February 16, 2021
How to Leverage COIs and Referrals to Grow Your Business?    

When Jennifer Bacarella went to college she was ready to become a CPA. She grew up loving money and being good with numbers knowing that was the path she wanted to pursue. But after spending time at an accounting internship during her sophomore year, her mentor realized that she enjoyed and wanted to be involved with the clients more than a usual CPA would be. He advised her to undertake a different job that involved developing relationships with clients and interaction. By the time Bacarella was twenty she had her license and was ready to be a financial planner advisor.  

Bacarella shares a unique story with her soon-to-be ex-husband. They met in high school and worked at the same branch during college. After college, they both got hired at Sigma Financial and for the past 26 years they have helped grow the business into a successful broker-dealer as one of the few original advisors. Now, Bacarella and her husband have decided to be partners in life, rather than spouses. This connects to her passion for relationships with others. Over the years she has learned a lot about relationships on how to grow and expand them. 

What is a Center Of Influence?

A Center Of Influence (COI) is “A relationship that you’ve acquired where you can benefit each other. That person has the ability to be an advocate for you in a lot of different ways,” explained Bacarella. It is a way to connect and build a network with others to help one another. 

Her first COI encounter was when she was 20 years old and first registered with a license. New to the world of finance, Bacarella kept asking herself how she could get her foot in the door of business? How can she become someone that people would want to work with? Her first client was her mother, she helped her work out a retirement plan as a middle school secretary. To do this she sat down with her mother’s superintendent who she knew as she went to school with his daughter. He agreed to a meeting and together she talked to him about the different options available. He was so enthralled by her that she was put into the school system to be one of the approved advisors. Her next move was to reach out to every person that had her as a student. Reflecting upon her decision and work now, Bacarella said, “Now I see them in retirement and I’m so proud to say they were one of my first clients.” 

When relationships with clients have been built, ask yourself, “how can they be an influential relationship?” explained Bacarella.  Clients become a center of influence for Bacarella when they share their experience with her as an advisor with others they know. This instantly helps build connections and referrals of those that she has previously worked with. Bacarella also sits on many boards including charitable boards. She said that these boards are the largest COI and are the most giving and wanting to help. “When you go in with that purity it’s amazing how many people ask what do you do for a living?” she said. 

How to Others Can Help Develop Your COI

When people feel like they’re not being benefited from the situation, you are less likely to get referrals, explained Bacarella. “I think sometimes we rush into relationships and ask for referrals too early,” she said. You want someone that will advocate for you and will refer you to someone they care about. “People are really careful who they talk about, they don’t just throw out names. They [the clients] talk about why they like working with me and what aspect of their life I helped them with. The biggest thing about this career is the therapy component and the active listening being able to hear what they’re saying,” she said. Bacarella explained that her COI feels like they’re helping the person when they share her name with them, not necessarily helping the advisor. 

Bacarella enjoys building personal relationships with her clients. The best way she likes to do this is by going to her clients houses to interact with them instead of them coming to her office. This has many benefits as it allows her to meet with both spouses at the same time and their children. Now, all her clients’ children are her clients. She said she has “Been able to capture that next generation of money.” Watching their parents trust her with their money and by being invited into their homes built personal relationships and allowed the opportunity to show how much she cared about them. “It came naturally to me, and I think it comes pretty naturally to most female advisors. When I encourage them to be in this business, I say that no one else should create your boundaries. Do what makes you feel comfortable,” Bacarella said. Her best advice is, “If you are shining at that moment people are going to see that and they are going to be attracted and drawn to you.”

Being Authentic and Adaptable on Zoom 

During the pandemic Bacarella hasn’t been able to visit her clients in their homes, instead, she uses Zoom to hold her meetings. In-person meetings meant she used to create authenticity across the table to someone rather than video. The pandemic has forced her to adapt and change so clients can still see her authentic self over video. In order to achieve this Bacarella said she took away some of the Zoom protocol and changed her style by using newfound tools via Zoom. She thinks it helps clients feel more engaged and it allows them to have greater access to the conversation. 

Integrating COI’s and Referrals Into Your Business

To achieve a COI it must be integrated into the business and referrals have to come from an existing client. That being said, Bacarella explained that you have the ability to market yourself anywhere. “Marketing yourself comes everywhere and from everything you do. It’s you how handle yourself at a PTA meeting or a girl scouts meeting for your daughter. I was around so many different professions that sooner or later the conversation always turns to what do you do for a living,” she said. 

It’s important to understand that you are always in an environment where you can make an impression on somebody. This is why it is even more important to have a polished elevator speech ready from when someone asks you what you do for a living.  But, you want it to have everyday language to be easy to understand and open it up to develop into a follow-up conversation. Your world is your referral process, explained Bacarella, don’t let it get limited by marketing strategies as anything you do creates an opportunity to talk about how excited you are for your clients. 

One Piece of Advice

You need to be a sponge, said Bacarella, don’t settle on having one mindset. She also advised that mentors are important to listen to and learn what not to do. “By having many mentors, it can give you a 360  view so you have the ability to position yourself in an authentic way on how you want to work with clients.” Learning about different strategies and listening to various ventures allows you to have an open-mind and internalize the information for yourself, she said. 

Jennifer Bacarella, AIF, CWSAbout Jennifer Bacarella:

Ms. Bacarella has recruited more than 1,000 company representatives, orchestrated two clearing-firm changes, and started a new broker-dealer firm. Ms. Bacarella manages a staff of 115 along with her own three-team department, which includes Licensing, Firm Development, and Relations. She also is head of the Team Building Committee and manages her own book of business. Ms. Bacarella also is a Girl Scouts den mother and a member of Women in Financial Services (WIFS).

Chia-Li Chien, PhD, CFP®, PMP®About the Host:

Dr. Chia-Li Chien is a succession program director at Value Growth Institute, a succession consulting practice dedicated to helping business owners increase their firms’ equity value. Before her private consulting practice, she held several senior management positions in Fortune 500 companies. Dr. Chien is a director of the financial planning program at the School of Management at California Lutheran University. Dr. Chien is a frequent speaker about succession and retirement planning at national conferences and has published three award-winning books, including her most recent publication, “Enhancing Retirement Success Rates in the United States.” Dr. Chien serves on the boards of various national financial service associations. She holds a doctorate in financial planning and is a Certified Financial Planner (CFP®) as well as Project Management Professional (PMP®).

Rosie BakerAbout the Author:

Rosie Baker is an undergraduate student at California Lutheran University, graduating in May 2021. She is studying Communication with an emphasis in PR and Advertising and has a minor in Creative Writing. In July 2020, she published her first book, Mirrors & Windows: Unlocking a New Framework to Envision Your Success, with New Degree Press. 


Dr. Chien interviewed Jennifer Bacarella, AIF, CWS, on “How to Leverage COIs and Referrals to Grow Your Business?” on February 16, 2021, at 1:00pm PST.

Many matured financial planning or service practices spend a limited amount on their sales and marketing. They leverage the Center of Influences (COIs) and referrals as a way of marketing. In this session, we will discuss the following questions:

  • What is the Center of Influences or COIs?
  • What are some ways to establish COIs?
  • Why use referrals as one way of marketing?
  • How should the referral process integrate into a practice?