In our consulting work, we often hear firm leaders complain about the lack of cross-selling at their firms. We believe there is an existential reason for this lack, and we’d like to explore why.

He said: The cross-selling problem starts with whether the individual accountant sees themself as the client’s trusted advisor or just as the client’s CPA. Trusted advisors always find new opportunities for additional work because they look at the whole picture and see possibilities to continue helping. Compliance-minded people tend to think their work is done once the project or task is completed.

She said: A major differentiator is that a trusted advisor looks outward while a compliance worker looks inward. Here’s another way to think about it: Compliance-minded providers make sure they check all the boxes on their list. Consultative advisors aren’t confined to a checklist. They think beyond specific tasks and view the client as a multi-dimensional whole, with a past, present and future.

This way of thinking opens the door to the multitude of factors that inevitably impact one’s financial and organizational preparedness and health. Both types of professionals are needed, but there is more market demand for trusted advisors.

He said: Well, the world has changed and it is up to firms to take advantage of the shift. In past years, growth was attainable through providing good service simply by answering clients’ technical questions about tax and audit, for example. Many professionals forgot that the magic in client relationships comes from truly understanding — and responding to — the client’s needs.

She said: You said it! We call this, “Walking up the value ladder with clients.” When you are able to provide more than commodity work by becoming increasingly more familiar with the client’s issues, moving into a trusted partnership and even providing innovative solutions, you are at the top of the ladder. It is a glorious place to be. The view is better, price sensitivity decreases, and loyalty is at an all-time high. Who wants to worry about competitors snatching away their clients anyway?

He said: I have to agree. Hands down, the best way to serve clients is through a consultative partnership approach that treats each client or prospect as unique. The approach is based on three key principles:

1. Seek relationships with clients as true business partners;

2. Use consultative selling skills to solve client problems; and,

3. Embrace an abundance mentality as opposed to a scarcity mentality

She said: I like where you are going with this. Let’s drill down on each principle to provide our readers with some specific action steps. In your first principle, you mention “relationship” and “partners.” To me, a relationship means more than a one-time sale. It is a bond developed over time as you climb the value ladder.

He said: Yes. You need to learn a great deal about the client if you are going to have a relationship and become part of their decision-making process. Partnerships of any kind only work when all members benefit and grow from the relationship. A consultative approach requires a sharing of trust and power.

She said: I’ve noticed that a common barrier for accountants is impatience with how long relationships take to form. It’s difficult for them to balance their workloads with the amount of time it takes to have the quality interactions needed to form a deeper bond.

He said: They are busy, but I sometimes wonder if they are busy with the right type of client. They may be spending too much of their time trying to put out fires for lower-value clients and not enough time developing relationships with A-level clients. So, how do they get there? What are some of the consultative selling skills accountants need to develop?

She said: Good question. Accountants need to learn how to listen effectively, what to listen for and how to ask questions that reveal the client’s Reality, Angst, Impact and desired New Reality. (RAIN is a good way to remember it.)

Often, the problem is overcoming the fear of not being able to immediately answer the client’s questions. Once you realize that you don’t have to know all the answers, a whole new world opens up for you as an advisor.

He said: So when a potential need comes up that you cannot serve or have no expertise in, you can refer it to someone who can solve it.

She said: Precisely. It’s called the abundance mentality approach. You have the ability to serve your clients as well as to connect them with others who can provide services you cannot. This positions you as a connector who can create a team of valued advisors for your clients. The clients are well-served, and the team members become referral sources for each other.

He said: Agreed. Connecting the appropriate resources for the good of the client should be one of the goals in these relationships.

They said: Acting as a trusted advisor to your clients is becoming imperative. Chan-ces are you are already acting as an advisor to some clients. Do not be afraid to get outside of your comfort zone and work with your clients to find ways to help them solve their most pressing issues, even if that means connecting them with experts outside of your firm. Now is the time to begin climbing the value ladder with clients and step outside your compliance comfort zone.

August Aquila is a well-known consultant, retreat facilitator and author. Reach him at (952) 930-1295 or aaquilaa@aquilaadvisors.com. Angie Grissom is president of The Rainmaker Companies, which exclusively serves accounting firms. Reach her at (615) 373-9880 or angie@therainmakercompanies.com.

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