Saturday, January 31, 2009

Business Development Case Study #2 - Part 2

In Part 1 we identified Fiona’s Flowers as a prospective client. Using a very direct approach to the owner, Fiona, was illustrated first. By “direct” I mean that you clearly stated to her what you had in mind – a desire to provide Fiona’s accounting services in the future – and then waited to see what her response would be.

I emphasized that while your approach was direct, it was also polite, respectful, complimentary of her and her business and broached when it didn’t interfere with something she needed to get done right that second. You didn’t demand she do anything, only that she be aware you wished to compete for her business.

There’s a lot to be said about a really direct approach that is done in this manner. It gets right to the point. Fiona knows exactly what the deal is and the decision she is being asked to consider. You will know immediately what her reaction is and if it is a firm “no,” you can get onto thinking about other prospects and not wasting time wondering about how you’re doing with Fiona. You’ll also know right away if it is, “Yes, I’d like to talk with you about that.” or “Maybe after year end. Let’s talk then.” or “Probably not, but I’ve never really thought about it. Maybe I should.”

Everything considered, I recommend the direct approach if you can find a way to be comfortable with the relative brashness of it. It is a lot like crossing the ballroom and asking that stranger to dance. Or approaching that person you see periodically and asking if they would be interested in getting a cup of coffee/tea/ adult beverage and getting to know each other a bit better.

An indirect approach has the downside that it may not be enough to get the discussion away from – in this instance – a storekeeper & customer relationship and instead into the potential of an accountant & client relationship. In other words, you can be so indirect that you don’t ever get there. The analogy is that while you’re considering asking them to dance somebody beats you to it. For the rest of the evening you watch them dance and then they leave together. Shoot, I hate it when that happens.

So I offered a subterfuge as one way to be indirect and also get the subject matter in the right place. “Subterfuge” may be too soft a word for what some may regard as an outright prevarication, but I’ll leave that debate up to the eye of the beholder.

The point of all the foregoing is to set the foundation for a) ensuring the prospect finds you to be pleasant and agreeable to be with and, b) establishing your credentials as a proactive and uncommonly capable accounting professional.

Where you want to be at the end of the first phase … I’ll call it the Introductory Phase, is to have a casual and pleasant relationship with the prospect and they are aware you are a local accountant. When you see them they wave, take a minute to say hello and pleasantries are exchanged.

So now we move to b) above, that of ”establishing your credentials as a proactive and uncommonly capable accounting professional.” How are you going to do this? You will accomplish it by doing one or more apparently spur-of-the-moment things for the prospect. It may take some time on line or pouring through CCH materials, but you’ll find it. A benefit of accounting is that the controlling Federal, State and local laws, statutes, regs and various court decisions are a gold mine for the sort of thing I’m talking about.

In Fiona’s case it could be something like this: You stop in to buy some flowers for the receptionist’s birthday. You hang around until Fiona has a moment. You say, “Hi Fiona. I just have a second and you look busy too, but take a look at this summary of a tax court decision affecting how you have to account for spoilage to support it as a business expense. It may lead to some new regulations in that area and could affect you. Just a heads up so you’ll be on top of it. Great seeing you. I’ve got to get back to the office with these flowers.” Don’t make a fuss about it. Just be pleasant and matter of fact. Don’t stand there and wait for her to react except to acknowledge it and (probably) say thanks. Then say a pleasant goodbye. Or change the subject to asking why your African violets keep dying, or? The point is you don’t want her to get the idea you are expecting something back in exchange for your initiative.

She stands there and watches you walk out. No accountant has ever done anything like that for her before. She glances at the copy you’ve given her and places it carefully in her pocket. She briefly wonders if Barry, her present accountant over at Snow & Slush, knows anything about this. And, of course he doesn’t because, after all, why would he? You deliberately ferreted this out for Fiona and made sure it was fresh, topical and relevant to her. About every four to six months you can pull something like this off.

What if she saw you in the store sometime in the future and asked you straight out why you had brought this information to her? In this instance you really can’t be indirect. She’s putting it to you and you have to step up. You might say, “Well, I’ve always been impressed with your shop, Fiona. And I confess I would very much like to work with you (or, I’d still like to compete for your business). It must be in my mind because when I come across something that appears to have a potential impact on the financial circumstances surrounding your operation it has just sort of jumped out at me. Just like it does with my clients.”

A client of mine on the golf course once overheard an acquaintance he slightly knew in the foursome say that he was getting ready to sign a new lease for his wholesale distribution business. My client said, “Oh, are you locating to the new Enterprise Zone?” The guy didn’t know what he was talking about, but listened with great interest to the explanation. The guy’s accountant hadn’t said a word about that option and the potential advantages it offered, so it was never considered. The guy phoned my client the next day with a request he calculate some projections comparing the two. One thing led to another. The guy didn’t sign the lease; he moved instead into the Enterprise Zone and switched over to my client for future accounting services.

