Thursday, July 31, 2008

Summing Up And Positioning To Make Your Winning Pitch – Part 3

Because it is so important to effective business development, I want to revisit the overarching strategy we’re employing here. If you have something you want to sell – accounting services in this case – the question becomes how to do so with the highest probability of success?

You are not selling a physical product, but in many ways the most effective practices to sell toothpaste, trucks, computers, etc. are the same as selling professional services. If you look at a mainstream ad on television or a billboard you will not simply see a picture of the product and off to the side the size and price. Instead, the ad will attempt to portray how your life will be enhanced if you buy the product. That’s why the ‘20s-something studly man with his big smile showcasing very white teeth is flanked by a gorgeous ‘20s-something escapee from the pages of Playboy while nearby a tube of Colgate toothpaste is prominently featured. The ad is selling boy-are-you-going-to-be-good-looking-and-attract-the-babes, it is not selling toothpaste. In other words, the product will improve your life. Madison Avenue has it right – decades of feedback from millions of ads has empirically proven the effectiveness of this approach.

This is why you don’t go into a meeting with a prospective client armed with a story about what you do, ready to explain why you are better than those other providers of your service and to defend your fees. The only way this works is if your competitors all take the same approach. And then what happens is the prospect will select the individual(s) they feel OK with that has the lowest fees. This is a terrible way to sell your services!

Instead, you want to sell your ability to help them achieve greater success in life. Rather than the (relatively ineffective) approach described at the beginning of the prior paragraph you will primarily focus upon the prospect, their financial circumstances and the connection of those circumstances to where they want to be in their life … a much more effective approach. After you acquire that knowledge, THEN you talk about your services, but framing them within the context of how those services help them get where they want to go.

I’ve suggested in prior posts that you might open the discussion up with a statement & question such as, “I’ve had the opportunity to review the financial documents you sent over and saw no surprises. You have a mainstream business with mainstream financial and tax challenges, and we/I am very experienced and comfortable with all the issues. So I can put our discussion in context, can you give me an overview of where you are with your business and where you want to be in, say, two years?”

If the person doesn’t have a business, you might say something like, “Bob, I’ve looked at your tax returns from last year and everything appears to be very straightforward. You and Rosa have about 25 years between now and when you probably will want to retire. So I can discuss how our/my services can be of the most value to you both, could you please give me an overview of where you currently are financially versus where you’d like to be and also project into the future a few years and describe where you want to be?

In both examples above you are seeking an understanding of where they are and where they want to be in their life.

As they respond, gently steer them so they stay on course. Ask questions as necessary so you obtain a fairly clear picture of what they perceive to be important (remember: perception is their reality) and what future goals have the highest priority.

Take notes. Write down their priorities and use some sort of a code to underscore those that appear to be the most important – perhaps a small star off to the side or simply an underline.

With about 10 – 15 minutes remaining in the hour you have to make your case for why the prospect should choose you. Glance at the issues you’ve written down. The one that has the highest apparent priority is the one you address first. Your initial statements incorporate this priority, e.g. “Helen, the number one thing you are trying to do is expand your hairdressing salon, and finding the funds is proving to be difficult. Naturally, our services include filing tax returns and other routine state and Federal requirements, but where I think we can really add value is helping you navigate through your current financial challenge, etc. etc.” You go on to propose some planning; some analysis of her costs to look for ways the salon can increase its margins, doing some projections with an expanded operation, etc. With each issue you have identified you weave your services with solving one of Helen’s problems or taking her where she wants to be.

As she listens, Helen will see you as someone who helps her get where she wants to go in life, not as someone to just do her tax returns, etc. When she reaches that point, you will win the engagement unless a competitor is even cleverer at this process than you are. But you’re going to get so good at this that that will never happen, right?

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Summing Up And Positioning To Make Your Winning Pitch – Part 2

The summarization process I talked about in the last post doesn’t sound all that difficult or complicated as you read the words, but the first few times you try to translate that into action while you are having a real time, face-to-face discussion with a prospective client will prove surprisingly difficult for most people.

