Friday, September 10, 2010

Blog Site Change Effective September 10, 2010

Dear Reader ...
I have moved my accounting practice business development blog over to My most recent post is today, September 10th. I will no longer be posting on this site. Please look for my blog on the new address.
See you over there!
Craig Weeks

Sunday, August 22, 2010

This Really Works

Before we get into the meat of this post, let me offer a mea culpa … yes, I realize what follows will read like a commercial. I’ve actually avoided writing about this for a long time because I don’t want to come across like I’ve suddenly become Ron Popeil, hustling pocket fishing rods, Veg-O-Matic and rotisseries on TV.

But, you need to read about this because I know it really works and, no, I’m not getting a penny for writing about it.

This is a tool that not only helps your clients, it also elevates and differentiates your services from competitors AND it is a powerful means to both acquire new clients and obtain more work from existing clients.

Alas, it isn’t free, so if this posting is intriguing you’ll have to contact the source and determine if the expense vs. value is right for your practice. I can tell you about the benefits from a business development and client service/retention perspective; they’ll have to tell you how much it costs.

The products are the Snapshot (formerly ProfitCents) reports you can create from software offered by Sageworks, Inc.

Snapshot provides value for an owner/manager of a small- to medium-sized business by offering recommendations to help improve its financial performance. Snapshot analyzes the business’ financial data and generates easily understood narrative text reports. Many accountants find these reports to be very helpful when trying to explain the meaning and prospective impact of the P&L and balance sheet numbers. The reports include constantly updated comparative performance data so you and the client can see how the business is doing vs. similarly situated enterprises. If applicable, it also offers automation of the pre-audit process. For these reasons, a growing list of accounting firms (approx. 4,000 at present) subscribe to this software.

But the reason I’m writing about Snapshot today is specifically because it is a powerful – almost unsurpassed – business development tool. As noted above, it offers differentiation and elevates the value of your professional services to your clients. Beyond that, it has exceptionally potent persuasive impact upon prospects. Here are two examples of how it can be used with the owner of a small-to-medium size business:

Using Snapshot to get more work from an existing client. If you are a regular reader of this blog you have read about my “stickie” strategy. Here’s how it works if you are a Snapshot subscriber: 1) you have just completed a client’s tax filing, P&L/balance sheet, what-if cash or profitability analysis, etc. where the business’ performance has been reduced to numbers. You then, 2), enter the performance data and create a Snapshot Extreme® report for the business. 3), you compare the industry averages (these are highly localized and relevant, e.g. Architecture & Engineering firms in Southern California, so the results are apples to apples) to your client’s numbers and find one or more areas where their business falls short vis-à-vis the averages. 4), you grab a stickie and in your own handwriting (don’t type it) write, e.g. “Sharon, note where I’ve made highlights. These are below your industry’s average. I think you’re leaving money on the table. Call me and let’s talk about this. Dave” 5), the client docs, relevant section(s) of the Snapshot report are bundled together; the stickie placed on top, and the package sent off to the client. 6), a few days later the odds are overwhelming that Sharon will call you.

You then get together with her, discuss the performance gap and strategize how she can improve her results. I’ll leave it to you to suggest remedial steps, but it isn’t difficult to see how it will involve you, and this translates to billable hours. For example, you help her assemble a package that you will then use to approach her bank to press for expansion of her bank line or, perhaps, to liberalize covenants. Or, you can do an analysis to determine what the impact would be if she closed down a marginally profitable sales office in the neighboring city. Or, you can determine the impact if she changed her sales team’s compensation scheme so it had a reduced salary but larger commission component. Or, how would the numbers look if she upgraded her computer & software capability and based upon greater prospective efficiency, reduced her admin staff by one person?

Using Snapshot to convert new prospects to clients. If you have my manual or have read this blog for a while, you know that there is an imperative that you identify the prospect’s issues, concerns, needs and then provide spot-on, workable solutions. To do this you rely initially upon information the prospect gives you (ideally, that includes some current financial data) and then what comes up during the discussion. During the conversation when you are setting the appointment to meet, you say, e.g. “Pete, I have access to a proprietary database that can provide you with some really good input. If I can get your (tell them what you want) data I can prepare a report for you. It will really add value to our discussion.” They’ll almost always give you the data.

Then, when you meet, you leverage off the report to engage the prospect. You then leave the report with them at the meeting’s conclusion. It, of course, has your and your firm’s name prominently placed. They’ll read it later because, after all, it's all about their own business.

What does this process gain for you? First of all, it adds clout to your presentation. Secondly, it provides differentiation because the odds greatly favor that you will be the only one offering this benefit. Third, it empowers you to point out and focus upon areas the prospect should be talking about (they might not even know their pretax margin or debt-to-asset ratio is below average). Fourth, it gives validity to the courses of action you recommended. Taken together, this is an almost insurmountable advantage for a competing accountant to overcome.

There are other benefits and advantages I don’t have space to cover here, but as a final thought I want to point out that the use of Snapshot in the business development process gives your prospect an objective reason to pick you ... you were the most prepared, you offered solid data, you have positioned yourself a cut above any competitors, you proposed courses of action that the report agrees will be impactful, and you have demonstrated a high level of client service. Other things being reasonably equal, you will be their choice.

Here are links to check it out: Home page:
Specific information about Snapshot and other reports:

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

A Book That Will Put Money In Your Pocket

Hinge is a marketing firm in Reston, VA primarily focusing upon helping professional service firms (including those of the accounting persuasion) achieve uncommon growth and financial success.

Lee Frederiksen, Hinge’s Managing Partner, recently sent me an advance draft of their new book titled Spiraling Up: How to Create a High Growth, High Value Professional Services Firm. It is tentatively scheduled for mid-September availability.

I confess I am drawn to the book because its marketing message is so closely in sync with my own. In summary, find one or more niches and then tailor your marketing just to them. Don’t approach prospects remotely (telemarketing, email, etc.), instead focus upon personal marketing. Make sure your message is clear and that you differentiate your services from your competitors. Finally, you provide superior service and give your best clients plenty of love.

If an individual accountant or a firm follows the action steps Spiraling Up lays out there can be no result other than success.

Chapter One of the book begins with this provocative statement, “There is a group of highly successful professional services firms that grow 9X faster than their peers and are 50% more profitable. And incredibly, these firms spend less than average on marketing and sales.” The book then takes the reader through an easy to read and understand explanation of the factors shared by these über-successful firms.

While some of the book’s how-to is borrowed from what Hinge has found produces the most success for their clients, those lessons are augmented by the extensive research Hinge has conducted (in partnership with two other firms) with the goal of isolating those factors that are consistently present in these most successful firms.

When Lee and his co-author blended the lessons from Hinge’s experience with the conclusions of their research, the result became the contents of Spiraling Up.

You can download a 31 page summary of the underlying research at

I do not know the details of how the book will be distributed, but if you download the research you’ll have Hinge’s web site and can check with them in mid-to-late September.

The draft I read doesn’t talk about how you actually convert prospects to clients (that’s more my niche), but it most assuredly provides solid insight about finding high quality prospects.

Check it out. It will be well worth your effort. And, just to make sure we’re transparent here, I have no pre-existing relationship with Lee or Hinge and am not receiving any compensation whatsoever for promoting their book. I just think its contents are spot on and you need to know about it.

I’m very interested in hearing about your reaction after the book comes out. Please take a minute and shoot me an email.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

The Best Way To Meet With A Prospect

A prospect can be defined as any person who represents the opportunity for additive billable hours. This can include both present clients as well as non-clients.

If you are contemplating meeting with a prospect who is not a present client you have to decide where (and perhaps how) you will get together.

Rachel, who practices in New York, told me how she liked to set up a formal time to talk with prospects on the phone. Asked why she didn’t instead meet face-to-face, she replied that getting around was simply too difficult and took too much time out of her day.

Her strategy was to schedule the discussion in the morning, during mid-week so the Monday and Friday pressures weren’t present, and get a commitment that the prospect could talk for at least a half hour (and hopefully longer). She would send over in advance an agenda plus whatever documents she desired to refer to during the discussion. The package would also include a transmittal letter, brochure, testimonials and her business card.

So, how did Rachel’s system work? She may have saved a lot of time, but the results she obtained were poor; estimated to be about a 10% conversion rate.

As last week’s posting discusses, to convert a prospect they need to a) like or at least have a good “gut” feeling about you, b) believe you are competent and, c) become convinced that you understand their issues and can provide the needed solutions.

Since so much of interpersonal communication, both in terms of understanding and clarity, comes from non-verbal cues, Rachel was at a severe disadvantage with her telephone-only approach. She simply couldn’t establish the desired comfort level most prospects were looking for, especially if another accountant was competing for the business who did arrange to meet the prospect in person. She has now switched to face-to-face meetings and her conversion rate is greatly improved.

So that’s the first rule: meet with your prospect in person. OK, but where? There are several choices that can include your office, their office (or everyday environment), or a neutral site.

