[IMGCAP(1)]Some accountants bristle at the idea of selling their services.
This may be because of past experiences with stereotypically pushy salespeople or because of past experiences trying to sell that resulted in awkwardness or rejection. Or it may simply be because accountants are afraid of harming the trust that has developed between them and their clients.
Whatever the cause, the good news is that what might appear as “traditional selling techniques” aren’t necessary for accountants. Clients essentially want accountants who are willing to dig into their businesses’ problems and provide proactive advice. Katie Tolin, past president of the Association for Accounting Marketing and founder of CPA Growth Guides LLC, notes that when accountants understand how to conduct consultative meetings, they can secure and grow revenue streams while the client achieves business goals. In other words, they can create a “win” for both parties.
As Tolin says, “Being consultative does not mean telling the client all the great things you and your firm can do. It is about listening—really listening—to your clients’ concerns and then collaboratively coming up with ideas and recommendations that lead to helpful solutions.”
She likens the process to an appointment with your doctor. The doctor asks questions, listens to you and perhaps runs a few tests to narrow down potential diagnoses before prescribing a course of action.
“To operate as a consultant, it is critical to focus on the problem being discussed and not the pre-determined outcome that you’d like to see,” Tolin says. “Listen more and talk less. And when you do talk, ask questions. Keep your analytical tendencies in check. They can be incredibly beneficial at times or they can stall a discussion when you get so caught up in a number that you don’t step back to see the big picture.”
She encourages accountants to act more as facilitators than presenters of numbers. That means leading the discussion while also thinking about what is being discussed and serving as an information resource.
Here are four facilitation techniques Tolin recommends:
• Employ active listening
• Structure the agenda
• Guide the discussion, not the solution
• Create an action plan
Tolin expects that many accountants will need to change their current processes and behavior in order to conduct true consultative client meetings. But she says the upfront preparation and the follow-up meetings will be worth it. “You will experience numerous benefits that will strengthen your existing client base and secure recurring revenue,” she says.
Mary Ellen Biery is a research specialist at the financial information company Sageworks.