Here’s what almost invariably happens when you are trying to learn these techniques: You will do your research on the prospect; possibly receive and analyze some basic P&L and balance sheet information, and make preliminary decisions about lines of inquiry and discussion for the upcoming meeting.

You show up well prepared and on time. You remember to do a couple of the proven behaviors that will help the prospect relax and open up. Once they are settled you ask the “tell me about your business and where you want to go with it” question and sit back. You’re poised with your pen to record key elements of the prospect’s succinct and on-point answer.

They respond: “Well, the business is doing OK, I guess. It’s summer, so Elke is there working the office and because she’s in college she’s becoming more independent and I’m starting to get the evil eye from Kay. Ann says its only for three months, and just work with it. I mean, Kay’s been around for years and I’ve talked with her. She knows its only temporary, but I think that’s why I had trouble with Bob and that kind of led to you being here. So the bottom line is that it’s OK and who knows what the future will bring, but I’m optimistic. I just don’t want Elke to be the only one who makes out, so a lot of what I care about is making sure Anna has the same opportunity.”

To say the least, this was not what you expected to hear. And, because you are new to the process your brain has suddenly switched to overload; eyes have glazed over, and you don’t have a clue what to write down or, now that you think about it, a clue to what they just said (I promise you that with some experience this isn’t a problem). You don’t want to interrupt, but you don’t want their rambling stream-of-consciousness to continue. You make a few tentative attempts to focus in on what you want to discuss, but the prospect keeps straying off the reservation. Time seems to be passing more quickly than possible, more and more it feels like you are out of control and so at some point you toss out the entire plan and instead revert to whatever it is you’ve always done because it at least feels natural and comes easily to mind.

The disconnect between intellectual understanding and doing can be wide and deep. You can have a complete, sophisticated understanding of aerodynamics and how the controls of an airplane work, but hopping in and being able to fly competently is quite another thing. If you read a book on skiing or ice skating would that adequately prepare you to go to the ski slope or ice rink and instantly excel? It is the same thing with business development. Like skiing, you are going to have to fall down a few times before becoming competent (actually, the client will never find fault because if you can effectively employ even one of the techniques we’ve covered to this point you will be that much ahead of the majority of other accountants he’s ever dealt with). Don’t expect to be a whiz at interviewing prospective clients until you have skinned your knees a few times. Learning new behaviors is difficult for everyone.

A novice skier would start out on the bunny hill, and so I suggest you do the same. In other words, you might set a goal on your first attempt to use these techniques to a) prepare properly for the meeting, b) remember to do at least two of the four recommended behaviors calculated to put the prospect at ease and help them feel that you are someone they could work with and, c) discover at least one primary reason they want to switch accountants or one thing they consider important in their life that is related to their finances.

Then, in subsequent client engagement opportunities you work up to remembering all four behaviors and at least two important things. Keep gradually raising the bar. After six, eight or ten prospect meetings your awkwardness will morph into confidence and you will enjoy an uncommonly high closing rate.

Next week we’ll assume you have been successful capturing at least one important thing during the meeting and I’m going to walk through summation strategies in some detail as you position yourself for the moment when you ask for the engagement.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Summing Up And Positioning To Make Your Winning Pitch

You’ve gained the prospect’s trust and spent the last 40 minutes talking about her (let’s call her Sarah) accounting/tax issues and successfully connected these to her life priorities, goals, wants and needs. You feel you have a decent handle on both aspects and you’re down to 20 minutes left in the hour meeting.

Ultimately, of course, your goal for the meeting is to walk out with the engagement. How do you transition from the knowledge you have gained in the prior 40 minutes to the point where Sarah says she wants you to provide her future accounting services?