Generally speaking, the best choice is their office. I don’t have hard numbers, but anecdotally the vast majority of feedback I’ve received over the years strongly reinforces this conclusion. There are many reasons, e.g. it is their turf and they will be more comfortable, they are in an environment where they are used to making decisions, you are respecting their time demands by going to see them, you can see their operation and how they construct their surroundings, there will be real time access to necessary data (“Tom, where are we on the depreciation timetable for the crane?”), and more.

How about a neutral site? Typically, this will be a restaurant, but it could be many other settings, e.g. you decide to meet for a round of golf and talk. My distrust of these alternatives primarily stems from their potential for unanticipated distraction and/or disruption.

For example, if you go to a restaurant you may be placed next to a very loud birthday party, or it may be a table that is located too close to other diners. Or, the table is simply too small. In the golf example, your prospect may be quite competitive and even if they “win” the match, perhaps they will be furious they played very poorly that day. Talking business is the last thing on their mind. Also, depending upon the setting, you may discover it is daunting if not impossible to work with files, forms, notepads and other tools of the trade.

What if the prospect is an existing client and you wish to acquire additive work from them? The rules are similar, but not exactly the same. Again, the first choice is to personally visit them in their environment. A strong additional reason for this is retention … they’re already a client and every survey ever conducted among clients reinforces the value they place upon the personal attention you give them. And, just like when you are speaking with a new prospect, you will have a superior level of communication and that’s always good.

Because there is a strong pre-existing level of trust you generally don’t have to rely upon the same level of “proof” to make your case. For example, if you know your client is contemplating growing their business, your suggestion that she engage you to run some what-if scenarios that explore her expansion funding options will probably be “sold” on the basis of your descriptive narrative, not by carefully prepared examples of the sort of data you are talking about.

Therefore, you often have greater flexibility in how you choose to meet. A restaurant, happy hour after work, golf or even a noon time jog might do it.

That’s rule number two: meet the prospect at their office or everyday setting, especially if they are someone you don’t know. With a present client you have greater flexibility, but if you are unsure, you can’t go wrong by defaulting back to structuring the meeting as though you are meeting them for the first time.

It is all about the odds. You want the highest conversion rate possible for the limited time you have available for business development. Make the meeting in person and in their environment, embrace the methods we’ve looked at in many prior blog posts and you will make the most of your opportunities.

Monday, July 26, 2010

What Does The Prospect Want?

We know what you want from the prospect: an engagement. But, what does the prospect want? What are they looking for? What criteria will they rely upon to choose an accountant?

The answer can be distilled down to three things they are looking for. Fail at one and you have a good chance of being passed over. Meet their expectations for each and you are in the running (and may win by default). If you excel in one or more criteria and meet the others, you will almost always be the one they select.

Number One, and the easiest to satisfy, is that the prospect must feel you are competent. I say “easiest” because consumers already believe you know how to do their work. They know you have gone to college and obtained a degree in accounting; you do accounting work for others, your card says you are an accountant and you may be a CPA. Their supposition is reasonable because a vast majority of prospects have mainstream accounting challenges you deal with on an everyday basis. So, their trust in your ability to do their work is generally not misplaced. The exception is when the prospect is seeking esoteric knowledge, e.g. international tax issues, etc.

It also means you don’t have to spend ANY time telling them how wonderful you are unless you need to demonstrate knowledge in a niche such as noted above. If you have a box of those expensive full color brochures, then by all means pass them out, but do so at the end of the meeting, e.g. “Really a pleasure meeting you Pam. I’m looking forward to our follow up next Thursday. By the way, here’s a brochure about our firm. As you can see, we’re only about a mile down the road.” And then you shake hands and walk out.

Perhaps being with a larger firm and/or having a bit of gray at the temples enhances the initial perception of capability, experience, etc., but generally speaking all accountants can meet the basic requirement for apparent competence without breaking a sweat.

Number Two is the prospect needs to feel good about you on an instinctual, gut-level basis. You must “feel” like someone they are comfortable doing business with.
This criteria is a killer if the perception is negative. My last two blog posts were about how to create a good first impression and the reason I wrote them is because this is such an important requirement. Ditto the section in the manual. They don’t have to like you or, as I joke in presentations, want to double date with you, but they do need to feel good about you on an interpersonal level.

Therefore, please follow the basic rules for creating a good first impression
even if you already know the prospect. To explain … you can know someone – perhaps you see them regularly at the gym or a local civic organization – but when you are meeting them for the purpose of discussing a professional service relationship, they have a different hat on. They won’t be looking at you as their acquaintance/friend Good Old Charlie; instead they will be reassessing you through a somewhat different prism. For that reason you go through the make-a-good-first-impression sequence because, as you’ll see when you review it, it incorporates elements that enhance the perception of competence and professionalism, not just your stellar interpersonal qualities.

Number Three is addressing and solving whatever issues they really care about that are related to accounting services. You can’t address them if you don’t know what they are, and that is why there is so much emphasis in the methodology on the how-to of identifying the key issues, problems, wants, needs, etc.
as perceived by the prospect.

These issues will be both logical and emotional. For example, a logical issue is a cash shortage and the bank line is almost maxed out. This issue is also emotional, because the prospect may fear the consequence of the cash shortage could be failure of their business. Not all issues contain both elements, e.g. flat revenue may pose no threat to the business’ health, and the prospect simply wants to continue her history of steady growth, but she doesn’t have any particular angst about it. However, if the hours she spends at the business are becoming a problem with how much time she has available to be with her children, she may be quite stressed about the situation.

The second half of Number Three is to not only isolate the key issues, problems, etc. you must then propose solutions for them (or, a means to reach a solution). In the examples above, you can propose strategies to address the various elements that affect cash flow and retention, and offer to work with them to approach the bank to obtain more generous terms, covenants, etc. on their line. You might suggest breaking down her sources of revenue, isolating the lagging areas and then doing some what-if analyses projecting how different strategies might affect revenue growth. In the last example, you might talk about how she could hire a key manager to whom she could delegate some of her present responsibilities and then offer to do a projection re how that additional expense would impact overhead, margins/profits, etc. so she’ll have a solid basis to consider the option.

If the prospect likes/feels good about you, believes you are competent to address their accounting challenges, and sees that you understand what issues/problems they are concerned about and have reasonable, workable approaches to solve them, there is no reason why you shouldn’t get the engagement. When price is discussed, I recommend you set your rates to reflect current market place standards and don’t negotiate them down.

If they press really hard for a lower price, one strategy that consistently works is to suggest that fee reductions may be available if you can receive their raw data in a form that closely comports with your internal system. You then offer to analyze and suggest how they can package the information they send to you so that it is easier to work with and offer to pass on the savings to them. Usually, this is a good win-win compromise.

If you nail these three elements you will convert a significant majority of your prospects into clients.

Friday, July 16, 2010

You Must Create Instant Rapport With A Prospect – Part 2

The idea of Instant Rapport as I’m defining it is when you and your prospect quickly form an initial degree of positive rapport and begin communicating on a similar wavelength.

In Part 1 we looked at the first moments when you meet your prospect. In these few seconds both you and they are interpreting visual cues and forming first impressions of one another. If the prospect’s impression is negative, their desire (and ability) to fully engage and effectively communicate with you is greatly reduced.

This and the last post discuss how you can manage this phase of the meeting to greatly improve the odds the prospect’s first impression of you is in fact positive.

In the sequence that occurs after you first see each other, the next thing that happens is you will physically approach each other to shake hands and vocalize mutual greetings (e.g. “Hi Ted. It’s a pleasure to meet you.” “Thank you, Alice. Would you like some coffee before we get going?”). This gives you both the opportunity to assess posture, ease of movement, assess the other’s handshake technique (firm but not hard, never limp, hold for 2 - 3 seconds and release), study facial expressions in more detail and listen to their voice. More impressions are formed.

As you are walking to a nearby meeting room or the prospect’s office, you both have already reached your initial conclusions about each other. Unless something has truly triggered you, these conclusions are amorphous, lacking solid shape and boundary, and are subject to modification. Nothing is set in concrete yet, but the cement is hardening all the time.

You have been responding almost exclusively to visual cues and interpreting them through the prism of your life experience. Have a thing about red haired people and the prospect has red hair? You can’t help but take that into consideration when you form your first impressions.

It is important to note that at this point both of you have been operating at a reactive and emotional level. The logical side of your brain hasn’t been engaged yet in any meaningful way.

Later, as you talk and interact, your brain will kick in and may override your initial take on the prospect and determine that no, Ted isn’t one of THOSE kind of red heads, so it’s OK.

Now, back to the actual process … Walking to the place where you will have your meeting may or may not include some conversation. Just keep it neutral and light. Don’t toss out any opinions or rash statements.

When you arrive at the room where you will conduct the meeting, the first decision is where to sit. You never want to convey, however unintentionally, your desire to encroach upon the prospect’s domain or authority. If the prospect gestures or says something, indicating a chair or side of the table, then simply follow their directions.

