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Opening the Door to Business Owners

Properly answering the question, “What do you do?” can be the difference between a client and a cold shoulder.

By Thomas E. Fowler, CLU, LUTCF

Business owners are not suffering from a lack of advice. They hear a lot of it from their attorneys, CPAs and financial advisors. But they don’t listen to the majority of those advisors. That’s because few advisors pose the types of questions that compel business owners to listen—to really listen—to the ramifications of their current decisions.

The difference between hearing and listening is simple; when someone listens to you, they act on what you say. Your job is to make business owners listen and take an interest in talking to you. That begins with how you answer your prospects’ hardest question, “What do you do?”

The exit-plan question is the one i use most often, and it is responsible for the majority of my sales to business owners.

According to Brian Walter of the Effectiveness Institute, how you spend the seconds after they ask this question is critical. You have to give prospects a memorable response that creates a hook—a stopper that demands a follow-up question. Walter says your most powerful tool is a good “elevator speech.” This means creating a compelling, progressively revealed, conversational answer to the “What do you do?” question, which makes the person want to continue listening to you.

Wow, how, who, now
Walter’s response formula is: “Wow, how, who, now.” The “wow” is the hook, the stopper. It should make the person give you a verbal response, such as, “What?” or “Really?” You may also get a nonverbal response in the form of a head turn, which is also permission to keep talking.

The “how” is expressing the concept of your practice in a nutshell. The “who” refers to whom you work with. (Sometimes you can blend the how and who.) And the “now” stands for the opportunity to elaborate: “Now, for example …” Let me show you how I begin:

Prospect: “Tom, what do you do?”

Tom: “I am a business-exit strategist.”

Prospect: “Really?”

Tom: “I help owners of closely held or family-owned businesses develop strategies for dealing with the three most likely causes of an exit.”

Then I stop. The prospect’s body language or question determines if we keep talking or not. I’ve already hooked the prospect’s interest, and pointed out there’s something he probably wants to know. (He really wants to know the three causes of an exit, which are death, disability or retirement.) And, I’ve got a good story for each of those three causes. So if the prospect reacts to any of them, I’m ready.

    The reason business owners don?t plan is that the advisor failed to discover their agenda. Here are some things that help shape business owners? agendas.
  • They are corporate monarchies. Business ownership provides one of the few guarantees of power, respect and influence in life. The business is their alter ego.
  • They dominate those around them. Few possess the kind of power business owners earn and eventually take for granted. They can push personal and business agendas with considerable influence, and can make decisions based on their own criteria, which they often don?t have to explain or justify.
  • They report to no one. They have advisors and sometimes a board of directors, but they report to no one. Thirty percent consider their CPA their most important advisor. If you implement the ideas mentioned in this story, you can become their most influential advisor.

Brass tacks
Once the prospect is hooked and we’ve begun a conversation, my real questioning starts. I quickly frame it up for him, and then hit him with the first question: “The day you open the doors of your business is the day you should start your exit planning. Unfortunately, that rarely happens because the business takes on a life of its own. Then, one day, the owner is suddenly facing a situation that has not been planned for: business succession. The majority of his wealth is tied up in the business and he has no way out. Out of curiosity, do you have an exit plan from your business?”

The exit-plan question is the one I use most often, and it is responsible for the majority of my sales to business owners—from sole proprietors to individuals whose net worth exceeds hundreds of millions of dollars. Here is the way I usually phrase it: “Some day, because of death, disability or retirement, you will exit your business. Do you have a plan to take your money with you on a favorable basis?”

Try it. You may be surprised at where it takes you.

This is an excerpt from a speech given at the 2005 MDRT annual meeting. Used with permission. All rights reserved.

For more tips on selling to business owners, be sure to read Seven Critical Questions to Ask Business Owners.

Thomas E. Fowler, CLU, LUTCF, is a 15-year MDRT member with five Court of the Table honors, and a past NAIFA trustee. He has more than 30 years of experience assisting owners of closely held and family-owned businesses in estate and business planning. Contact him at


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