by Cynthia Harrington
Just saying the word "selling" sends chills down the spine of many an accountant. But without any new business, firms usually wind up closing shop.
"It's hard for accountants to ask for the sale," said Jack E. Hinsche, CPA and managing partner of Windes & McClaughry Accounting Corp., in Long Beach, Calif. "I used to have business development people tell me they had two dinners and a meeting in the office of a prospect. I'd question them if they'd asked for the business and they'd say, 'No.'"
According to industry consultant Allan Koltin, the fear of selling is not a small concern, especially for accountants who are expanding into financial advisory services. Competition for the investment business of high-net worth clients is fierce and the competitors are highly skilled sales people.
"The biggest reason that a new financial advisory venture of an accounting firm doesn't work is because of the internal dynamics of the accounting firm," said Koltin, CPA, president and chief executive of Practice Development Institute, in Chicago. "Partners feel it's beneath them to present the new services."
Hinsche is a convert of a sales training process that he and his firm undertook six years ago. Hinsche reported that the 76-year-old accounting firm is good at client retention - they still serve several of the original clients of the firm. But he needed to have people be more effective at developing new business. "Every firm has some rainmakers," said Hinsche. "We got sales training for those who could contribute but needed help to get started."
In the first phase of training, all 95 Windes & McClaughry employees went through a one-afternoon seminar. Then six professionals committed to a year-long program of monthly sessions. They're rolling out the second phase of the sales training this year, in which all 30 professionals will undertake ongoing sales training.
Despite the universal selling skills of answering potential client objections and closing the sale, accountants' sales training is different from most. It is unique because selling professional services differs from selling a product.
"What's important is that each participant understand not just how to sell the expertise he or she has," said Michael Wolff, CMC, partner in charge of the Eisner Agency, a client development and marketing communications firm affiliated with the New York-based accounting firm Eisner. "Each professional must know about and be able to communicate every expertise of the firm that any client could use."
The Eisner Agency's training focuses on the consultative sell. Wolff said that the first step is to consult with the client, understand where their "pain" is and to ask what their needs are. By dealing with the client on a needs level, not an application level, the accountant comes off as a business professional.
Meeting some of those needs without charging is a way of building the relationship. For instance, in Wolff's training, accountants learn to ask for three years' of taxes to analyze for missed deductions. For business clients, Wolff recommended that accountants should attend regular strategy meetings at the client's company. "Ask, don't wait to be invited," said Wolff. "Through your attendance, you're building trust as their partner in the process."
"You're also given access to all of the needs of their company. You will know their needs for employee benefits, cash management, retirement plans and the financial services needs of the top executives."
Wolf & Co., of Oak Brook, Ill., successfully cross sells. The firm's four lines of business flourish from business that is generated from the firm's existing clients. Peter F. Bauer, CFA, CPA and president of the financial services arm, Oakbrook Financial Group, said that the cross-selling starts with monthly "lead" meetings, which are attended by all the firm's professionals.
Bauer distributes new marketing materials for each area - cash management for businesses, personal investment and private money management, employee retirement plan design and administration and high-end insurance sales. They share sales testimonials on how partners have used the services and how happy clients have been with them. "This introduces all departments to everyone, some which they didn't know even existed," said Bauer.
"Everybody's so busy. No one can do it all. These meetings introduce everyone, not just to the services we offer, but to other professionals at the firm who they can count on to service a client need."
There's more to sales training than cross-selling, however. Growth depends on new business. Eisner's new business development training aligns with that sought-after "professional image."
"We tell people to analyze what particular expertise they have. Then we challenge them to make that public," said Wolff. "Find what organizations need that expertise. Get listed with the local and national press as an expert in your subject so they come to you when they do that kind of story. Write articles and give speeches in your area of expertise."
Confidence in an expertise and the ability to communicate it to the client is a common outcome of the Eisner training. But they don't stop at the presentation phase. "We spend a lot of time in the training - talking about closing the sale," said Wolff. "We talk about it as gaining [an] agreement to take the next step. If the CPA has gained their trust and met their needs, then summarizing what they found out and asking if that solves their problem is easy."
Does the expense of the training and the time allotted pay off? It did for Windes & McClaughry.
Hinsche reported that after the first year of training, his people had the mindset of how critical selling was to the future success of the firm. The firm backed up the training with a variety of incentives and sales support. "People got that they needed to develop new business," said Hinsche. "They also got that new sales meant the firm was growing and there would be more opportunities. Everybody wants to be part of growing and successful firm."
But the biggest change that Hinsche observed was in people who had not seen themselves as rainmakers. These people were now confident enough in themselves to recognize opportunities for new business and to close the sale. "Once someone starts that process, it's like a snowball."
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