If there is no indication, then avoid selecting the “power seat(s)” at the table. Why? Because you are in the prospect’s house and you want to defer to them. The dynamic is they are the host and you are the guest. If you do select one of those chairs the prospect may react very negatively at a gut level … perceiving your choice as the initiation of a contest or power struggle. Obviously, this is not what you are seeking to accomplish. Your goal is instead to create an environment where you have the opportunity to cultivate a potential engagement.

What chairs should you avoid? These will generally be at either head of the table or nearest the door. Instead, select a seat that is, a) on the table’s side and, b) is located on a side that is not closest to the door. These are not viewed as power locations and therefore should be safe.

You can also unintentionally signal your desire to exhibit power by scattering your things around, e.g. hanging your overcoat over the back of one chair, putting your briefcase on another and sitting on a third. By doing this you are claiming and acquiring territory. Another unintended territorial cue is to adopt a slouching, sprawling posture. By doing so you are again acquiring territory and appearing to stake your claim in unneeded real estate.

Assuming you arrive at the point where you and the prospect are now seated across from one another (by the way … if there are more attendees than just the two of you it is best if you sit so you are directly across from, and facing, the prospect’s decision maker), the next opportunity to make an important first impression is how you organize, arrange and handle your props.

By “props,” I mean your briefcase or folio and whatever documents, reference materials, notepads, pens, calculator, etc. it contains. I believe your briefcase or folio should be placed on the floor next to your chair (best) or on the seat of the chair next to you. Never put it on the table because it is not only assertive, territorial behavior, it can also distract the prospect, especially if the table is wood and you have any metal on your briefcase. If they become concerned that you may scratch the table they will hear very little of what you say.

If you will be using exhibits or other documents, have copies for the prospect (and their team), highlight important text, sequence the documents in what you believe the agenda will be, use folders with neat, printed tabs, keep pens that are certain to work handy and also have a clean note pad nearby. Why? Being organized is a trait every prospect wants to see in their accountant. If your competition isn’t, then that’s a check in your column.

Now when you begin the actual content portion of the meeting you can feel confident you have done the right things to create a positive first impression and nothing that will trigger negativity in the prospect’s mind.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

You Must Create Instant Rapport With A Prospect – Part 1

Why is quickly obtaining a connection with the prospect is so important?

It isn’t because you want them to like you. The real reason is because until rapport develops they aren’t engaged and don’t really hear what you are saying. Instead, their mind will still be wandering; little thoughts of other things they need to do pop up, doubts whether the meeting with you will be a waste of time appear, etc.

Rapport also leads to creation of other positive feelings – an obvious example is trust – but that will come later. First they need to hear what you are saying.

Once a connection is formed, they begin to listen, then become engaged in the discussion, and from that point onward you have the opportunity to persuade them. The sooner you can get them to that point, the better.

There are two phases to creation of rapport. The first one occurs in those initial seconds when you first meet with the prospect … when you both first see each other and only visual cues are processed.

Think about your own experiences. For example, you are at a party and a friend points out someone across the room. They say, “That’s Jackie. She’s the one dating Harold.” You have never met Jackie in your life … never even seen her, but based upon what she’s wearing, her age, how her hair looks, her height and weight and apparent physical condition, how she is standing, holding her drink and gesturing, you have already formed your first impression.

An hour later another friend asks, “What do you think about Jackie, Harold’s new girl fiend?” If you are like me, you’ll probably respond something like, “She looks OK,” or “I don’t know. She looks a lot classier than him. I wonder what she sees?” The point is, we’ve already formed an initial opinion, even though we’ve never even talked with Jackie and don’t know anything about her.

Why does this happen? Why don’t we reserve judgment? Why don’t we instead respond, “I really don’t know. I haven’t met her.”

It is because Jackie has, in fact, communicated with you. To explain: an equation that is frequently quoted in articles about body language is that interpersonal communication is comprised of approximately 7% of what is said, while 93% is made up of non-verbal cues. You looked at Jackie and based solely upon visual cues – many of which she deliberately selected when she decided what to wear, how to fix her hair, etc. – formed a first impression of her. And, it wasn’t just you. Everyone at the party did exactly the same thing.

This is what your prospect is processing when they first see you. As we discussed above, it is very important that they arrive at a positive first impression. The good news is you have it in your power to avoid the negative and emphasize the positive. Let’s look at some actions you can take to accentuate the positive.

Show up on time. Good heavens, does anything say, “You’re not important” more than being late? If you are going to be late, call the prospect and tell them you’re stuck on the interstate or whatever. If you give them an estimate for your arrival, say ten minutes, make sure you will arrive very closely to that estimate.

Dress appropriately and be well groomed. With males, there are four basic levels of dress. The first is blue collar – jeans, tennis/casual shoes and shirt. The second is business casual – Dockers or slacks, casual/nice shoes and a nice shirt. The next level is still business casual, but probably has a tie and a sport coat. Finally, we arrive at formal business attire, which is a suit and tie. The basic rule is to be at the prospect’s level or one above. Never below, because the prospect wants to believe he or she is choosing a winner, a professional, someone who is respected within the accounting community, and you don’t want them to find reason to question your level against that standard. Ladies, I won’t pretend to describe the feminine equivalents, but you fight this battle all the time and don’t need any wardrobe tips from me.

Have nice accessories. Short story: the production of a salesman (“Ray”) I hired many years ago fell off rapidly. We talked and everything he was doing seemed to be good, but it didn’t get any better. I scheduled a day we could spend together meeting some new opportunities. When Ray and I met that morning for breakfast, one look said it all. His elderly grandfather, a retired lawyer, had died and Ray had inherited the grandfather’s briefcase. It obviously had great sentimental value, but looked like it barely survived the apocalypse. I didn’t say anything. We went to the first meeting to meet Ned, the prospect. As Ray withdrew documents, etc., Ned’s eyes kept darting over to the briefcase. No sale. For the rest of the day I made Ray to use my briefcase. He did great. Problem solved.

The briefcase’s shabby appearance created a conflict within Ned’s mind. I suspect the fatal blow was a suspicion that Ray wasn’t successful and couldn’t afford something better. No one wants to buy from a failure. From the Ned’s perspective, he concluded that if he was unsure he wouldn’t buy.

Good posture has been validated by extensive research to identify you as someone who is credible, with something to say that is worth hearing. If you are directed to a chair, sit straight in the waiting room or lobby, face the door where you think your prospect will appear and avoid any appearance of slouching or excessive casualness. When you arise, stand tall, pull your rib cage up, flex your knees and look directly at your prospect’s eyes for at least three seconds (but no more than about five – that can be interpreted as excessive aggressiveness). Research has revealed these elements are the most impactful when a first impression is being formed.

Next post we’ll look at the moments right after the “visual only” phase of forming a first impression.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

The Most Important Business Development Skill

The business development model described and explained in the manual and also written about in this blog isn’t a simple, silver bullet solution. It isn’t daunting to anyone who has the capability to obtain an accounting degree, but nevertheless does require study and practice if your goal is to become a superior rainmaker.

But, we each learn in different ways and rarely become simultaneously adept at all the phases of any process. This means that you will get up to speed more quickly on some aspects of the method than others. And, to put it bluntly, you may simply not like certain a segment here or there and will skim over the related material. It’s human nature.

With that said, when you actually begin employing the method I doubt if you will be surprised if you find that for whatever reason(s) you are more comfortable and/or capable with some areas than others.

Now we get to the crux of this post. I’ll frame it with a question: Do you have to master every element of the method to be a superior business developer? The answer is “no.”

There is one portion of the method that is more important than the others, and if that is one of your strengths – or even your only strength – you will still obtain good results.

To explain: The process begins with identifying a prospect and obtaining a meeting. This is obviously a vital element, and in some instances may take a bit of social boldness, but it really isn’t especially difficult. It is more a matter of will. Then you do your research about the prospect, which is something every accountant can do well. Perhaps your investigation may be somewhat superficial, but if you are experienced you can probably overcome this because you’ve been there and done that so many times.

When the meeting does occur it is important to make a good first impression, but even then, if you are knowledgeable and eventually develop a good rapport with the prospect that won’t prove fatal.

Let’s skip ahead for a moment and look at the closing phase of the meeting. You have to say something to get the business, right? The method incorporates several variations of a “close” strategy, and in the manual and in this blog I’ve made the point many times that you need to have resolution … either they engage you, or they don’t or, if a decision isn’t made right then, you obtain an advance so that a decision will be made in the near term.

Surely the close is the most important phase, yes? Nope. Because if you really nail the most important element you often won’t even need a close because the prospect will begin making all the signs of wanting to be your client before the meeting is even over.

Just this one additional bit of set up and then I’ll reveal the answer. Your prospect has both an emotional and logical perception of their financial and tax situation. They want to work with an accountant who has the skills to handle their various reports, filings, etc., and also understands their needs, wants, priorities and motivations. The latter is the key.

