For years I had conducted my initial prospect interviews in the same way: by selling my firm Burch Consultants. Then, I’d sell the product developer - in our case Best Software - and finally, I’d sell the product. My standard spiel has been effective and has stood the test of time until now. While talking about Burch Consultants, I would always tell prospects that it evolved out of our accounting firm, Burch and Co., which we sold in 1998. I would also stress that we feature a team of CPAs, MBAs, certified trainers and Microsoft engineers to support clients’ business objectives. And I would always stress that we take "an accounting approach" to client engagements that feature careful project planning and a focus on internal control and data integrity. After all, no matter how pretty the reports are or how impressive the technology may be, if the financial statements are wrong, we have a problem. At this point in a presentation, most prospects usually at least nod in agreement. But one day the look on my prospect’s face seemed skeptical. I thought to myself, "It’s OK, he’s an engineer, he’ll eventually warm up." Undaunted, I continued to the following part of my usual presentation: "We’re very pleased to have a strong relationship with Best Software. Best specializes in accounting and business management software and its flagship product, MAS 90 is used an recommended by more CPAs than any other solution in its market segment." My prospect looked at me with an increasing aura of cynicism and said, "That might not be such a good thing in the wake of what’s happening." Suddenly, it hit me - Enron and Andersen. The presumption of integrity that I had taken for granted was no longer automatic. Fortunately, I was able to maintain my composure, laughingly agree with his comments and move on with the discovery process. Later in the day as I replayed the events of the meeting, I grasped the significance of what was taking place in the wake of Enron. For years, I had capitalized on the public’s trust of the accounting profession to differentiate Burch Consultants from other resellers and the "used car salesman" connotations often ascribed to software sales people. To me, integrity is the foundation of my chosen profession. But, now, the very essence of being a CPA has been compromised. This was a very emotional revelation for me. I was upset at the stigma that has been newly attached to my profession and disappointed at its origin. Enron enjoyed a revered status - almost a mystique - here in the Houston community. Ken Lay may have been the most influential and respected businessman in the city. It is very hard to believe that this is happening. More important, long before Andersen and Accenture, I worked in the management information consulting division of Arthur Andersen & Co. Coming out of graduate school, I declined more lucrative offers to sign with AA&Co., and I have never regretted my decision. The skills, work ethic and professionalism that were nurtured during my tenure there have deeply influenced how I have developed my current practice. Yet, now, my Arthur Andersen pedigree has been tainted. I do not want to stand in judgment of Andersen. The individuals that I know at the firm are moral, honest, hard-working people whose character is above reproach. It hurts to see their reputations sullied by this mess. The courts and the capital markets will determine Andersen’s fate, and I hope they can separate the innocent from the guilty. As a business owner, it is important not to let my emotions and opinions impair my judgment on the appropriate course of action for my business. The situation may be exacerbated because Burch Consultants is located in Houston, but I think that all CPA’s will feel the impact. As much as I would like to believe that this is all a bad dream, I cannot ignore the potential implications for my business. My introductory sales pitch has been altered, but the essence of the message remains the same: Burch Consultants provides solutions to business problems. While we firmly believe the software products we represent are the best on the market, software remains just one component of the overall solution. We leverage our knowledge and accounting expertise through structured training and implementation methodologies. Our prospects are somewhat wary but certainly not unreceptive. The consultative sales approach is more important than ever. It is imperative to properly position our solutions and to be candid about what our applications are capable and not capable of doing. We ask difficult questions of our prospects and encourage them to challenge us. Credibility is established by surfacing issues, not sweeping them under the carpet. I am subtler in positioning our CPA accreditation. One of the first questions we usually ask prospects is what role their outside CPA firm will play in the conversion process. While pointing out the value that the outside CPA can bring to the conversion process, we are also able to play up the fact our firm has accredited professionals. As we present our training curriculum, we let prospects know that our training facilities are National Association of State Board of Accountancy certified to provide continuing professional education in all 50 states. We have brought our director of consulting into our sales cycle to review our engagement methodology and to discuss how his project management style has been influenced by his work in public accounting and as a controller. We market our accounting expertise by discussing the issues that are associated with the conversion. What is the status of your inventory balances? Is a physical count necessary? Does your current chart of accounts meet your financial reporting requirements? But, nowadays, the same questions that we had traditionally addressed have begun to take on a different spin. Our prospects are no longer accepting things at face value. More often than not, we are expected to prove things, not merely indicate the functionality is in place. The sales cycle is longer, and we are being tested every step of the way. References are more important than ever. Things were difficult enough in our industry before Enron, and this calamity has made things tougher. I do not want appear overly dramatic and forecast doom and gloom for the profession. The late night talk show hosts will soon have new fodder for their routines and time will temper the public’s disillusionment. Remaining true to our core values will help us address the challenge of the Enron-Andersen scandal. In fact, one significant opportunity for our firm may evolve from this debacle. Many CPA firms that were not fully committed to accounting software consulting are now very receptive to forging strategic alliances in the wake of the pending regulatory reform. These reforms may compel CPA firms to completely disassociate themselves from software sales. We have a marketing program in place to capitalize on this opportunity. Our objectives include helping the CPA firm remain independent, insulating them from any potential conflict of interest and providing them revenue opportunities that are consistent with their business mission and the changing business climate. By working together, our profession can - and will - survive and prosper.
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