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From Acorns to Oak Trees

Sow quality time with quality people and thus develop quality relationships that produce quality results.

By Bruce W. Etherington, CLU, ChFC

The success of your practice, five, 10, 15 years from now, will be determined by the quality of the seeds you plant today and, thus, quality oak trees will be grown from quality acorns. If you want to know where your practice will be in five years, ask yourself where your top 20 clients will be five years from now. If you like the answer, then continue to work with those people and develop people like them. If you do not like the answer, then change your top 20 clients.

Since we reap what we sow, we want to sow quality time with quality people and thus develop quality relationships that produce quality results. By focusing on the process of turning a prospect into a customer, a customer into a client, and a client onto an advocate of you and your services, you will develop an attitude of business relationship-building that will ultimately result in unprecedented growth in your business because of the desires of your satisfied clients to introduce you to their friends, colleagues, peers and associates. So, the key is to ask yourself what your present acorns are going to grow into in five, 10 or 20 years, and focus on planting quality acorns and developing them into an effective, high touch basis that will ensure successful results and quality revenues from the qualitative relationships you have taken the time to build. The question is where do you find quality acorns?

Assuming you are happy with the answer you receive when you ask where your top 20 will be in 20 years, you then visit your top 20 and buy them breakfast or a lunch, during which time you ask them the key three-year relationship question: “Bill, if we were sitting here three years from today on June 18, 2004, looking back on the previous three years, what would have to have happened in your business and personal lives in order for you to feel that you have made good-to-excellent progress over that time period?”

The answers you get will range from a one-minute, bottom line summary focus of the client’s goals and objectives to a one- hour treatise on where the person wants to go and why. We have had reactions all across the board in terms of the length of response, but what you get from your top client is a crystallization of their immediate one-to-three year game plan which is going to be extremely helpful to you in terms of deciding what it is that you can do, using your unique gifts and capabilities to help you client today.

This will, in many of your top 20 cases, open up new situations and possibilities. On the other hand, with others it will simply cement your existing relationships and endorse the fact that you truly are interested in nurturing and growing the acorn relationship you currently have into that of an oak tree. Having done this with your top 20 clients and having noticed, in each of your meetings, that the majority of the speaking will be done by your client in answer to the three-year relationship question, at the end of the breakfast or lunch as you are picking up the check, you simply turn to your client and say:

“Bill, I really enjoyed this get together and I want to thank you for your update and the confidential information you have shared with me. I am really excited for you and your plans for the future and I simply am privileged to realize that you have taken us into your trust and confidence, which we certainly appreciate. We look forward to being of creative assistance to you over the years that lie ahead in any way, which we, from a professional prospective, can be of help to you. Now, Bill, as you know, I am in a people business and as a result rely solely upon my clients for references to new quality people with whom to speak. While I don’t expect you to know anyone who is directly in the market for my product or services, I do expect that you will associate with people who, like yourself, possess three specific characteristics, which are: (1) a sense of responsibility in terms of both family and business, (2) the ability to make a decision based on fact, and (3) excellent economic resources. Bill, who are your three best colleagues, your three best friends, your three closest peers, your three best competitors, because I would like to meet them?”

Know Your Acorns
How do you get to know your acorn/prospect? We get to know the acorn and at the same time separate ourselves from the crowd by doing what we call “the deal before the deal” in each and every first interview. To those of you that don’t know of this extremely unique tool, I would encourage you to make note of it and use it because it works. The conversation could go something like this:

“John, I want to thank you so much for taking the time to visit with me today and what I would like to do at the outset is to outline for you exactly what is going to happen in this first meeting. Number one, I’m going to ask you a lot of questions, the answers to which will be kept by me and my staff in the strictest confidence. Number two, we would like to have some time to think about your answers because before we write any prescription, if it’s required, we need time to make a proper diagnosis. Number three, if we continue to dialogue after our second meeting, assuming one is required, and you ultimately decide that you like our ideas and you choose tom implement them then, naturally, we would expect you to do the implementation with us and not with any other firm in our business. Are you comfortable with this `deal before the deal?’”

We then proceed directly to the three-year relationship question: “John, if we were sitting here three years from today, looking back over the previous three years, what would have to have happened in your business and personal lives for you to feel that over that period of time that you had made food to-excellent progress?”

These two key tools, the deal before the deal and the three-year relationship question, will eliminate the competition and lock up the relationship opportunity right from the get go. This will both qualify your prospect in terms of their honor code as well as captivate their curiosity with one question-the three-year question.

Bruce Etherington, President of Toronto-based Etherington’s, is a 29-year Life and Qualifying member of the Million Dollar Round Table. He is a 19-year Charter and Qualifying Member of the Top of the Table and served as Top of the Table chairman in 1993. He is also involved in several charities including The Special Olympics.

This is a short excerpt from the transcript of the seminar From Acorns to Oak Trees given at the Million Dollar Round Table 2001 Annual Meeting in Toronto, Canada. For the complete copy, contact MDRT at 847-692-6378 or visit their website at



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