Remember that the vast majority of clients already believe all accountants are technically competent to handle their needs (with obvious exceptions for specialized areas). Therefore, it is rare that you need to “sell” your accounting skills to a prospect because the logical side of their brain is already comfortable with your presumed capability.

You can omit segments and even make outright mistakes during the meeting and still win the client If you demonstrate you understand and can relate the services you propose to the prospect’s emotional needs.

Mastering this skill begins with asking for an overview from the client. You say, e.g. “Susan, I’ve had a chance to review some of your financials and have an initial understanding of your physical therapy practice, but it will help me focus our discussion today if you would provide me an overview of where you are and where you want to go with your business.”

Her response will initially center upon her practice, but if you listen carefully (and perhaps provide a small prod or two) she will make clear her emotional concerns. For example, if at some point she says, “Ben, who shares the practice with me, is starting to talk about retirement. I’m not to sure what that means for the future,” this is a clear indicator that she has emotional concerns and also raises other, more straightforward financial issues, e.g. can she afford to buy Ben out, does it make sense for her to stay in that facility if she practices alone, etc.

To ensure you understand Susan’s emotional anxiety you can next ask her something like, “How would you like the situation to come out … what’s the future you’d like to see?”

With her answer in mind, you will propose solutions that allow her to see the real probability of achieving the future she desires with you as her accounting professional.

When what you propose resonates with her on both practical/logical AND emotional levels, 90+ times out of a 100 you will get the engagement unless (and it’s unlikely) someone else is similarly adept at recognizing and addressing the issue(s).

Asking a well-framed “overview” question, really hearing the prospect’s answer, and then proposing solutions that exactly address their needs and concerns is the skill that will more than any other factor positively influence the prospect’s buying decision. Every other part of the business development process is secondary.

See “Obtain An Overview From The Prospect” and the following two chapters in your manual for a much more detailed exploration of this topic.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Four Elements For Business Development Success

After I’d racked up some experience training industrial salesmen back in the ‘70s, a number of truths became apparent.

The most important one I learned is that sales success required the presence of four elements.

Alan’s experience illustrates this statement. He took to the training program like a champ. He read the materials, accurately completed the exercises, listened to the tapes and did well in the role-playing. Once he was in the field he attacked his assigned territory with vigor. He visited the existing accounts and met with those who made the buying decisions. He reviewed everyone’s stock position, updated inventory, actively worked his to-do list, created schedules for follow up and generally invested a lot of energy revitalizing the customer base.

Because it is a process, not an event, it takes time for a business development campaign to bear fruit. (This is true for your efforts, too.) In his first six weeks, Alan produced a nice revenue spike within his existing customer base. This jump in revenue was the result in Alan systematically calling upon them after the prior salesperson’s relative neglect. However, a problem was becoming apparent.

In our sales management system, we would meet each week and talk about various performance metrics. One metric was the number of new accounts each salesperson brought in. Historically, a new hire would begin to generate these in the third or fourth week after being turned loose.

Alan didn’t have any. Realizing we had a developing problem, I brought him in for a day and we reviewed how things were going. When we focused in on his results, I brought his attention to the zeros in the “new customers” column. He had a lot of reasons and excuses for his lack of success, and we spent the balance of the day talking about various things he could do to turn things around. We parted with Alan vowing to improve, and the next morning he gave me a plan detailing exactly what he was going to do to succeed.

He didn’t improve (in fact he never brought even one new customer), and Alan left the company a month later. All the pieces were in place … good technique, good attitude, a territory rich in potential … but Alan failed. So, what went wrong?

There is an answer to this, and it is an answer that applies to all of us who wish to build or improve our practices. The bottom line is that as simple as it may sound, you have to actually do it to succeed! Nike has it right: Just Do It.

A proven, effective business development technique is readily available to you in the form of the manual most of you own. And, as you’ve read numerous times in this blog, you can employ these techniques in your own interpersonal style that is both more effective and gentle on your psyche. Technique isn’t the barrier, for Alan or for you.

Alan’s real limitation was that he wanted everything to be right … no mistakes, no awkward tongue-tied moments, nobody saying no and no negativity. The “perfect” circumstances he desired never arrived. The effect was that he couldn’t take the necessary steps to develop new customers.

In contrast, he felt safe with the existing clients, all of whom were pleased to see him. But he was terrified of talking to someone who might not respond positively to him. The result was that talked to none. Zero results.

Yes, business development can be messy. It involves people. It is unpredictable and, depending upon how far you want to extend yourself, can even be psychologically uncomfortable every now and then.

How does this affect you? I’m going to assume you are reading this because you want your practice to have more revenue, more margin/profit, better clients, more clients or some combination thereof. This is the first element. You have to want it. Like you, Alan had desire … he wanted a six-figure life style.

The second element is patience. You shouldn’t expect to go from zero to 60 in 2 seconds. Nobody can do that. It is going to be a few months before you see real results. Alan had this, too. He was patient … he knew it would take some time to succeed.

The third is that you have to do it. This is what killed Alan. You have to put your toe in the water, even if you step on a pebble or two, and then wade in more deeply as you gain confidence. There is absolutely no substitute for taking action.

To overcome the “Alan” barrier, I suggest you begin by talking with your existing clients about doing more work for them. In both the manual and in this blog we’ve explored several ways of going about this that are very, very easy on your internal “I-don’t-want-to-sell-used-cars-for-a-living” meter.

Once you are comfortable with the techniques related to obtaining additive revenue from your present book of business, then it is a relatively small step to wade in a bit further and begin converting prospects who are more or less strangers.

Desire, technique, patience and Just Do It. It works every time, all the time.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

How To Make The Best Of Business Development

The following interview was just published on and you may find it to be of interest...

When revenue or gross margin isn’t generating the income you need or want, your technical knowledge and the efficient workflow processes you’ve developed aren’t enough. The solution is inescapable … you need a bigger or more profitable book of business.

When the need becomes great enough, you set the client files aside and put on your business development hat. And – let’s be real here – the vast majority of you would rather have a root canal than take on the role of salesperson!

Craig Weeks claims it doesn’t have to be this way – that successful business development need not be an exercise in self-punishment.

AccountingWEB interviewed him so you can decide for yourself.

AW Is the common wisdom that accountants dislike business development really true?
CW As a general rule, professional service providers, whether they are engineers, surveyors, accountants, therapists, orthodontists, or piano teachers generally dislike self-promotion. I don’t think accountants are any more “sales shy” than the other professions.
AW Historically, most firms seem to have grown fairly passively … by having a community presence and positive word of mouth. Does that still work?
CW Yes. The problem is that there is more competition today, the pace of business is constantly accelerating and practices are finding they want to build their revenue more quickly.
AW Is traditional marketing still effective in today’s business environment?
CW If you mean sending out direct mail, placing ads in the Yellow Pages, employing telemarketing firms, putting a sign on the billboard across the street from your office and the like, the answer is yes. But, the R.O.I. is declining – mostly due to increased competition, information saturation and our current recession. Practitioners who undertake a traditional marketing campaign need a well thought out plan incorporating a budget, performance metrics and frequent monitoring of results to ensure they are getting a positive return for their investment.
AW Is there an approach that works better?
CW Yes. Personal marketing works the best, but it is dramatically different than the traditional marketing we were just talking about because it requires the accountant’s direct involvement.
AW Which gets us right back to a practitioner feeling trapped into having to do something they really don’t want to do…
CW But, it doesn’t have to be that way. It is all about personal comfort. Competent business development puts, literally, thousands (if not tens of thousands) of dollars in the accountant’s pocket. If they can find a way to do it that is “natural” for them, they’ll keep with it because the payoff is so dramatic. At one end of the scale is the person who is socially bold, who can easily change hats and become an effective salesperson for their practice. This individual will feel comfortable approaching that new member of the local service club, introducing themselves and then, as time passes, establishing and then nurturing a relationship and eventually asking their new friend for their accounting business.
AW But, that’s not the average, is it?
CW Not even close. The average accountant would, as my grandson puts it, rather eat worms. They aren’t as socially bold, so to try and act that way is extremely difficult. Even if you could fake it for a period of time, the psychological strain will eventually cause you to stop. But, what if you could be just as effective and NOT have to fake it? What if you could just be yourself? What if you could not only drive more profitable revenue to your practice but you could also acquire the business development skills to successfully entice and sign up the best, “A” level prospects?
AW That sounds pie-in-the-sky. It doesn’t just automatically happen that prospects become clients. Someone still has to persuade them to do so … to “sell” them.
CW It is true you do have to talk with the prospect. Nothing substitutes for that. But, there are easy ways to do it. You don’t have to be that rare kind of person who walks all alone across the gym floor at the high school prom and boldly asks the best looking guy/gal there to take a turn on the floor.
AW But, even if you find a way to just have a low-key conversation with your prospect, don’t you still have to close them? Ask them for the business?
CW If you are pitching something that isn’t actually needed, then yes, there has to be selling, e.g.” Your 8330 Blackberry is passé, you ought to have the new 8530 because it makes social networking even easier.” But, we’re not doing that. People NEED accounting services. They’re going to buy them from someone. At the bottom line, they’ll buy them from an accountant with three qualities, a) likeability, b) awareness of and, c) solutions for, the prospect’s needs, wants, motivations and desires. If you can establish in their minds that you have these three attributes you will get their business because it’s what they want. Of course, things can go wrong if there is poor quality work, overcharging, not returning phone calls, etc., but we’ll assume those things aren’t problems.
AW Easily said, but how does a reader of AccountingWEB learn how to do what you describe?
CW I have a blog devoted solely to accounting practice business development – it’s free – there is an archive of about 80 entries. It can be found at If I may be more mercenary, they can take a look at where I offer a comprehensive manual explaining everything.
AW Any final words for our readers?
CW The bottom line is every accountant can become a really effective business developer and rainmaker for their practice. And they can do it while remaining comfortable and true to themselves. What it takes is utilizing proven methods coupled with good techniques, both adapted so they become a natural part of their interpersonal style.

