[IMGCAP(1)]A casual meeting can be built into a successful business relationship, if you recognize that moving from acquaintance to prospect to client is a process requiring planning and patience.

Craig, a CPA, met his neighbor, Bruce, the CFO of a thriving entertainment company, at a soccer game when their children were assigned to the same team. Over time, their relationship has grown from neighbors to acquaintances to friends. They discussed that they were both CPAs. Craig was a new partner in a local CPA firm and Bruce’s career has progressed from financial analyst to controller to CFO of the entertainment company.

As time went on, the two neighbors would meet for lunch, and their discussion evolved into areas such as the economy and its impact on both of their businesses. Often, Bruce would ask Craig various general accounting and tax questions. But then at their last lunch, Bruce asked Craig a fairly technical question about IFRS. Bruce wanted to know what effect it might have on his company’s financial statements.

Craig was not prepared to discuss this at length, but he suggested that at their next lunch he would bring his technical partner, Paul, out to meet Bruce. Paul had significant experience with IFRS and would help Bruce understand the issues and challenges his company might face in adopting IFRS rules.

Following that next lunch, Bruce thanked both Craig and Paul for their help. Because they had really helped Bruce, Craig felt he had earned the right to suggest that they set up a follow-up meeting at Bruce’s office, to learn more about the entertainment company. Bruce was pleased to set up the meeting.

This is a key in the process of moving along the timeline from acquaintance to sale. You earn the right to move to the next stage.

Prior to the upcoming meeting, Craig’s plan was to learn as much as he reasonably could about the entertainment company as well as the industry as a whole. Craig used various online sources to research the information and then sat down with Paul and the head of the firm’s tax department, Richard. He asked them to develop a list of questions that he should ask Bruce to better understand the company. He wanted to use the questions to identify some of the specific challenges facing the company.

It is important to do research because prospects quickly get bored answering background questions. What is critical to prospects is assistance with their challenges. Focus your questions on uncovering those challenges.

Craig reminded himself of two things that would be important about this next meeting:
•    Make it all about them. Do not talk about us unless asked.
•    Do not solve the challenges; just record them. (Craig also recognized that at this meeting Bruce might not be ready to share the company’s most important challenges.)

Upon arrival at the meeting, Craig toured the facility and was introduced to a significant number of the company’s key executives. Craig made a mental note of these executives since they could be key decision-makers or influencers. A Q & A session followed the tour. Craig found it difficult to accomplish his two goals. As a partner, he was proud of his firm and loved to talk about the benefits they delivered. More importantly, Craig was eager to help people with their business challenges and couldn’t wait to explain his history of success stories.

When Bruce began to explain some of the issues he had encountered with his current auditor, Craig had to remember to keep silent. He forced himself to remember that there would be a better time to demonstrate excellence. It was important to wait until he better understood the situation, including who the key decision-makers were at the company. He knew it was important to keep the process moving along in a controlled manner. His goal was to set up another meeting for Bruce to come to his office.

This opportunity presented itself when, during the company tour, the company’s tax manager asked Bruce some questions about state and local taxes. Bruce turned to Craig for help, which opened the door for Craig to invite Bruce and the tax manager to his office to discuss the issues. Bruce, remembering how helpful and responsive Craig and his technical partner Paul were with his IFRS question, jumped at the opportunity to go to Craig’s office and meet with Craig and his tax partner, Richard. They set up the meeting for the following week.

Returning to his office, Craig went over the information he had gathered with Richard, his tax partner. Although he didn’t have all of the information Richard would have liked, he did have enough information to come up with a list of questions for their next meeting.

Richard reminded himself of the key issues in preparing for the prospect meeting:
•    Gather information
•    Ask questions
•    Look for challenges
•    Ask about the implications of the challenges
•    But don’t look for solutions yet.

He and Craig also discussed that their goal for the office meeting was to set up another meeting at Bruce’s company. They wanted to meet with Bruce, the tax manager and, if possible, the CEO. The intent would be to really dig into the company’s issues and begin to discuss solutions. By now, Craig had built up a great deal of respect and trust with Bruce and rapport with other people at the company.

Craig had been both interested and responsive, so Bruce gladly set up their next meeting. It was crucial that they meet with the CEO because Craig needed to ascertain who were the decision-makers in the selection of an accounting services provider.

Up until this point in the process Craig and his team have been building like and trust as well as discovering the company’s challenges. Now is the time to move to solutions, but you must make sure you present solutions to the key decision-makers.

The next step along the time line was getting to the goal of asking for the opportunity to propose on their accounting work. The meeting was scheduled in two weeks. Craig,

Richard and Paul sat down and began to discuss solutions. At this point, there were three issues that were important for Bruce’s company: IFRS, state and local tax challenges, and a change in auditors.

They understood that any change in auditors would mean the prospect would be moving from a Big Four firm to a midsized firm. This could be a major stumbling block. Bruce had often commented that although there were issues with his current firm, the CEO was comfortable with the existing relationship. Recognizing these concerns, Craig and his partners decided to demonstrate how they had previously dealt with these issues.

At the meeting, they discussed the company’s challenges and demonstrated how their firm had the expertise to help the company implement specific solutions to overcome them. The meeting was such a success that the CEO asked a few questions about mergers and acquisitions for a prospective transaction that he hadn’t even shared with his Big Four partner.

Craig and Paul then set up a meeting with Bruce and the CEO for the next week to review merger and acquisitions accounting. On the way back to the office, Craig commented, “I think we’ve done enough to ask for the order.”

Once again this is the next step in the ultimate goal of obtaining the client.

The following week’s meeting was successful. At the conclusion, Craig asked the CEO and Bruce if they would be interested in having the firm submit a proposal on the company’s annual audit, tax and advisory work. The CEO agreed that it was appropriate for them to do so, but he had to talk to the owner (who was not active in the business). Craig suggested he, Bruce, and the CEO go to lunch later that week to discuss presenting this to the owner.

Craig’s goal at this meeting was to make sure that the CEO was fully armed to convince the owner that it was a good idea to have the firm propose. Craig had been disappointed in the past when, in the same situation, the absentee owner opted not to move forward. Craig was convinced that in that instance the owner did not have all of the important facts. As it turned out, this meeting proved critical. The owner was impressed by the help Craig and his partners had provided. He told the CEO that the decision to change accounting firms was his and the CFO’s to make.

In reality they had moved the neighbor from friend to prospect to client. The process worked. The firm and Craig had made an investment, but it was worth it.

The story ended well for Craig and his firm. They proposed and even when the Big Four firm agreed to reduce their fees by 25 percent to match Craig’s proposal, Craig’s firm still won the engagement.

Remember these key points: A cold (when you are not referred in) sale takes time, sometimes one to two years. At the beginning, there is little respect and trust. It has to be built.

There is a process:
•    Get to know the prospect over time.
•    Get an introductory meeting at the prospect’s business and see how they operate.
•    Invite prospects to come to your office where they meet key people and see how you operate.
•    Set up a meeting to probe the prospect’s challenges.
•    Make sure you know who the decision-makers and influencers are.
•    When you are ready, show your qualifications, but be patient. You want to make sure the prospect has disclosed their most deep-rooted challenges. This takes time and trust. Make sure you prove how you will help resolve their challenges.
•    Ask for the opportunity to propose and make sure you understand how decisions are made.
•    Ask for the sale.

Burt Bierman, CPA, is a senior consultant with the Rainmaker Academy. He is a former partner at JH Cohn and the Videre Group.

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