Saturday, April 26, 2008

Who's on first

Last Saturday I talked about how the client begins with the assumption you are a competent accountant and will do their work correctly. For that reason it is rare that you are well served by spending anything but the most cursory effort talking about you and your firm’s professional qualifications. (An obvious caveat is where there are complex or unusual issues, e.g. “We’re looking for someone who understands the ins and outs of international sales and EU VAT.”). Instead, the meeting should be about them and their needs.

Even though they think you can do their work, they still want to hire someone they a) like or at least feel good about and, b) who has their act together.

We’ll address the first half in a later post. Today’s blog is about satisfying the second concern, i.e. creating the impression you are organized and on top of the client's issues.

Before any meaningful communication with the prospect you should run a Google/Yahoo search on the person or people you’ll be meeting with and also check out their company. You ask for relevant financials, review them and take notes. You also ask in advance (so you can do any necessary research) if they have any specific issues that are on the front burner or otherwise important to them. When you arrive at the meeting you will have assembled a folder containing all relevant materials and be prepared to discuss their circumstances in detail.

Accountants are smart people and can be intellectually aggressive. (I know, I know. The second half of that sentence comes as a complete shock to you.) You walk into the meeting wanting to lock up the engagement and are eager to demonstrate your personal competence and knowledge. This mind set is fraught with danger for two reasons. The first is it can lead to spending too much time making the meeting about you.

The second is in those circumstances when you take one or more colleagues with you to the meeting. Your careful pre-meeting organizational efforts will rapidly decrease in value if your team sits down with the prospect and immediately begins talking over, interrupting and even contradicting each other.

The best practice is to have a meeting plan in effect.

For example, if Susan is the "owner" of the prospect, she might say something like the following in a pre-meeting strategy session with her team: "I'll be the moderator/leader. When we arrive I'll make the introductions. During the meeting we will always sit back against the back of our chairs unless one of us is talking, and that person will lean forward. (This makes is very easy for the prospect to know who to pay attention to.) I'll play traffic cop for our team. When it is appropriate, I will invite each of you to speak. (“Bob, you deal with that issue frequently. Please give Ralph an overview of how the IRS typically interprets that aspect of the valuation.”) When Bob is done, he will lean back in his seat, signaling to me he is done. I'll pick up from there. If any of you want to contribute something, do so politely during a break in the conversation (“Susan, if I may interject? Yes, that’s an area where the depreciation time line isn’t really settled. We have some loose guidance, but there is no hard number that has become the norm.”). When we leave, I'll be the last one out the door and will be the last one to shake the prospect’s hand. I will invite the prospect to call me directly if there are any questions and I will personally follow up with the prospect a few days after the meeting."

It doesn’t have to be done exactly like I’ve written, but you get the idea.

The bottom line is stolen from the old Abbott & Costello comedy routine: Who's on first? The prospect wants to feel comfortable they are assessing you and your firm accurately. Any lack of organization, poor communication and general appearance of not having your act together will make it difficult for them to reach a positive conclusion. When their confusion begins to parallel Lou Costello’s, the odds of you obtaining the engagement will slip accordingly. [If you've never seen it, You Tube has the entire "Who's on first" comedy routine. It really is funny.]

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