It begins with remembering what she said. It sounds really basic, but I strongly encourage you to take some notes during what I call the discovery phase of the meeting. It is crucial you remember and prioritize the key elements of what you learn. She will be telling you many things; numerous subjects will be touched upon, numbers will be flying around and it is easy to lose track. My recommendation is to have a clipboard or similar with a standard, lined pad affixed by the pressure clip and simply put it across you knee and take notes.

Won’t it look strange if I sit there and take notes? No, it won’t if you do it reasonably unobtrusively so it doesn’t break the flow of the conversation. At a gut level Sarah will be favorably impressed that you care enough, and are organized enough, to make sure you don’t miss any of the important facts. If she is concerned about paying for the new van she needs for her business, you can simply write: “van – how pay?” You won’t need much detail to keep it in mind until you make your summary.

What is it you want to make sure you don’t forget? Anything she perceives is an accounting-related problem is one thing, e.g. “My (former) accountant and I had communication problems regarding what data he needed from me. Then it became a last minute thing and we’d need an extension. I hate filing things late.” Another is anything that she says is important to her personal future, e.g. “I’m getting burned out; I really want to walk away from this somehow and have fun with my husband before it’s too late.”

OK, but why remember these particular things? Because in the final 10 – 15 minute you are going to blend these into your proposal to provide Sarah’s accounting services. Regarding the examples above, you might say: “Sarah, you said more accurate communication and on time filing is important. Because I’ve worked with so many smaller businesses, I think I have a good idea of how some of the most efficient companies collect and record raw financial data and bring the data into their bookkeeping system. I am confident we can find some areas where we can simplify and/or automate some of these functions for you. We can also ensure the data you collect will match what we need to work up and complete your filings. This should have the effect of lessening your overall work load and also help remove at least one of the elements that have contributed to the sense of impending burn out that you mentioned.”

In the same vein, a follow on statement might be, “You also said you want to carve out more time to be with your husband. I know from many of my clients that running a successful small business can be incredibly stressful and time consuming. It sounds like this might be a good time to set a goal to begin cutting back, or perhaps even retiring early. I believe you will have the highest probability of achieving this if you take a comprehensive and long range approach to planning your financial future. An important component of this is to begin now to align your short terms business plans and decisions with long term goals. In my experience, I believe the most effective way to do this is to establish a set of milestones annually. They should be reviewed – and possibly adjusted - at regular intervals; typically every four or six months. I help a number of clients align their financial and business goals to support longer range life plans for retirement and a host of other goals. I would be happy to provide the same service for you.”

In the two preceding paragraphs you are essentially pitching Sarah to engage you to help her modernize and streamline her internal financial processes and help her accomplish some long term financial planning for her business. You will also, obviously, mention preparation of tax returns, quarterly compliance and P&L/balance sheets.

What separates you from other accountants is that you connected these accounting service functions with what matters to her. She heard you illustrate how your accounting skills can help her achieve her personal priorities. She has an understanding of how what you’re proposing connects to her future success. She feels you are tuned into her needs.

This is so much more powerful when compared to your competitor saying something like, “Sarah, I know you want to hear about what we have to offer for accounting services. To summarize, I and the staff at Drizzle, Fogg and Snow have the capability and experience to prepare your quarterly, blah, blah, personal tax returns, blah, blah done accurately and on time. We provide similar services for many fine companies throughout the tri-counties region and believe we are among the best accounting firms in this area. In fact, this might be a good time for you to take a look at our brochure. It outlines all the client services we perform.” (he reaches down into his briefcase … she looks at wall clock)

Next post we will continue our march to the moment of truth every business development effort inexorably leads to: she either says “yes” or she says “no.” It always comes down to that moment. You either walk out to your car as a hero or you withdraw from the field of battle bloodied but hopefully unbroken. Let’s make sure it’s the former.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Isn't That Question A Bit Personal?

I received some feedback from readers expressing reservations about asking questions concerning aspects of the prospect’s personal life. Won’t it create resistance and possibly cause them to shut down if the accountant asks personal questions along the lines I’ve suggested in the prior two posts?

