Monday, June 23, 2008

Gently Guide The Conversation And REALLY Listen

There is a window in the typical hour meeting, perhaps 30 minutes or so, when you will be asking the prospective client about their accounting issues and, to the extent they are touched by these accounting issues, their personal priorities, desires and wants.

In recent posts I’ve discussed a few proven approaches to broach this Q & A session, but let’s get deeper into the specifics.

Remember that we want to find out what makes the prospect tick. If we know what that is we can fashion an accounting proposal that differentiates us from the competition. For that reason, we don’t begin with an accounting question, e.g. “OK, Pete, are you current with all your filings and payments?” Instead, your initial question asks them to tell you where they are with their business/situation and where they want it to go. The response will give you a perspective of what they are trying to do in both the short and longer term.

Continue gently probing and exploring along these lines (“Pete, it sounds like you are looking to retire early. What are your current thoughts about how you will turn your equity in the company into cash when that time comes?”) so you acquire an understanding of their motivations. Ask each question so that it ties to their financial circumstances. That way, it won’t be interpreted as intrusive prying.

As your exploration into what motivates the prospect continues it is absolutely crucial that you listen carefully. If you misinterpret a remark and then subsequently tie that misunderstanding to your proposal, there will be a severe disconnect. Because you brain will be in a swirl, especially the first few times you take this approach, I think it is important to make quick, abbreviated notes so you can remember key issues raised, especially those that seem to have a strong emotional connection with the prospect, e.g. Pete says “I’ve never been to college so I want to make darn sure I can afford to send my son.” or “Peggy has asthma; I would really like to be able to move to a drier climate so she’d be more comfortable.”

When you are confident you have obtained a workable insight into the client’s motivations and priorities, you can morph into exploring accounting-specific issues. As you do so, you should try to attach those to the client’s desires, e.g. “I see your warehouse lease has 10 years to go. Are you permitted by the lease terms to sublet if you want to move Peggy sooner?” This demonstrates to the prospect that you understand what is important to them and are working with them to solve these special challenges.

I think this phase works best if you select possible accounting issues by exception. By that I mean don’t even talk about the things that are OK or routine, but instead talk about that which is a concern or problem. For example, “Pete, your custard shop is a mainstream USA business model and there are no unique accounting wrinkles, so I’m not going to take up any of our time discussing the everyday tax and compliance requirements unless you have specific questions. However, I have some concern that your franchise fees may have been miscalculated. I can’t be sure until we check, but I do have that concern.”

In a perfect world, I recommend you spend 20+ minutes on the what’s-important-to-the-prospect phase and 10 or less minutes on the accounting side of things.

WARNING: In the beginning, this may prove to be VERY difficult for you to do. The reason is because all of us tend to gravitate toward talking about subjects we feel confident about. Especially when we are in an unusual or stressful situation. The first few times you attempt to walk down the path I’m describing, you will be out of your comfort zone. The questions won’t come easily. You’ll feel somewhat adrift. The prospect will respond in ways you don’t expect. If you put together a game plan in advance for this phase of the meeting, it will fall apart. “This feels so awkward,” you’ll think to yourself, “I’ve got to get back to safe ground.”

You may feel yourself being pulled quite strongly to abandon this new, somewhat uncomfortable behavior and instead default to that which you know best. And what you know best, of course, is to talk about accounting. Don’t do it. It doesn’t add value. It takes you away from where you want to be because the client will perceive you as just another accountant and when that happens the choice will be made based upon price and personality.

We’ve all been in that awkward spot, so let me make a suggestion. In the beginning, make the commitment to yourself you will discover at least one motivation the prospect has. Pete’s response to your very first question in the example above should provide a good beginning. Give yourself permission to only get one. As you begin to discuss the accounting services you propose to provide and the cost thereof, weave that one need, want or priority into the why-I-think-this-is-the-best course rationale of your proposal.

If you pick up more issues, that’s great. But don’t beat your self up in the beginning if you get fewer. In later interviews challenge yourself to discover more.

Learning how to become competent asking questions that reveal people’s personal wants, needs, motivations and the rest will not be the easiest thing you’ve ever done, but even if you do it poorly in the beginning, it will still give you better results than you’ve had to date. At least that’s the experience I’ve had with my clients. So, tough it out. Practice. It will get better. When you are good at it you will enjoy a dramatic improvement in the percentage of interviews that become engagements.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Differentiate Your Services From Your Competition

You’ve just sat down with the prospective client and don’t have any substantive information about them. Perhaps you received a bit of insight from the friend who referred you, but that’s it. They have a business. That’s self-evident. As you walked through the lobby and into the conference room, you probably formed some impressions. But, that’s not much. So, how do you proceed?

Remember, the idea is to broach the conversation so it goes down a path that leads to you understanding the prospect’s needs, wants, fears, desires, etc. If you know these things it empowers you to develop solutions that transcend the prospect’s need for basic accounting services. Proposing accounting solutions that improve the prospect’s life is what differentiates you from your competition.

Even with virtually no information, you could open the conversation with, “Al, I think everyone in town is familiar with your awning manufacturing business. Heck, I’ve been driving by your plant for so many years it feels familiar even though we’d never met until just now. Light manufacturing is a mainstream business model and your accounting issues should be reasonably straightforward. And that is a good thing because it keeps costs down. But, to help me focus in on what aspects of your circumstances have the potential to really impact your financial picture, could you give me a sense of where you are and where you are going with your business?”

That’s a pretty neutral, business-like opening statement and request, but it does have the right elements noted in the prior post. It will prompt Al to discuss what really matters to him, and an understanding of that will give you the knowledge to fashion your proposal for services in a highly effective way.

