Managing your pipeline

Advisor says: In a recent podcast, you talked about generating introductions from clients and centres of influence. I was intrigued by a passing comment you made when the host used the term “sales funnel.” You jumped in to say that you preferred the term “pipeline” over “funnel.” Can you explain that further? My practice is maturing, and the number of new prospective clients has fallen, so I am looking for advice on how to pump things up again.

Coach says: Thanks for listening to the podcast and catching that subtle difference. It stems from my early sales training as an advisor, when the importance of “filling the funnel” with prospective clients was a loud and frequent message from my manager. At the time, it made sense. If I put a sufficient quantity of people into my funnel, an adequate number would eventually become clients, ensuring my survival in the business.

While that may have been an effective system, it wasn’t very efficient; I ended up with a lot of folks in the funnel who were never going to become clients, yet they took my time and energy to obtain and manage.

Today, that kind of wastefulness cannot be tolerated, which is why I prefer the pipeline analogy: what goes in the top should come out the bottom – with only minor losses when you or your prospect decide it is no longer appropriate for them to be there.

You make that happen by only putting people into your pipeline who qualify using three criteria:

  1. They meet (or come close to) your preferred client profile.
  2. You can offer them something of value.
  3. There is a realistic expectation of doing business within a reasonable time frame.

With that in mind, the people who should be invited to enter your pipeline are existing clients, works in progress and qualified prospects.

Existing clients should be invited if their needs or ability to invest change, you have additional products and services to offer or you have new information affecting their current choices.

Works in progress are people with partially completed financial plans or people you’ve met or been referred to previously.

Qualified prospects meet your preferred client profile. They may have been introduced by existing clients or centres of influence, or they could have been attracted by your promotional activities.

This leads to two questions: how many people should you have in your pipeline; and how long should they stay there?

How many for how long?

Most advisors say they have between 15 and 40 names in their pipeline and that they expect to either convert them to clients or remove them in anywhere from two weeks to three months. I recommend, however, that you keep between 100 and 200 people in your pipeline over 12 to 24 months. Note that high net-worth practices often have fewer names in their pipelines and allow them to stay there longer.

Does that mean keeping a lot of deadwood in the system for a long time? No, but you need to have two systems at work: a series of promotional activities to identify and attract the right people; and an engagement process that deepens and strengthens those relationships until you convert or remove them.

Reasons to remove a name from your pipeline include:

  • They no longer fit your preferred client profile.
  • You have nothing of value to offer them.
  • There is no reasonable expectation of doing business.

Your marketing efforts should follow two paths: internal, directed at people with whom you already have a relationship; and external, directed at people who match your preferred client profile and with whom you would like to have a relationship.

Building your pipeline using internal marketing

Internal prospects include family, friends and other personal relationships; referrals from centres of influence, which can include anyone in a position to help you and who’s interested in your success; works in progress; and existing clients who need additional products or services.

Your existing client base is the starting point for moving from 40 names in your pipeline to 200. Yet, most advisors do not look upon their current clients as potential sources of business. These people have already demonstrated their preference for doing business with you. To include them in your pipeline properly, however, you must manage those relationships using the same degree of diligence and thoughtfulness as you would with a high-profile prospect.

In particular, look at your top clients. Who among them presents opportunities for further planning within, say, the next 12 months? I would estimate that at least 10% of your current clients have some unmet need that you could address within the coming year. In a client base of 200, for example, a minimum of 10% would mean 20 business opportunities among existing clients.

Internal marketing activities that advisors with whom we work are successfully employing include:

  • Specifically (and respectfully) ask your top 40 clients for at least one qualified introduction. Even if you are successful only half the time, doing so would add 20 high-quality names to your pipeline.
  • Take your top 20 clients to lunch on their birthdays. Invite two of their business associates or good friends – who are not your clients – as a surprise. Get their names from the client’s spouse or administrative assistant. That should add another 30 to 40 names to your pipeline.
  • Hire the pro at your golf club to conduct a golf tune-up for six or eight of your best clients. Encourage each of them to invite a friend or business associate. Tune up two or three times each spring and you’ll add another 10 to 20 names.
  • Choose a valued client and organize a client appreciation event related to something that interests them personally or professionally. Then let the client invite the guests. They are likely to choose some people you don’t know. A couple of these events each year should result in 20 or so introductions.
  • Organize a town-hall meeting to talk about something of general interest within your community. These forums for open discussion are gaining in popularity – and their informality makes it easier for your clients to bring friends and associates.

Building your pipeline using external marketing

Despite all the opportunities your existing client base represents, most advisors want to expand their client base through external means. There are hundreds of promotional methods you can employ, but here are a few that go beyond the common activities:

  • Sponsorship. Participate in fundraising for a local charity. Sponsor your kid’s soccer team with your name on their shirts. Sponsor park benches and parade floats.
  • Publishing. Produce a book, even if you must hire a ghostwriter. Write a blog.
  • Media. Look for opportunities to become an expert to whom journalists can turn for comment. A phone call to a journalist about a subject important to you is a good starting point. Host a podcast.
  • Public speaking. Book speaking engagements at local service clubs and public events, even if not on finance-related topics.

Advisors early in their careers will generally favour external promotion because they have not yet built a large enough client base to support their internal marketing efforts. Well-established practices, on the other hand, can usually direct their promotional weight toward existing relationships.

There are thousands of marketing ideas advisors can use to keep their pipeline full. The trick is finding those that work for you, then applying them strategically and effectively.

George Hartman is CEO of Market Logics Inc. in Toronto. Send questions and comments regarding this column to George’s practice-management videos can be viewed on

“Coach’s Forum” is a place in which you can ask your questions, tell your stories or give your opinions on any aspect of practice management. For each column, George selects the most interesting and relevant comments from readers and offers his advice. Our objective is to build a community of people with a common interest in making their financial advisory practices as effective as possible.