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.

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