The goal in these examples is to open the door to a discussion that includes the prospect’s personal interests, values, motivations, needs & wants. If you discover the financial concern closest to his heart is how he’s going to afford sending his three early teen daughters to college, then your strategy becomes immediately apparent. In the final ten minutes of your meeting you will offer your proposal to do his accounting work NOT by saying, “Al, after looking over last year’s returns and statements, we can do your quarterly returns and annual business return, as well as a quarterly P&L and balance sheet, plus your personal joint return for approximately $7500. How does that sound?”

Al probably thinks it sounds like an accountant giving him an estimate for his accounting work. In the absence of a more enlightened proposal from someone else, he’ll sign an engagement with the firm that has a combination of low price and people he feels OK talking with.

But, you don’t want Al to make his decision based upon price and who has the brightest smile. Instead, you could say something like this: “Al, CPAs have the benefit of being involved with hundreds of people’s financial situations each year. More than just preparing tax returns and financial statements, we learn from our clients what strategies work well and those that don’t. I believe our highest and best use is to help our clients implement these strategies so they can reach their personal goals. Your desire to have the resources to send Karen, Lillie and Manda to college is a goal I believe you can reach. You have five years before the money has to be in place. What I propose is to create a series of incremental financial goals that we will shoot for. We’ll approach each year with a planning session, refine your strategies, establish intermediate goals, track those goals as the year progresses and adjust your business and investment strategies as circumstances suggest. We’ll set up a schedule to communicate and make sure everything is on track. Obviously, as part of that we’ll also do the required annual and quarterly business returns, prepare financial statements and handle your personal return. I think what we are talking about will run about $9000 or maybe $10000 annually, and my first suggestion is that we begin with a $750 per month retainer to even out the cash flow. We can adjust once we get some experience. If this is the direction you want to go, I think our first order of business is to schedule a planning session to determine an overall goal structure and discuss the strategies that will make it happen. Does this solution make sense to you?”

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Starting The Meeting The Right Way

Before we plunge into identifying the winning strategies to structure your conversation with the prospect, I want to take a moment to look at a piece of data that has an overarching impact on your probabilities of obtaining the engagement.

An extensive empirical study of sales behaviors undertaken in the ‘80s revealed that the highest percentage of successful outcomes occurred when the participants related and interacted in an even, consistent manner during the meeting from beginning to end. To explain: the salesperson actively took steps to put the prospect at ease, smoothly transitioned from introductory conversation to business, ensured the subsequent discussion revolved around those things the prospect cared about, then connected the benefits of their product or service to those needs/wants the prospect considered important, and in the end presented a value proposition that was easy for the prospect to accept. Throughout the process all parties behaved relatively similarly (mirroring and matching again!) and exhibited outward signs of being comfortable together.

In contrast, the meetings where participants exhibited visually different styles, discussions repeatedly veered into irrelevancies, the salesperson talked too much (especially about themselves), or where the salesperson was ineffective in discovering the prospect’s motivations, simply weren’t – by a big margin - as successful. At the end, the participants never really connected and didn’t form a relationship centered upon what the prospect cared about.

The topics discussed in these blogs are presented as individual elements of this whole; each a part of a panel in a larger quilt that, when one steps back and views the entire pattern, is a fully integrated design.

We’ve previously looked at a number of topics that will positively influence the meeting, so let’s actually get to it. Introductions have been made, preliminary niceties completed, coffee has been offered, everyone is seated, and now somebody has to start talking. How do you open a meeting? In other words, what can you say that creates the desired framework for the upcoming discussion?

I recommend that you begin with something like this: “Al, we’ve had the opportunity to examine the financial data you sent over last week, and are prepared to discuss it in considerable detail, but it will be helpful if we have a better understanding of the big picture so the numbers can be discussed in context. Could you please give me/us an overview of where you are with the business and a general picture of the direction you wish to take it?”

The reason you ask a question like this is because most reasonably experienced accountants can competently discuss the numbers. That includes most of your competitors. And, remember from a prior post, the prospect goes into the meeting believing you know how to properly prepare their taxes, etc. While you might obtain the engagement by eloquently discussing the mechanics of how you propose to handle their accounting and what it will cost them, it is a very risky roll of the dice. The problem is that this strategy makes your presentation just another “me-too.” What have you said that makes them want to select you?

Instead, you are seeking an advantage; a differentiator that separates you from the pack, one that connects you with the prospect and makes you the obvious choice. You do this by learning what their motivations, wants and needs are. Their accounting issues are secondary – you have the knowledge to talk about those practically extemporaneously (and if there was anything in your preparation to suggest a subject you needed to know more about, e.g. qualifying for the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion, then you’ve read up on that subject(s). By asking about “overview,” “general picture” and “direction you wish to take it?” you are prompting the prospect to reveal something of them self. This is crucial because it empowers you to propose solutions that transcend the mechanical tasks of tax calculation and compliance.

But, what if you haven’t received any preliminary financial data? What if you are coming into the meeting more or less cold? Today, that just shouldn’t happen. Do your homework. Information is everywhere. The internet, local news articles, talk with people you know who know them, drive by and look at the place, talk to their customers/clients, public records, D&B, etc. Impress them with your resourcefulness.

You simply MUST avoid saying, in effect, “I really don’t know anything about you or your business. Please tell me about you and your company.” Ouch! What can this possibly say about you that is positive? You’ve made it very easy for a competitor who has done a bit of research to look like the winner.

Next week we’ll look at how you can effectively deal with the “cold” meeting situation.