Biography: Craig Weeks is located in Vancouver, WA and since 1996 has specialized in helping clients as diverse as sole practitioners and KPMG practice groups become more effective business developers. He believes all accountants can become highly effective rainmakers while maintaining their individual interpersonal style.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Being TOO Nice Can Be A Business Development Mistake

You’ve read many times in this blog that a cornerstone of establishing rapport with your prospect is to create an environment where they quickly conclude you’re a likable person. This is important because nobody – not you, nor your prospect – wants to do business with someone they don’t have a good interpersonal feeling about.

The positive first impression you seek will be formed in 30 seconds or less at the prospect’s gut level. In other words, they’ll “feel” that you’re an OK person. Your body language, appearance, voice tone, eye contact, handshake, etc. are the building blocks forming this initial opinion.

Then, as the meeting progresses and they hear what you have to say, they will form their secondary, reason and logic-based impression. When the prospect blends these impressions together, the result becomes what they think about you and your professional competence.

Some readers have difficulty balancing these two factors and conclude the best strategy is to make darn sure they are “nice” so the prospect will like them.

But, this is NOT what the prospect wants. Think about it from their standpoint: they’re looking for two things. The first is they want a professional service provider who is pleasant to be with (or at least easy to work with). That’s the reason for the “make a positive first impression” strategy you follow when you first meet them … you want them to feel comfortable with you.

The second thing they want is an accountant who is “competent,” and I believe they define the term differently than you might. They think competent means a) you have the appropriate technical knowledge AND, b) you know how to apply it to their circumstances.

If you fulfill these two requirements (or, if there is a competition, you fulfill them better than your competitors), they’ll almost always engage you.

OK, let’s recap where we are. You’ve made a positive first impression and you are now meeting with the prospect. How do you demonstrate competence to them?

Step one is to know your stuff. You’ve talked on the phone and at least superficially discussed their situation, you’ve asked for some financials, and you’ve hit the internet and also accessed local sources to do some research about the prospect. The point is, you know what you have to know about, so you have taken the necessary steps to be appropriately informed, thereby fulfilling a) three paragraphs above. Only b) is left.

Now we arrive at the point of this blog. It is solving b) that separates the adults from the kids. You generally only have about 25 – 30 minutes in a typical one-hour meeting to figure out the prospect’s issues, needs and wants. That’s not a lot of time! Once you learn what they are, you need another 10 – 15 minutes to demonstrate you can provide the solutions.

To accomplish this, you have to stick to business. You must focus the discussion upon bringing to light what matters to the prospect and how you can scratch that itch. Here’s the danger: the prospect begins talking about their emotionally driven concerns. They’ll stray from the point, veering into irrelevancies that are important to them, but not germane to what you need to find out about.

For example, you ask about provisions for the children’s college expenses and the prospect launches into a diatribe about the one child with bad grades who doesn’t seem interested in anything but video games. You nod sympathetically. But they go on. And on. And on. You glance at your watch and the minutes are evaporating right before your eyes. Should you say something? Well, the last thing you want to do is be rude, right? You want to be nice because, after all, if you don’t exhibit compassion and understanding the meeting may turn sour. So you sit and listen, uncomfortable with the dawning realization you’ve lost control of the meeting.

Before you know it, the time is up and your prospect has another meeting they must attend. They shake your hand warmly and tell you they really enjoyed meeting with you. Two weeks later, you find out they selected someone else to do their accounting work. This shouldn’t be a surprise, because you never really satisfied b).
To demonstrate you are the right choice to provide the prospect’s accounting services, you simply MUST focus the meeting upon discovering their issues and how you can successfully address them. Easily said, but how do you do that? Of many choices, I offer two alternatives.

The first is to manage the prospect’s expectations. When you are sitting down and the initial pleasantries are behind you, you can say something like, “Julie, based upon our telephone conversation (and the financials you provided) I’ve done some preliminary analysis and we really have quite a lot to talk about in a fairly short period of time. May I have your permission to drive the agenda of our discussion today so we don’t miss anything that’s important?” She will almost always graciously say “yes.” In effect, she has given you permission to control the discussion. If it strays, you have her advance consent to make eye contact, smile, and tap your watch. 95% of the time she’ll also smile, nod and get back to the point.

The second technique is where you don’t say anything in advance, but is a variation of the first. If you get part way into the meeting and Julie goes too far down an immaterial path, you politely interrupt and convey the same message, e.g. “I apologize, but I want to make sure we have time to cover all the issues, so could we, etc., etc.”

The primary competitive differentiation you’ll enjoy at the end of every business development meeting is when you propose solutions that really meet the prospect’s needs and wants. You MUST have the time to discover what they are and that means you have to control the meeting and stay on point. Don’t let a misreading of what the prospect really wants lead you into the trap of being too “nice.”

Saturday, May 15, 2010

You Don’t Have To Fake It – You Can Be Yourself

I get one or two emails a month from accountants who have become discouraged with their business development efforts. We discuss the poor results they’ve achieved and, almost without exception, the toll it has taken on their self-confidence. Hopefully, the suggestions I offer help them get back on track.

Most of the time the root cause of the problem is that they are pursuing their business development efforts in a manner that isn’t “them.” In other words, they’re playing a role – perhaps mirroring how they believe a top-notch business developer would go about the task – instead of simply adapting the techniques we know work to their own interpersonal style.

There are a ton of studies concluding that people who are placed in circumstances that are psychologically difficult will eventually “crack” from the effort to maintain the façade.

In practical terms, the effect of this reality is that when you are undertaking business development activities you have to be yourself or it will eventually get to you. The result is you will cease (or at least greatly curtail) the activity.

I’ve asserted many times in this blog that personal marketing is the most effective means to attract the most desirable prospective clients. It is – psychologically speaking – also the most difficult because you are directly exposing yourself to the possibility of having someone reject you. Ah, but there are ways around this, so please continue reading.

It should be mentioned at the point that personal marketing in virtually all forms is less expensive when compared to so-called “traditional” mass/indirect marketing. For example, it costs nothing to approach and talk with that ideal prospective client you meet at a local civic function, but it will cost you real money to sign up for a big Yellow Pages ad, send out 5,000 postcards or rent the billboard across the street from your office for six months. And, are the people who respond to those efforts going to be the prospects you most desire? Well, it’s hit or miss, but probably not.

Now, back to ways around the psychological burden of directly targeting an individual … how do you approach them in a comfortable manner that’s “you?”

One way is being an expert. Write articles, make speeches, appear on panel discussions, be interviewed by the media, write a blog, send out a niche market- specific newsletter to carefully selected addressees, etc. Anyone can do these.

Select a narrow topic, gather the relevant regs, code sections, decisions, BNA interpretations, online discussions, seminar notes, etc. and suddenly you know more about the subject than anyone around. Examples are endless. It can be something like Enterprise Zones, the new health care or HIRE legislation, fractional ownership of larger capital items (e.g. business jets, heavy equipment), etc. Pick something that is relevant in your market area and become The Local Expert. What’s the result? There will be some of those populating your particular area of interest who will, with no further effort on your part, contact you! What a concept.

If you are a bit more socially bold, you select activities you enjoy, e.g. vintage automobiles, hang out with others so inclined and promote yourself. How? One effective way is to again do the “expert” thing. For example, you get up at your vintage car club meeting and note that there is proposed legislation that, if passed, will change how the gain from the sale of a historic automobile will be calculated beginning in the 2011 tax year (don’t panic – I just made that up). How will this be received? Well, first of all you’re one of them; not an outsider, they know and like you, you’re being altruistic and helpful, you’re demonstrating knowledge and you are establishing yourself in their minds as an accounting professional. This is still a relatively passive approach, but with time you will probably get a nibble or two or maybe a referral.

At the end of the scale – if you are really socially bold (you’re the one who walked across the gym floor, all alone, and asked the best looking guy/gal at the high school dance to take a turn on the floor) – you form relationships with other members of the club and if you decide one of them is a good prospect you simply ask them for their business. “Fred, I’ve really enjoyed hanging out and getting to know you. We’ve talked about our work and I just want to lay it out there … I have several other medical groups as clients and it’s an area of the practice I understand well. So, here it is: If the opportunity arises, I want to compete for your business. I know I’d like to work with you as a client in addition to enjoying our friendship.”

