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.

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