Monday, September 28, 2009

Learning & Teaching Business Development – Part 1: Learning

When I became a Senior Consultant with a California business consulting firm in 1996 I gravitated to working with professional service firms and quickly realized that most engineers, accountants, surveyors, attorneys, etc. weren’t very good at securing the most desirable prospects as clients. This is a problem, because if an accountant wants a great practice they have to become a great business developer.

A root cause of the problem appeared to be that while there was a lot of business development/sales how-to information available (Borders, Amazon, etc.), it wasn’t sufficiently focused to be of value to most accountants.

A second impediment is that “Mainstream” marketing techniques simply don’t reach the most desirable prospects; these sophisticated clients instead find professional service providers by referral or personal assessment, e.g. hearing someone at a CE session, reading an article they authored, etc. So, how do you reach out to these people?

To compound the problem, virtually nowhere could a practitioner find a credible guide for what to actually do and say to convert your all-to-rare premium prospect into a client. (NOTE: There was often lots of input from more senior members of the firm, but only rarely could their suggestions be translated into actionable behaviors my more junior accountants. That’s what next week’s post is about.) Where do you learn how to conduct an effective business development meeting once you’ve arranged to get together with them?

There are answers to the foregoing challenges, and that’s what this blog has been about since its inception.

With time, as I worked with accountants in diverse settings ranging from individual practitioners to KPMG practice groups, successful behaviors and techniques began to emerge.

Expanding upon, and further refining those, and blending in a light version of the most highly developed sales behaviors employed by American corporations, a very effective method took shape. With a bit of additional tweaking, the skills proved to work with virtually everyone who learned and practiced the method.

This post is about learning, so we’ll begin by asking the question, “How do you improve your business development skills?”

Most accountants begin the process by observing more senior practitioners. Learning with one-on-one instruction from someone who has a strong business development track record converting prospects into accounting clients is – in theory – the best way to learn, but only if that person can teach you how to succeed using your own interpersonal style.

Why is that? Because if the process doesn’t feel psychologically comfortable to you, the reality is you won’t do it. Or, you will do it for a while but then retreat back to what you are doing now.

In the majority of the instances where I’ve been retained by a firm to help an individual accountant develop their business development capability the managing partner has told me they have essentially given up hope the subject will ever become competent. Then, when I talk with the individual to get their take on the situation, they say things like, “I just can’t do it her way,” or “Dan wants me to say things that aren’t me,” or “I don’t feel good about being that pushy.”

That’s the first big barrier to learning. You must be able to conduct your business development efforts in your own voice; your own style. Any effort you expend to do it “like Susan does it,” is eventually doomed to failure unless your and Susan’s interpersonal styles are similar.

Instead of learning from Susan, another option is obtaining formal sales instruction. SPIN selling, Sandler, Integrity and others are out there and do a fine job. But you aren’t selling a thing, you are selling a service, and you aren’t a professional salesperson. These courses are geared for people employed in full time sales roles.

The accountants I’ve spoke with said that with the time demands of servicing their clients, course relevancy and not having a steady stream of prospects to practice with, formal sales training didn’t prove to be a practical solution.

Now to the second point: Accountants are smart. They are skilled at absorbing details, examining and interpreting data. Not surprisingly, most accountants are excellent “book learners.” And this is a vital skill if what you are doing is generating accounting-related work product or explaining accounting and/or tax nuances to mystified clients. But, this capability takes a back seat when you are in business development mode.

The secret is that excellent business development relies instead upon an entirely different set of skills: empathy, listening, relating, rapport, understanding, etc.

You already have sufficient technical knowledge to address the needs of the vast majority of your prospective clients. The challenge when attempting to convert your prospect into a client is to become adept at the people skills. Too frequently you won’t understand the prospect’s real needs unless you can establish a strong rapport with them. This capability is where you clearly differentiate yourself from the other accountants you are competing with in your market area.