How will Fred react to this? The vast majority of the time it will be very positive. He already likes you, you’ve (hopefully) made a few comments in the past that have demonstrated your knowledge and professionalism, you’ve flattered him by telling him you want his business and his friendship, and you mentioned that you have several other similarly situated clients, which should give him further confidence in your skills. The odds are he won’t bite now, but the bait is certainly dangling right before him and everyone knows the future always brings change.

There’s so much more that can be said about how you can adapt your interpersonal style to business development, but the primary message I want to convey in this post is that you can be effective while being yourself. Most of you have the CPA Practice Builder manual and it contains lots of examples of successful adaptation strategies.

If you don’t fake it and are yourself you will be comfortable. That comfort will greatly minimize the probability you will quit. Instead, you will give yourself the time to become adept with the techniques. With good technique, your initial, small business development successes will build upon themselves and become larger successes. Do this for a few years and your good practice will become great!

Friday, May 7, 2010

When The Business Development Meeting Goes Very, Very, Wrong

A recurring mantra in my posts - and the focus of the practice manual - is how marketing and business development meetings must be focused upon determining and discussing the client's needs. This should be self-evident, but in practice things often don't work out that way. Because it is so obvious, clients will literally tell me I don't need to even mention it. But I persist, because I have seen these meetings go sour too many times. They patiently listen, as I first explain the why, and then how this can be accomplished.

So, in the real world, how does it go once the actors are in their positions and the curtain opens? Act One usually begins OK; everyone more or less sticks to the playbook. That's a good thing. To win the engagement, the team should exercise self-discipline and make sure they stick to the plan. Frequently, however, they stray. To illustrate my point, I am going to reveal an actual example - with names changed for obvious reasons - of how bad it can get without a real meeting plan, an agreed upon team leader and a solid, shared commitment to follow the plan.

My client had an appointment to pitch the firm's services to a growing manufacturer of fiberglass lawn and garden furniture. Their revenue was approx. $6MM with better than average P & L, a good cash position and low debt. They were a highly desirable account to capture within my client's relatively small market. We were about 30 minutes into the meeting when Ed, the owner, mentioned in passing he probably needed to cut down the square footage dedicated to raw material storage because they were getting more into Just In Time purchasing. He brought this up as part of a larger discussion about cost containment and the impact of excessive production square footage was having upon margins. Ed then mentioned offhand he'd recently broached the subject to his management team and they'd agreed it was worth exploring a future move to a more optimal facility.

At this moment in the proceedings my team spontaneously decided to create their version of Alice In Wonderland: Tom, who focused his practice on corporate clients and had a special interest in tax-free exchanges, processed Ed's comments in his own special way. Sensing a potential real estate transaction and an opportunity to demonstrate his knowledge, he jumped in and began to expound upon the glories of tax-free exchanges. The tax advantages, what "like-kind" meant, the mechanics, the exclusions, examples of how it had worked with other clients (Big, Important Clients, mind you!). He waxed eloquently ad nauseum, dazzling us all with his grasp of a process that had no relevance to why the prospect was interviewing my client.

One and then two minutes passed without letup. I'm could feel myself dying; life forces inexorably being sucked into the black hole that Tom was creating. Time slowed down; each tick of the wall clock became a death knell for my team's chances of obtaining the engagement. Like a slowly unfolding horror movie the prospect's body language initially evidenced confusion, then boredom and finally started to morph into impatience. I knew from experience that exasperation, or even anger, was just around the corner.

The Managing Partner was too far away to kick. I couldn't even get his eye. The entire team was oblivious to the opportunity spiraling away as Tom basked in his moment in the sun, trumpeting his reputation as The Man for tax-free exchanges in the entire area. I could practically hear their thoughts: "Let's see those slackers over at Dinkum, Doofus and Sloth top this!"

To ensure destruction was complete and no wrong path untraveled, some of Tom's partners-in-crime needed their share of the glory, so they chimed in with their own irrelevant comments ("As you can see Ed, Tom's knowledge is extensive and is representative of the skill and experience we bring to the table. Why, back in 1999 I remember the time Tom ... blah, blah, blah, and the tax court agreed with him ... blah, blah, blah.").

By this time Ed was sending out vibes like a treed cougar surrounded by a pack of baying hounds. He finally pushed his chair back, looked at his watch and said he had to get to another meeting.

None of my team had a clue about what had just transpired. As we walked out of the building, the consensus was that it was unfortunate we didn't have time to cover all the issues, but hey, we showed them our stuff. It went well, they crowed. I'm sure we'll get the engagement. Let's celebrate! We kicked butt. If they don't choose us, they probably don't deserve us. Laughter, smiles and high fives.

We piled into Dan's SUV. Heading out of the parking lot, I asked Terry, the firm's managing partner - who was a pilot - if he'd ever fallen out of the sky from three miles up, one wing gone, engines on fire and no parachute. "Of course not," he replied. "Well, you have now," I said.

Predictably, another firm got the engagement.

My recent excerpts have touched upon this subject from a number of different directions. It is always about the prospective client; their priorities, concerns, fears, desires, needs and wants. You typically only have an hour or so to do this better than your competition. Then your job becomes straightforward: you wrap up the meeting by proposing only the necessary solution(s) and asking for the business. That's it in a nutshell. No more. No less. Later, once you have a history with the client and the relationship has deepened, opportunities will appear to challenge your creativity - and maybe even give rise to the suitability of a tax-free exchange.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Want Some Effective Marketing Ideas For After 4/15?

My last post was an explanation of the simple but highly effective 3M “stickie” marketing technique you can use to leverage off your tax season efforts. This is a form of personal marketing that studies and personal experience have affirmed is the most effective way to “sell” personal services, i.e. those of accountants, lawyers, engineering firms, architects, etc.

We’ve examined personal marketing techniques, i.e. how you actually go about converting your prospect into a client, many times throughout the life of this blog and the topic is covered in detail in my CPA Practice Builder manual, so we’re not going to get into conversion techniques now.

Today’s blog is about addressing the question of how do you meet the prospects in the first place?

Personally involving yourself in marketing does require you to carve out the time to engage prospects. That typically means you select a few activities that will give you access to a population of desirable potential clients.

When thinking about which activities/organizations to get involved with, first pause and consider the competitive landscape. For example, a well-established hypothetical group with the name, “Greater Dallas Business Owner’s Association,” would be a magnate for lawyers, accountants, consultants and related service providers wishing to join.

This leads to the observation that there are some organizations that are such obvious business development opportunities that their membership is skewed by the number of ancillary networkers wishing to fish in that particular pool. This is a challenging scenario for even the most skilled anglers. As someone relatively inexperienced with personal marketing, is this an environment that lends itself to your success?

If experience is any guide, the most effective approach is to mix your choices up a bit so that you include some mainstream choices (Elks, Merchant’s Associations, Rotary, et al) with others that are less traditional.

As the first example, let’s assume your practice focuses upon small to medium businesses. Go ahead and join one or two local service clubs. Pick those whose mission you believe in … sure, you want to create opportunities for yourself but it is always good to give something back and be a positive force in the community.

Now, how about something a bit more creative. Two examples jump into mind. The first one from an accountant in Pennsylvania who describes herself as a “fanatic” about keeping her practice’s costs under control. Her office is in a large complex of small businesses, both retail and service. In 2006 she went around to all the local businesses and promoted a mutual or joint purchase group to pool their buying power and thereby obtain paper, toner, office equipment, etc. at lower prices. She would, she told them, cut a good deal with a local supplier and they’d all save. Because she was an accountant, she wound up becoming the coordinator of the control process. A few people signed up and the program limped along for a couple years … successful in saving the members money, but in a minor way.

Then the present recession hit and many more of the local merchants joined. She quietly demonstrated her competence and built trust by handling the details and without really any specific intent on her part began to acquire more and more of the businesses as clients (Blogger’s note: personal marketing without even trying!). Contrary to the gloomy national experience, she estimates that her practice has grown more than 30% in the past two years, virtually all of the growth attributable to members and referrals she’s received from them.

The second example is a CPA whose sister owned an independent (non-chain or franchise) restaurant. He handled the accounting needs for her and a couple of her friends who also owned diners. He became conversant with their issues and wondered how he could attract business from other, similar owners. There was no association, club or group, so instead he created a highly focused newsletter that addressed specifically their relevant tax and financial issues. He wrote his first newsletter and sent it out to about 30 local eateries. Each three months thereafter he sent another, and the list began growing. After the second and third issues he began getting calls. A year and a half later he obtained 9 new clients, and he’s getting one more approximately every month. [NOTE: this example has been an inspiration to me to create the same sort of focused newsletter for my clients. We’re just getting this going and once we have some results I’ll report back to you. This may turn out to be a low cost form of effective personal marketing that works for everyone.]

