing relationships, and establishing new professional relationships, you will position yourself in a stream of opportunities, resources, information and contacts that will pay dividends for years to come. Professional networking involves knowing how to establish honest rapport, how to start, how to continue, how to end conversations, and what to do to build a professional or personal relationship.

The author, cautions, however, that networking should be underpinned by key principles such as sincerity, trust, character and competence. This is a long-term project. Countless times I have observed people actually run from person to person, with the expectations of first giving away their card and hoping to gather the other person’s. How can you possibly build a relationship with a person when your objective is to get out there and distribute cards? People know when you are not sincere and when your focus is on the ‘what’s in it for me’ attitude.

Networking is very much an acquired ability which, with proper training, can be learned, developed and mastered. So, maybe it’s time for senior people involved with business development to consider placing networking strategy more prominently on the firm’s or company’s agenda.

Karl Smith BA(HED), MA(Public Administration), is the business owner of ExecuEdge Consulting and a Networking and Referral Skills coach.