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.