Once the prospect is acquainted with you and has formed the opinion that you are a pleasant, bright and professional person, then it is up to you to come up with some initiatives like the foregoing to set yourself apart from your competition. None of them do this stuff. You’ll stand out more than you realize.

None of this takes much time. We’re talking about maybe a half hour a month on average per prospect. You can have ten of these going at any one time. I promise you a fair percentage will ripen into client relationships. At least a third if not more. Be persistent. Stick with it. It works.

Getting More Business – Quickly

Jan, a CPA in Atlanta, sent me an email with an interesting question. She said that her growing practice is in the “tweener” size where she is in need to increase her staff but doesn’t really have the revenue to support a new person. She asked if there was a way to find clients quickly, even they aren’t optimum, to ensure there is cash flow to support the increased overhead?

There are some tactics that can give you the desired result. Let’s look at a few.

The first step is to decide who populates your target audience. Who do you want to reach? Obviously, Jan in the large metropolitan area of Atlanta will select a target audience that is more narrowly defined (e.g. retail businesses on the west side with revenues of less than $3MM) than an accountant practicing in Bismarck, North Dakota (all businesses in the trading area with revenues of less than $3MM).

With the target audience now in mind, the first tactic to explore is if you wish to aggressively engage in short lead-time mass marketing. By “mass” I mean shooting promotional material out to your target audience in your trading area. What media reaches those you wish to reach in your area? You might use post cards, letters, radio spots, flyers, handouts and a host of other “standard” marketing methods. In larger trading areas there are marketing consultants who will be more than happy to give you ideas with the hope you will engage them. If this option isn’t available, you can still head over to Borders or peruse Amazon’s offerings to find some good books on the marketing options you have. What promotional messages do you receive from other businesses? How are they conveyed? Would a version of any of these effectively reach your targeted audience? And remember, you can always try putting a toe in the water first and see what happens. Analyze your results, tweak things, and try another test group. Once you have it optimized, then it’s time to risk your advertising budget.

Once you get past these third party, i.e. indirect, business development efforts the question becomes what can you do individually to make something happen quickly?

A very effective method is to simply ask for more business. First of all, let’s be very clear about how we are going to go about this. We are NOT going to ask from weakness (“Gee, costs are up and I’m running short on cash. Can we maybe do some planning or something and you pay me 50% in advance?”). We are NOT going to be a victim (“This economy is rough. A lot of my clients are starting to use do-it-yourself tax software. I really need some income. Is there something I can do for you?”). Why not adopt this tone? Wouldn’t it generate sympathy and they’d be more apt to help you? Absolutely NOT! Why? Because your clients want their accountant to be a winner – a professional who is busy and prosperous because others in the community also believe in them. Nobody wants to deal with a professional who is only marginally successful, if at all. We are NOT going to give them that impression.

Secondly, we are NOT going to reduce prices or offer discounts. First of all, it suggests weakness (see the preceding paragraph) and secondly, you will find it difficult to raise prices in the more prosperous future and, based upon a ton of marketing research relating to promoting professional services, more often than not it won’t have the desired result of obtaining more meaningful revenue in the near term while at the same time solidifying your reputation as the low cost provider. This is a double bad.

Instead, we are going to go about this from a position of strength.

My first suggestion is to look at your clients and select those that have more complex financial pictures. If you aren’t doing planning or project work for them, you should be. When you discuss their 2008 taxes I recommend you suggest planning and/or project work that will have the effect of anticipating where the new administration’s tax policy will go and put some contingency plans in place. Examining and projecting capital acquisitions, hiring, bank lines, managing cash, creating/adjusting reserves (e.g. bad debt), examining benefit packages, insurance, etc. are all fair game.

My second suggestion is to tell every client you have any contact with that you are pleased to report that your practice has grown to the point where it requires expansion of staff and that you now have the bandwidth to handle a number of new clients. Would they kindly consider referring you to others who they believe could benefit from your services?

By doing this you are saying to them, in effect, a) their accountant is a winner and, b) they can help facilitate your further growth and thereby become even more of a winner if they refer you to others. Your clients like you. Many of them will respond favorably to this request. None will think badly of you.

A third suggestion is to talk with your friends at larger firms (whose overheads and rates are higher than yours) and mention two things. The first is an extension of the second suggestion wherein you will say that you have capacity to help them with any overflow they’ll have this tax season. In other words, you can do some sub-contract work for them. The second topic is to reach an understanding with them about referring business to each other. The quid pro quo is that a) you will refer clients to them that are too large and/or specialized and/or complex for you to handle if they, b) send you the clients that are too small, or too rate sensitive or don’t have the upside the larger firm is looking for.

Jan, the foregoing three ideas are hardly inclusive of all the options you have, but they are tried and proven action steps successfully undertaken by others faced with the same challenges.