And here’s the thing – you can’t just read about people skills. The only way you can learn them is through practice. Over the last year and a half of this blog I’ve periodically focused on the people skills that have the most impact.

In summary, these are the two foundational keys to learning how to become a great business developer: The first is to adapt the techniques so they feel comfortable and you can be you. The second is to place your priority upon the people-oriented techniques I’ve discussed in prior posts and practice them. (Or, you can go to to get the whole process in one package.)

The next post will address the challenges of teaching business development skills.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Most Newsletters Disappoint … Here’s One That Is Easy To Do, Eagerly Read AND Gets More Clients

The typical newsletter sent out by accounting firms is not very engaging. Actually, “boring” is probably a better word.

It’s a challenge for any accounting firm newsletter to be all things to all people. The content (usually entirely generic) is selected for its relevance to the firm’s client base. But, the clients are almost always quite dissimilar. This means most of the clients reading the newsletter only care about a fraction of its contents. This is not a good formula for reaching out to, and maintaining a meaningful “conversation” with, your client base.

But, back to the point of this post … how can you leverage a newsletter to not only connect with your existing clients, but also generate new clients from a desirable pool of prospects?

Here’s an example. I invite you to think about how this strategy might work for your practice.

Karen, a local CPA, has a private practice populated with small to medium business clients. She has all her costs covered, but isn’t reaching her pretax income goals. She wants to add some more clients because the additional billing hours will result in greater utilization of her staff and a reduction of her overhead percentages. If she can do this, her profitability will disproportionately increase.

She reviews her client list and focuses upon several architects and interior design firms. She likes working with them, understands their issues, and thinks they have excellent growth potential when we come out of the current economic difficulties. She concludes she wants to add more of these clients. But, how to do it?

She decides to reach out to the prospects via a highly focused newsletter.

Her first step is to contact a number of list providers. These can range from online outfits that supply mailing lists to more sophisticated sources such as Dun & Bradstreet. My recommendation is the latter because she can also find out how many employees each prospect has in additional to the contact information, address, names of executives, etc. In a small market she may wish to send a newsletter to them all, but if she is in Chicago, Atlanta or Los Angeles she may only reach out to those with, say, 10 or more employees. She will also include her existing clients as well as members of applicable trade/industry associations on her list.

Her newsletter will be a single sheet of paper printed on both sides. You can get help from a PR, marketing or advertising firm for layout, etc., but the essence is that on the front side you decide upon a title (e.g. “Architectural & Design Firm Financial Newsletter”), and put a box over on the right side with your picture and a brief bio with contact information. In the remaining space you will create appropriate content. There are free newsletter templates available on Microsoft’s web site or you can purchase inexpensive custom templates.

Three subjects is typically a good number …. not too many; not too few. Pick one as a lead and the other two as secondary. The remaining space can accommodate approximately 800 words, and you can proportion the three topics within that total as you assess their relative importance. Begin all three with an appropriate title on the front side and continue each on the reverse.

The subject for each article should be something specifically applicable to architects and designers. What do they want to know about? Dive into CCH and other accountant data and news services such as AccountingWEB and other online sources. Is there a tax court decision that impacts this group? A change in depreciation schedules? Treatment of expenses? Something to do with asset characterization when buying/selling one of these firms? Maybe a new ruling about how independent contractors are qualified? Select things that have high impact on the owners and managers. The possibilities are endless. Oh, and by the way, you do NOT need to include a sales pitch. That isn’t necessary.

If some white space on the back needs to be filled, Karen can buy one-time-use cartoons from various sources on the web. There are tons of them for financial topics, accountants, and related topics. Or, she can put some humorous, financially-related quotes from famous people. Or? You get the idea. Just make it interesting to the reader.

Karen will load the prospect list into her (or a staffer’s) computer and then use a mail-merge program to create the mailing labels. She’ll use a nice business envelope along with good stock to print the newsletter on. By the time she gets it all done and the first issue mailed, she’ll have made a modest investment with the purchase of the list, printing, paper, postage, staff time, etc.