Does your practice focus upon high wealth individuals and estate planning? An obvious choice is the local symphony support organization. As a group they’ll generally be older and reasonably affluent. Sounds like a perfect opportunity. Want something less obvious … how about the CPA who suggested his mother join her country club’s “women’s investment group?” When they had a capital gains question, he attended a luncheon meeting, was as charming as he could be, answered their inquiries and became the de facto “go to” technical source for the group. Within a year he was handling the accounting service requirements for virtually all the ladies in the group. I’m told subsequent referrals led to a total of over 20 new and very high quality clients.

Do you have a high volume 1040-based practice? Another CPA is a gun fancier and enjoys target shooting. He joined a local gun club and from that met a lot of law enforcement personnel and firefighters. Both groups have steady work, decent incomes and tend to hang out with their “own.” Taking a further step to fit in, he then became an associate member in local police and firefighter groups. After some time he was fully accepted and eventually leveraged his presence within these two populations into dozens of new clients.

As you can see from the foregoing, there are no rules – the essence of your search is to determine the best ways to reach “your” type of prospects. Do these examples provide some inspiration for how you can create an effective personal marketing campaign of your own?

Saturday, April 3, 2010

A Modest Post-Tax Season Marketing Suggestion

I have extolled the virtues of personalized marketing on numerous prior posts. I define “personalized marketing” as an approach that is focused upon an individual prospect instead of, for example, a print ad in the Elks Club newsletter, a radio spot or post cards to a given zip code.

So, here’s a simple process with proven effectiveness that is both easy to do and very appropriate right after tax season. To set the scene – it’s just after April 15th you will have just been involved in prep work for dozens of client returns. Now that they are fresh in your mind, the first step is to think about which of these clients you could be doing more work for.

Are you doing a business return for someone but not their personal returns? How about the flip side: the owner of a business who only has you doing their personal returns? Or, the client who has the temp help business, but you don’t do any work at all for his wife who is a doctor with a thriving medical group just down the street? And maybe you’re doing the returns for the owner of the local theater who is close to retirement … what are his plans for funding his retirement, etc.? Is he taking advantage of all the options available to set aside pre-tax money for later years? How might he minimize his tax exposure if he wants to get rid of the theater? The potential examples are endless.

There are a lot of billable hours hiding in the files of your present clients.

Your present clients are your easiest source of additive business. There’s an existing relationship; they like you, they have nothing but good will for you, they trust you and believe you are competent. There’s no reason why you shouldn’t be doing all their work.

The second step is a simple procedure. First, scan through your files and set aside all those that fall into the, “there might be more business in here” category. The third step is to grab the file on top of the pile, open it and look for some opportunity to, a) increase their income, b) cut their expenses/costs or, c) reduce tax liability.

Opportunities are everywhere. If they have a business it usually is not difficult to scan the numbers and pick up something, e.g. the client has a reasonable amount of AR but too much of it is 90+ days out, while at the same time he is experiencing a cash squeeze. Or, a client’s business is profitable but his bank line that was put in place years ago is now too small … maybe he’d better raise the limit while he still can. Or, a client mentioned she wanted to expand her warehouse and storage area … what’s the best way for her to do this? Lease? Purchase? Sublet? And, what about taking title … should she, for example, acquire it personally and then lease it to her business?

Another way to isolate issues is to look at one or more prior years and look for trends. Perhaps the pretax percentage has been declining, or certain cost categories have risen faster than expected.

If you are only preparing personal returns for a client the opportunities are fewer, but if a client mentions that they are looking into the possibility of starting a business, buying a franchise, selling a major asset, etc. there is certainly the suggestion that some planning or “what-if” projection would be in order.

Here’s the fourth step: You have selected a file (“Laura’s), found the a), b) or c) hot spot, and now, e.g. you make a copy of her Schedule C’s from TY 2008 and 2009 and put yellow highlight on lines 7 and 28. You then take a regular 3M stickie and hand write, “Laura, check out the highlighted lines. Your expenses have risen much faster than your revenue. I think you are leaving some money on the table. Let’s talk. Please give me a call.” And, you sign it with your first name. The fifth step is to tri-fold the two Schedule C’s with your stickie affixed so she sees it when she unfolds the envelope’s contents, and then mail it.

What’s her reaction when she sees what you’ve sent? First of all, the two copies are highlighted, so she knows immediately what to look at. She reads the stickie and has several conscious and unconscious impressions. They include noting the personal touch communicated by the handwritten note, that you have a personal interest in her situation, that you didn’t treat her like a number and instead noticed – and took the time – to put this together and write her, that you care about her success and welfare, that you have taken the time to make it simple for her to understand the issue, that your note conveys concern, that you are trying to help her, etc. etc. Even if Laura never calls you, she will retain all these positive impressions. If nothing else, the likelihood of her referring you to a prospective client is higher than it has ever been. As my son says, “It’s all good.”

My clients who have taken these steps report they get calls back from about half of the clients. Each one represents a marvelous business opportunity for more billable hours. Planning, project work (e.g. running what-if projections for the client contemplating acquiring more warehouse/storage space), advice, consulting are all on the table.

The percentage of responders you convert into additional work will be maximized if you meet with them personally, but if you have a strong relationship with the client you can do well on the telephone. The positive result isn’t just more short term billings. For example, it is axiomatic that the more different things you work on for a given client, the greater the probability they’ll remain loyal, less fee sensitive and stay with you long term. Another bonus is the more proactive you are for a client, the more apt they are to refer business to you.

Elliot told me that in 2008 he spent part of the Saturday following April 15th reviewing files and writing stickies. He put together 22 that afternoon; had 13 return calls and he converted 7 to project or consulting work.

Not bad for an afternoon’s work.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Successful Strategies For Raising Fees – Part 2

In Part 1 we talked about how the “best practices” employed by professional sales people can be of value when you are raising your fees while at the same time maximizing the probability of maintaining good relations with your clients.

I received some feedback on the subject from readers you may find both interesting and humorous.

Eric in Tennessee has a long time client/semi-friend whose billing rate hadn’t been increased for many years and needed a significant jump to be in step with 2010. The client is a painting contractor and Eric had recently engaged him to paint the exterior of his house, so he thought that would soften the blow. He was wrong. The client became absolutely apoplectic, got red in the face, began yelling and carrying on like this was the worst thing that had ever happened to him. The meeting ended badly. Still distressed by the experience, when Eric got home he plopped down dejectedly and told his wife about the confrontation. She listened politely, excused herself and he headed to the liquor cabinet to make himself a stiff one.

His wife returned a couple of minutes later with a file. She showed him how much they had been charged by the same client when he painted their house in 1995 and then what the price was in 2009. It was two and a half times as much! Armed with the evidence, Eric drove to the client’s office in the morning, put on his angry face, and stormed in waving the painting contracts, demanding to know how it is that he’s expected to pay more when the contractor’s costs go up, but Eric’s cost increases somehow don’t count. He continued his rant and the client finally held his hands up in submission, called it even and agreed to pay the new rates. Two weeks later they had a beer together and laughed about the experience. Eric is still shaking his head.

Janice, in Phoenix, has a neighbor Marco who is also a client. The client owns an insurance agency and does very well. Once again, a great deal of time had gone by and the rates hadn’t kept up with costs. Marco has a big personality and is, as Janice puts it, intellectually aggressive. She had a strong sense of trepidation about approaching him to talk about the increase.

She made an appointment and met the client at his office. Laying out her case, she began explaining the reasons for the increase. Marco interrupted her and asked, in effect, “Are you telling me you’re going to charge me more money for doing my accounting?” Not knowing what would happen next, Janice nodded yes. He said nothing further, so she continued.

After a few minutes he interrupted her and said he had a great idea. He began explaining how this was a perfect opportunity for a quid pro quo – a tit for tat – he would consider paying the higher rates if she would consider expanding the coverages of the insurance she carried through his agency. Marco launched into an explanation of the advantages the upgrades he envisioned for her would bring, noting the risks covered, the reduced deductibles, the greater peace of mind, etc. Janice couldn’t get a word in edge-wise and realized very quickly that he’d turned the tables on her and now she was being pitched to add revenue to his agency instead of the other way around.

Taken completely out of her game plan, and feeling the situation slipping away, apparently Janice’s facial expression revealed the distress she was feeling. Marco paused, and then began chuckling. He reached across the table, patted her hand and apologized for upsetting her. He explained that he’s a sales guy; that he couldn’t help himself when faced with the temptation to, as he put it, “play around a little bit.” He told her he had been expecting an increase for the past couple of years and that she shouldn’t be concerned because he was OK with the change. Like Eric, Janice is probably still shaking her head.

Ray, whose practice is in Northwestern Florida, talked on the phone with one of several clients whose rates he was determined to increase. The client listened and then asked if he could get back to Ray. About a week later the client phoned and said that he’d obtained several bids for his accounting work and began naming some of the firms off and the rates they had quoted.

