Speaker-Bureau Relationships: Decoded


One of my favorite experiences as president elect of National Speakers Association (NSA) was to attend the annual convention for the International Association of Speakers Bureaus (IASB). As a reciprocal arrangement, the presidents-elect of both organizations get a complimentary registration at their respective conventions.

When I walked into the ballroom of IASB’s convention and saw table after table full of speakers bureau owners and agents, I felt a bit of drool slip out of my mouth. I mean, this was a room full of prospective business, and my first thought was to go up to each one of them with my card and tell them how good of a fit I would be for any of their clients.

Of course, that was the wrong approach. Further, as an officer in NSA, I was there as an ambassador, not as a speaker trawling for business. So, I took a different approach and instead set a goal to meet as many of my bureau colleagues as possible, learn about the bureau industry, and watch a lot of good speakers.

Bureaus account for about 15% of my business. It’s not a lot, but it’s not insignificant either. So, while I’m not a bureau favorite, in terms of volume and income, I do have several bureaus who I consider trusted partners in my business.

But, honestly, I must admit that I am frustrated by speakers who assume bureaus are only out to make money off the speakers, are only order takers and don’t market their speakers, and are charging commissions that are too high.

Equally, I am upset by bureaus who assume speakers are going to steal spinoff business, who don’t trust speakers to talk to clients directly, and who think that speakers are too pushy when it comes to promoting themselves or their products.

The truth is. Speakers are entrepreneurs trying to make a good living in this industry and bureaus are entrepreneurs trying to make a good living in this industry. We’re both operating our businesses in a way that we believe will lead to this outcome.

I contacted a bureau last year, on the recommendation of a speaker colleague, and the bureau owner called me the next day. We had a great 30-minute conversation and it appeared that he might be interested in me being a part of their roster. He asked me to send a video the next day. About a month later, he called me to say that upon further reflection, he just didn’t think that I was a good fit for his clients.

While disappointed, I was also very grateful that he took the time to call me rather than leaving me to wonder if he would ever recommend me to his clients.

This represents what I think is the key to a good bureau-speaker relationship: Open communication.

When I am unsure how to handle a tricky bureau client situation, I either call the bureau I’m working with or get advice from another bureau who will give me good direction.

If I’m going to offer my products for sale, I always talk to the bureau about it before I approach the client.

If I’m going to send the client a gift after my presentation, I let the bureau know.

Bottom line, I want to avoid miscommunication, distrust, and any situation where I inadvertently send the message that I’m trying to work around the bureau. They have a relationship with the client, and I want to work with them on that relationship.

The result is that trust is developed, and the bureaus show me the same courtesy.

Bureaus are part of our industry. Some are outstanding, and some are less so. But, the same is true of speakers. If speakers want to create a good reputation in the industry as not only outstanding speakers, but reputable, trustworthy individuals, I believe we need to approach bureaus as trusted business partners whenever we have the opportunity to work with them.

When we do that, it benefits us, the bureaus, and the industry.

Ron Culberson
Ron Culberson, MSW, CSP, is a speaker, humorist and author of "Do it Well. Make it Fun." who spent the first part of his career as a hospice social worker, middle manager, and senior leader. He is the 2012-2013 president of the National Speakers Association.
Ron Culberson
Ron Culberson
Ron Culberson
Ron Culberson

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