How often should Karen send her newsletter out? Probably every two - three months is a good compromise, but more or less often probably isn’t fatal. The most important test is making sure the content is really interesting to the readers.

Finally, Karen will update her practice’s web site to include an archive of her newsletters and also include some verbiage in her bio about how she especially enjoys working with her (many, several) architectural and design clients. She will additionally note that she is available for speaking engagements and can provide articles for related trade publications.

What is the payoff for Karen? First of all, she reaches, say, 100 highly specific prospects and gets her name in front of them. She will provide them with a periodic source of data they care about in an easy to read format. She is positioning herself as an accounting/tax expert within the architectural/designer communities and applicable organizations. She’s connecting with her existing clients and confirming to them her professional competence. She WILL be contacted by some of the prospects, especially after she’s sent out two or three issues, and she WILL get some new clients from her distribution list.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Keys To Retaining Clients – Part 2

Retaining a good client is much, much easier than finding a new one. They key to retention is charging reasonable fees, doing the work well and on time and maintaining an appropriate level of communication. The first two of those are straightforward; the third is the challenge because you are so busy. How and when can you make the time? What follows is a continuation of a list of tactics I’ve collected over the years.

— Lunch. You eat lunch every day, right? Why not occasionally invite an “A” level client to join you? Lunching with clients is the cornerstone of the practice building process used by an accountant I believe is one of the best, if not THE best, business development practitioners I’ve ever met. I explained his method in much more detail in my blog post of June 22nd titled “Learning From The Best.” You can also quickly find that post at

— Events. Is your client a baseball fan? Music? Theater? Charitable functions? Invite the client to join you at a suitable event. You’ll enjoy the event and have an opportunity to bond more closely with the client.

— Tax time. When appropriate, schedule a face-to-face meeting and go over relevant details. This meeting can morph into a mini-planning meeting or even future additive work. In any event, you will be interacting with the client, refreshing the relationship and once again getting paid for it.

— Personal notes. When you mail, say, a filing to the client for signature, also put a 3M “stickie” on the top with a short, hand written personal comment. The presence of your signature on the formal transmittal letter is not a “warm” communication. In contrast, the stickie is very personal. You might write, for example, “Notice the gross margin is improving. Good news for the bottom line,” or “We have some tickets for next month. Interested in a Giant’s game,” or “Your bank line is topping out. We should talk to them while your numbers are so good,” or “Let’s schedule a lunch. Call me.” You can’t do this every time, of course, but a couple of times a year is good.

— Have a system in place so when clients contact you someone will always get back to them quickly. What gets clients really cross-ways with professional service providers is when they get NO response, nor is there anything on the VM explaining why you aren’t being responsive, e.g. “I’ll be in Europe on vacation beginning August 3rd and back in the office September 7th. While I’m gone you can contact Jane at etc. etc.” Some accountants have a client email list and they send out a blast notice informing them of any prolonged absences from the office. You can always use call forwarding. Calls can be sent to you at another number, a staff person’s number, etc.

How many times should you be in communication with an “A” level client over the course of a year? Experience suggests a safe answer is four. So, if you, for example, meet briefly with the client in April to cover the major points in their tax return, send them a stickie three months later, have lunch three months after that and then meet for a planning session in January, you won’t have that client leave you because they didn’t feel they were getting enough attention or that you didn’t appear to value their business.

The final point is that when you are routinely engaging in qualify communication with a client the relationship is strengthened. This will naturally lead to more referrals and other good things, but it also has the effect of creating a stronger resilience should something become a problem. If there is a filing problem, an AR issue, an error in preparation, etc., resolution of the problem will be easier because the two of you are comfortable and familiar with one another. Considerable good will have been created, and this will be very helpful as you both reach for a mutually agreeable solution.