Demystifying business development at your firm

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IMGCAP(1)]Attracting new clients or selling new or additional services to existing clients, for the most part, is a learned skill.

Some people do have natural “salesman-like” personal characteristics that draw-in potential clients with seemingly little effort. But for most of us accountants and lawyers, business development, marketing, selling or whatever term you chose, can be a struggle that is often frustrating and disheartening.

Nevertheless, we learn at an early stage in our careers that developing a book of business is critical for both the success of the firm and the personal success of the individual.

In my book, "Extraordinary Tax Career," I identify selling or marketing as one of the “Six Essential Skills for Success.” It really hit me when I became partner. I worked and studied hard to be a competent tax technician and prided myself in the work I was doing for clients. Prior to making partner at my firm, my self-worth and external worth to the firm lay in my knowledge of tax law and solving problems for clients. Upon making partner, I realized the technical skills of the job were a “given” and my future financial success would be tied more to my ability to attract new clients. Looking back, I realize now how unprepared I was for these new challenges. Marketing or business skills must be stressed early in one’s career and be a focus of ongoing training and self-improvement.

When speaking on this subject, I stress that business development requires extreme patience. Seeds that are planted may take a year or two to germinate. It also takes time to figure out what marketing skills work. What works for me will not necessarily work for you. Above all, business development is an everyday exercise. Some part of each day must be devoted to business development, whether it is planning luncheon engagements, working on a live presentation, writing an article, or just spending 10 or 15 minutes every morning thinking about marketing strategies.

Below is a four-point roadmap that is instructive for all levels, from staff to newly minted partners. It is intended to set the marketing mindset.

1. Debunk Myths and Perceived Roadblocks
The first step is to debunk perceived roadblocks and dispel common myths. This step is usually best explored in a group setting where everyone can think introspectively and then voice his or her personal roadblock for group discussion. Some of the common myths and roadblocks I have heard are the following:

• I am too young.
• I am not experienced enough.
• I am not a “people person.”
• I am not a salesperson. I did not attend business or law school to learn to sell.
• There is no time—the firm is working me to death.
• I am too busy developing the technical skills in my field. (This was my personal roadblock.)
• I don’t know anyone who needs an accountant. Everyone I know already has an accountant.
• I don’t play golf.
• I have too many family obligations.
• I am too shy or embarrassed to ask for work.
• I don’t like salespeople—too pushy and not trustworthy.
• I don’t know where to begin.

2. Exploring Where to Begin
Again, it must be emphasized that marketing is a daily exercise. Time each day must be set aside to at least think about new avenues for business development—then take action. Below are some thoughts to keep in mind as you embark on your own personal strategy:

Consider your own interests and strengths. Your interests are bound to be shared by others that can offer ideal settings for business development.

Don’t be impatient and end up frustrated. It takes time to develop a sales technique that works.
Every business needs sales—even accounting firms. Without sales, there will be no work.

Individualize your strategy. What works for me may not work for you. For example, for me, I have found that presenting live seminars on technical topics to CPA audiences is the best way to get exposure and become known as a specialist in a particular area.

Developing a book of business is very important for your personal success. The power in many organizations rests with the “rainmakers” who control large blocks of client revenue.

It’s all about personal relationships. Some large firms attract new clients based upon the firm’s reputation or specialty in a particular area. But for most of us, business development depends upon personal relationships and human interaction.

3. Brainstorming
Whether done in a group setting or sitting alone, brainstorming ideas and strategies is of paramount importance. Marketing should be a purposeful and intentional act and not haphazard. Merely hoping for that new client to seek you out will not normally work. We must take the initiative and action. Here are some suggested ideas and action points:

• Follow the careers of friends and acquaintances in your generation. Take them to lunch or a recreational event. They may be the next generation to inherit the family business or may be the next business star or celebrity.
• Participate in community activities, e.g., road races, church activities, fundraising, etc.
• Join something—civic organizations, clubs, gym, church, etc.
• Find speaking engagements.
• Write articles for publications for industry specific publications.
• Blog.
• Use social media (first obtain clearance from the firm if the firm will be advertised or mentioned).
• Always have business cards on hand—don’t hesitate to pass them out.
• Don’t be embarrassed to talk with new acquaintances about what you do for a living.
• Partner with other workmates.
• Search out and join a trade organization in a specialized field.
• Specialize and become famous at it.
• Most importantly, get involved—life itself will bring opportunities.

4.    Rewarding Success
Every firm should encourage staff members to develop new business. Compensation plans should be structured to encourage and reward for originating new business. For example, many firms pay as a bonus a set percentage of collected new origination billings, typically 10 to 25 percent of collected billings. For these bonuses to have the greatest effect, payment of the bonus should be made shortly after the cash is received from the client, e.g., in the following month or quarter.

Such rewards are shown to have a positive effect on firm growth and instill a feeling of appreciation in the individual who successfully brought in the new business. Merely suggesting that originating new business is part of the job, without compensating the staffer, and the ultimate reward is making partner, is not an effective strategy for today’s future leader.

Continuous business development is essential to firm growth and personal success. For many, it is a challenge that can be frustrating and disappointing. The four-point business development roadmap outlined in this article can serve to unlock fears, alleviate some frustration, get the right mindset, and establish a framework for initiating honest discussions around successful business development.

Paul N. Iannone, JD, CPA, MST, is the founder of Tax Career Advisor LLC and author of “Extraordinary Tax Career.”

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