Now, we all know there are any number of questions related to what is included in “accounting services” and what is extra, and that if someone claims their rates are “low” you need to check into exactly what you will be getting for that price. Ray’s client didn’t do that. Instead, he simply obtained hourly charge rates, not the number of hours to perform any particular set of services. And, of course, this is meaningless for comparative purposes.

Nevertheless, the client pressed on, saying that he intended to conduct an “auction” for his business; that he’d select the most competitive firm to do his work. He was going to “accept email bids between the hours of 10:00 a.m. and noon” on the appointed day, etc. etc. Then, he’d take two days to evaluate the offers, and notify the winning bidder no later than, etc. etc.

Ray pointed out to me that his client owns a landscape maintenance business that is neither large nor especially profitable. He was only charging the guy about $2600 a year and wanted to raise him to approx. $3000. Ray decided he didn’t want to play and didn’t send a bid in. Three days later a competitor whom Ray considers to be a bottom feeder called and asked Ray to send over some of the client’s documents, to which Ray agreed. Later the same day the (former) client called over to boast about how he was now only paying $115 (!) per hour for his accounting work and how glad he was to have discovered Ray had been overcharging him all along.

Ray is very glad he decided not to bid. Some clients really shouldn’t be clients. Maybe you have a couple like that?

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Successful Strategies For Raising Fees

In previous posts I have offered several reasons supporting why I believe it is a poor choice to raise fees in today’s economic environment. I have also written about tactics you can employ to maintain fee levels in the face of client pressure to reduce them.

But, what if there really is a strong reason (or even a need) to raise fees? For example, you may have a long time client who is paying you below market level and after an analysis you realize you are literally losing money with the client. Their fees need to be raised. Or, you realize your charge rates are below the market and to arrest your eroding profitability you need to raise your fees. Or, you acquire additional/upgraded capability (personnel, space, computers, etc.) and you want to not only cover these new costs, but you want your rates to reflect your practice’s higher service level.

There is a source we can draw from that tells us in clear terms the best strategies for raising your rates. That source is the group comprised of tens of thousands of sales people who sell goods to America’s businesses. The underlying challenge facing an accounting practice and the owner of a manufacturer of swimming pool sweepers, is exactly the same. Neither has a client/customer base wishing to pay more; both will encounter resistance, both want to reduce the number of lost clients/customers to the absolute minimum, and both want to implement the increase with a minimum of disruption. These “best practices” have been hard won, because poor technique offers up the potential for lost business, unhappy clients/customers and a very negative experience.

A) Understand the reason(s). First of all, ensure you really clarify to yourself why you need the price increase. What’s the rationale? What factors are relevant? This sounds self-evident, but you may be challenged by a client, e.g. “Maria, you say you wouldn’t do this unless you had to, but what does that really mean? Why do you have to?” In this instance you should be prepared to respond without stumbling around, sounding unsure and lacking conviction. As a general statement, you want to avoid talking specifics, i.e. “Our pretax profit percentage is down to only 17% and all the partners have had to reduce their annual bonus.” That’s too much information and doesn’t help anything.

B) Leverage your status as an owner and/or partner. You are a professional accountant and your client is well aware you understand numbers. Take the position that the increase is necessary (why else would you do it in today’s troubled economic times?) and is a final decision reached after much deliberation and analysis. Convey that it is final; the decision won’t be rescinded.

C) Discuss and offer suggestions how the blow can be softened. In industrial sales it is common to tell a client, “Arthur, the price of 24” rolled .060” steel is going up 9% in July. That gives you three months to place an order at the present price.” The idea is that it both generates an immediate sale and gives the customer a means to soften the impact and defer the increase’s effect. In an accounting world this may come out something like, “Victoria, for reasons I’ll explain in detail if you wish, we’ve concluded we have to increase our rates. Now, this won’t occur until July 1st. We have a couple of ways we can soften the impact of this. The first is that we can get your next quarterly filing accomplished at the lower rate. I’ll make sure that happens. Also, you also talked about doing a cost study analyzing the feasibility of opening the new sales office. If we can get going on that before July I can freeze that at today’s lower rate.”

D) Don’t surprise your best clients. It is overly impersonal and just bad form to send out invoices with previously unannounced higher rates. While a letter sent to all clients is OK as far as it goes, you will get far better results if you personally contact at least the top 20% - 25% of your clients. Face-to-face is best. If you have been proactive about maintaining contact with your “A” level clients (meetings, lunch, conversation when you see each other at the Elks, etc.) and there is an actual relationship, they expect this from you and will react much more positively.

E) Be empathetic. If your client gets angry or annoyed, let them do so. Don’t debate or argue (if you do, it may carry the suggestion that the increase is rescindable or negotiable). And, don’t, in effect, tell them they are wrong for being upset. After all, you’re telling them you’re your services are going to cost them more. When things settle down and you can continue your discussion, an effective approach is to talk about how you and your partners agonized for months about this; that it is necessary to maintain services, acquire key resources, etc. In other words, it was unavoidable. The idea is to give the client a plausible, believable rationale. That it makes business sense and gives them confidence that your decision was considered, sound and not capricious.

F) You might offer a delayed date of effectiveness. In addition to the techniques described above designed to soften the impact of the price increase, you also have the option of simply delaying the effective date in some instances. For example, you might compromise with a good client by agreeing to do their compliance work at the old price for the rest of the year, but the projections and P&L/balance sheet work will have to be at the higher rate.

G) Finally, your staff should know about the increase(s), when they become effective and how you would like them to react should a client broach the subject to them.

The foregoing best practices won’t guarantee your clients will openly embrace your upwardly revised fee structure, but will go a long way to ensuring the angst and potential loss of clients is kept to a minimum.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

You Have A Website; Why Not Make It Add Value?

As professional service firms move through the current recession with an eye to better days, each is making decisions about how they can best allocate their resources. Upgrading the computer system and/or software to improve productivity? Investing in more marketing? Culling the workforce of marginal performers and/or seeking upgraded skills among the accounting professionals who have been downsized? Taking advantage of low lease rates and relocating to upgraded offices?

Any of these may be the right choice for your practice, but one thing you can do that is inexpensive and has real upside potential value is taking another look at your web presence.

The reality is that the vast majority of accounting firms have what I call “placeholder” web sites. In other words, everyone has a site, so it was determined your practice should have one too. The money was spent on a web designer, some system was (hopefully) implemented to maintain it at reasonable intervals, and except for writing a check every now and then, you don’t ever think about it. So, is it actually doing anything for you?

My challenge to you is to reflect for a minute or two upon this state of affairs. You’ve already put the effort and money into creating a web presence. Unless you are the exception, your site is more or less just “there;” contributing essentially nothing to your marketing efforts. But, the hard work has already been done, so why not take another, considerably smaller step, and make it an effective component of your efforts to not only attract new clients to your practice, but to stay in contact with your existing clients?

The bar isn’t really set all that high. You aren’t competing against Amazon or the other really skilled online marketers. Instead, you are being compared to other accounting websites that are, in the main, ineffective. This is an opportunity to elevate your game and qualitatively differentiate your practice/firm from your competition.

There are specialists available who are highly skilled at optimizing your site. In fact, I’ll tell you about a couple in a moment. Both have worked with enough clients to establish track records of success and make it their business to be right on top of the latest internet marketing trends.

Yes, you have to write a check for their services, but you don’t have to invest much of your time at all. (And, their charge rates are a lot less than yours.) Even during the crush of tax season, you probably have the time to consult with these firms and have your enhanced presence up and running shortly after April 15th. Just in time for that summertime marketing push you’ve been promising to initiate, right?

The first outfit I’ll tell you about is Alesco Marketing. They’ve created hundreds of web sites for both professional service providers and other businesses. They are proven experts in effectively tying together the site’s design with how the web is really used. In other words, they design sites so they are a) easily found by prospective clients and search engines and, b) they are very user-friendly and contain the features visitors actually place value upon.

I think one of their most important strengths is that they have the experience and insight to stay on top of how marketing on the web is evolving and then adopting strategies to maintain their client’s advantage. Check out If you contact them ask for the owners, Tim or Doug Williams.

By the way, if you would like a quick read that offers a sophisticated look at web marketing best practices, I recommend you order a copy of Doug’s latest book, “Website Marketing Mastery,” published in 2010. It is available through their website.

Another proven source for web expertise is E. Mochila. I believe they are unique in that their only business is creating and maintaining accounting web sites. Currently, they manage over 1800 CPA websites. They have a business model that operates somewhat like a subscription: for a low monthly fee they provide ongoing support, upgrades, client portals, newsletters, calculators, etc. You can check them out at If you would like more information, ask for Cameron Hendrick. He is intimately familiar with everything they offer.

In terms of marketing your services, your website presence will never be as important as consistently getting out and talking with people who are desirable prospects. But, it is an important part of the whole package that is you, your firm, its image and presence and, ultimately, how your are perceived in your marketplace.

Bottom line: it’s more than worth a couple of hours of your time to investigate how you can upgrade your online visibility.