Good luck.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Business Development Case Study #2- part 1

The Case Study in December was about approaching a consultant whom you briefly met when the two of you attended a seminar. When you realized you both worked out at the same gym we went through a business development sequence that would have a high probability of eventually leading to him signing up as a client.

One of the cornerstones of using a relational approach to adding new clients is the opportunity to see the prospect on a regular basis. I may only once a month, but it needs to be pretty consistent because you need a fair number of “touches” with the prospect to achieve the first prerequisite for enticing someone to become your client, which is that they come to view you as a pleasant person with whom they feel comfortable. You also need a degree of frequency of contact so the person doesn’t simply put you out of mind. Then, once that is achieved, you are going to address the challenge of positioning yourself apart from other accountants, so that you are perceived to be a cut above them because of your knowledge, professionalism, concern for your clients and the like.

In this post we will do the same things, but in a different context when compared to December’s Case Study. There, the prospect was a service provider and a member of your gym. Here, let’s make them a retailer.

Fiona owns a florist’s shop. It’s a busy place, and Fiona’s Flowers are well known for fresh flowers, interesting gifts and excellent customer service. In fact, while you don’t really know Fiona, you purchase flowers there periodically for birthdays, gifts and similar occasions. You’ve decided you want some more small business clients. Fiona and her shop crossed your mind and you are going to give it a go.

You can always take the direct approach. How might it feel to go into her shop, browse for a few minutes until she was free and get right to it. Ask yourself if you would feel comfortable with the following scenario: You introduce yourself, mention how nice her shop is and that you’ve been a customer for several years (she’ll remember) and say something like, “You’re busy, so if I may I’ll be blunt and only take a moment of your time.”

(Pause and make eye contact; make sure there are at least three feet between you and don’t directly face her; instead position your body so it is facing an imaginary spot about six inches away from either of her two shoulders. This, in effect, ameliorates any sense of pressure she may feel because you are giving her a psychological escape route.)

Continue: “You have a great operation here and a marvelous reputation. I’m a CPA and I handle the business and personal tax returns for dozens of businesses in town, but I’m sorry to say I don’t work with you. I’d be honored to have an opportunity to compete for your business.” And then you remain silent until she responds.

She may say she works with your competitors Snow & Slush. Or, she may say she uses TurboTax or similar and does it herself. She may say anything. If she doesn’t specifically respond to your last sentence, then you can ask, e.g. “My real point is that I’d like to have a chance to earn your business; to compete for it. Is that possible?”

This is very direct, but it isn’t a bridge-burning tactic. You’ve been very polite. You’ve complimented her. You’ve made it clear you value her and her business. And, you have been very clear about what you want. Now it’s up to her.

If she says, “Oh, thanks. But, I’ve been with Barry over at Snow & Slush for several years and they seem to be doing a good job. I don’t really have any reason to change,” you have to be ready with a polite response and be prepared to withdraw from the field of battle with your head held high. And you most assuredly haven’t given up the chase. You’re on her map now. She knows what you do and has no reason to think poorly of your after your conversation.

Because you shop at Fiona’s periodically you will continue to have occasion to see her. In fact, you make a point of seeing her. When you do you say hello and are polite, upbeat and friendly. You haven’t pitched her since the first time. She’s feeling no pressure. She likes you and always lights up when the two of you say hello.

But what if this direct approach isn’t you? What if you simply don’t want to do it that way? You’d prefer something less, well, blunt.

If you just make a point of saying hello and having a brief “it’s a nice day” chat each time you shop there she will place you along with a few hundred others in her “nice customer” memory box. The relationship has, if anything, been solidified into the narrow definition of customer and shopkeeper and is now difficult for you to take to a professional place unless you do something proactive to break the mold, so to speak. So, what can you do?

Here’s an example of an indirect alternative. I’ll leave it to your sensibilities if you would find this objectionable, but a good salesperson, when faced with the same circumstances, could come up with something like this (first being sure to wait until Fiona wasn’t buried with customers or otherwise distracted): “Hi Fiona. Do you have time for a quick question? (she nods yes) I’m a CPA and I have a client with a relatively new business that deals with perishables – not flowers – like yours does, and they’re having real problems with excess spoilage. I don’t think their system for buying and rotating their stock is very effective in keeping the fresh items front and center and identifying the older stock that needs to be marked down and moved out right away. As you know, I’ve shopped here for years and always admired how you present your stock. You must have a really effective system and if you have a few minutes I’d like to hear about how you do it. The information could be very helpful to my client.”

All smoke and mirrors, of course. I’ll leave it up to your imagination to come up with something better. However, you’ve flattered her by asking her advice, you’ve made certain she knows you are a CPA, and she’s learned you care about your clients and that you respect your client’s privacy by not mentioning their name. And, she knows you’ve been in her “nice customer” box for several years, so that’s another plus. All very good stuff.

With both methods you are ready to take steps to differentiate and distinguish yourself from Barry over at Snow & Slush. We’ll look at that next week.