Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Sealing The Deal – Part 3

How Do You Ask For The Engagement?

Let’s assume your meeting with the prospect has included the elements we know have a positive impact upon the eventual moment when they have to decide whether or not to engage you. We’ll further assume you have arrived at the last ten or so minutes of the meeting and there are no overt signs the prospect has eliminated you from consideration. In other words, there are no apparent reasons to delay any further your attempt to sign them up as a client.

You’ve made your points, you’ve answered the questions and there’s really nothing left to say except to – somehow – ask for their business. OMG! as the kids would text; what do you actually say? The good news is that you’re not breaking a new trail here; there is a proven approach you can use.

I’ve alluded in the past to the very extensive business development/sales methodology study done on behalf of Xerox and IBM in the ‘80s. And, if you are thinking this only applies to hardware. I.e. copiers and computers, I want to emphasize that both companies sell consulting services and the results are 100% applicable to the challenge you now face. In that study, two successful behaviors rose to the top in this phase of the business development process. The first is that you make a “call to action.” The second is you obtain an “advance.” If the “call to action” is successful you won’t need the “advance.” Let’s look at these in turn.

In its most basic form, a “Call to action” in this instance means that you propose a course of action that requires the prospect to do something. The psychological rationale behind this is that if they take an affirmative action that reasonably leads them in the direction of becoming your client, there is a high probability they will eventually complete the journey.

I’ll give you a couple of examples. If you have a strong, confident interpersonal style you might simply say, “Before I can begin to work up and prepare your tax filing I’ll need you to sign an engagement letter. It defines all the terms and conditions that relate to our relationship as accountant and client. When is a good time for you next week so we can get that done?” And then you simply wait for them to respond. If they agree to your proposed course of action, you have just obtained a new client.

If that feels a bit more direct than you are comfortable with, you might instead say, e.g. “I think I’ve answered all your questions. If your decision is that you would like me to prepare your company’s returns our state’s accounting oversight department requires me to give you an engagement letter. Would you like me to go through that with you?”

Or, perhaps something a bit softer yet: “I hope I’ve answered your questions. I see we are coming up on the hour. How would you like to proceed from here?”

You’ll notice all three of these are questions that require the prospect to respond with something beside yes or no. They are essentially forced to make a decision … even if it is preliminary to actually formalizing the engagement. And it might be that they say “no” (we’ll deal with that in a future post), but at least you have a stake in the ground and you know what you are dealing with.

The point here is that you don’t want the result to be the client shaking your hand and saying, “I appreciate your coming over Glenda. Let me think about this and I’ll get back to you.” And then you say thanks, smile and walk out. Driving away, you wonder why they didn’t say yes and if they’ll ever get back to you.

The reason this is bad is because they have done nothing that gives you any confidence your efforts will pay off; nor is there any agreed upon follow up. This last scenario leads to the second of the two things you want to have happen. If you don’t get a “yes,” then you go for an “advance.”

Obtaining an advance means that the meeting ends with some agreement to take further action with the probability of moving the business development process along to a favorable conclusion. It just won’t happen now. For example, you are pitching a company that has a Controller or Senior Bookkeeper. You have a meeting with them and jump the appropriate hurdles, whereupon they say, “Well, I’m satisfied. I need to set up an appointment with the owner so the two of you can talk.”

Or, they might say, “Let me send you my paperwork for that botched exchange. Take a look and then give me your reaction. If it looks like we can re-file and the cost benefit ratio is reasonable, I’d like to do it.”

I want you to think about how you can broach the closing process. The approach should be comfortable for you personally. Don’t make it so aggressive or direct that it doesn’t feel like it fits with how you like to deal with people. Remember to include these two elements: Asking the prospect to take an affirmative step that if taken leads in the direction of forming a client – accountant relationship or, if that doesn’t happen, being prepared to obtain an advance that keeps you in the game.

As the Xerox – IBM study so forcefully made clear, if you can get neither, the odds of obtaining the engagement are very low.

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