There is no doubt (and I’ll bet you and I are exactly the same in this regard) that I can be offended when a stranger asks me personal questions out of the blue. I distinctly recall once going to a Chevrolet dealer in Sacramento, California. I was thinking about buying a used pickup. After wandering around and kicking a few tires, my solitude was predictably broken by the approach of a salesman. He was a walking cliché (overly tight sharkskin pants, shirt decorated with what appeared to be part of his breakfast, endangered species cowboy boots and a toothpick hanging out of one corner of his mouth). After we exchanged names the very first thing out of his mouth was, “So, how much do you make?” Stunned into silence by this display of cutting edge sales technique, I was a bit slow on the uptake. In fact, my mouth may have dropped open. As I struggled to formulate a reply that would be acceptable in polite company, he helpfully added, “I need this information so I can calculate how big a payment you can afford.” I recall thinking “Gee, that makes me feel a lot better.“ I didn’t buy a car there.

There are at least three reasons why this won’t happen to you. To explain: From the very beginning when you walked into their office you have deliberately behaved in a manner calculated to impress the prospect that you are a friendly, respectful, humanistic, pleasant, organized person who cares about them. Is this manipulative? Well, perhaps there is a good argument that it is, but it has nothing to do with trying to get someone to do something they don’t want to do. Instead, the goal is only to put you and the prospect on the same wavelength.

From the moment you meet the prospect you are following a comprehensive approach where all the elements relate to, and are dependent upon, each other. The process is designed to initially accomplish three specific things. The first is to get the prospect to feel comfortable with you. If they do, every survey I’ve ever seen says that they are far more likely to engage you for personal services. The contrary is true: if they don’t’ feel comfortable with you, they will almost never engage you for personal services if another reasonably acceptable choice is available. The second is to establish a working, conversational rapport. This is accomplished by a blend of what you say and how you act (mirroring and matching). If you and the prospect are in sync, the connection between the two of you will be greatly enhanced. This directly leads to the prospect concluding that you are someone who “feels” OK and they can work with. The third thing is that the prospect’s acceptance of you leads to lowered levels of defensiveness which results in their willingness to answer your questions containing both financial and personal elements.

Remember, the differentiator between you and your competitors is your understanding of how the prospect’s personal priorities, needs, etc. link up to their financial circumstances. It enables you to propose accounting solutions that connect with, and enhance, the prospect’s life, not just their income and net worth.

By forming this linkage, you aren’t proposing to merely maintain a sort of impersonal financial score card for the client, you are instead positioning yourself to step into the role of trusted advisor whose input is an important component of the client’s plan to realize their life’s goals and aspirations. The value the client places upon this latter relationship is head and shoulders above where a hired number cruncher will stand.

Once again, when you can make this connection, the perceived value of your services is greatly enhanced. Not only does this mean you have a much higher probability of obtaining the engagement, you can even charge more (if you aren’t already aware of this, many accountants charge one (lower) rate for compliance and routine tax work, and another (higher) rate for consulting and planning. If you aren’t doing this, give it some thought). In the future, when we discuss fees, I’ll give you some examples of this.

When you begin to conversationally tie the prospect’s life and finances together, it may feel better if you start slowly. For example, asking about funding the children’s college is a much “gentler” way to broach the connection than asking how much retirement income they think they’ll need.

That very first question after you sat down together remains a key to setting the table for this part of your discussion. Their response to your question, e.g., “Before we get into the details, it would be helpful for me to be able to put things in context. Could you could give me an overview of where you are with your business and where you’d like to be, say, five years from now?” is really a key component in the interview because it should provide a good starting point to assess how and when to initiate the personal connection.

Take the plunge. Start slowly. You’ll see that it works. In short order you’ll find that it not only helps your business (higher fees, greater client loyalty, better quality referrals, etc.), it also provides real value for the client because ultimately they get superior advice.