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.