[IMGCAP(1)]You have a great reputation, excellent credentials, plenty of practical, relevant experience, and you went to all the right schools. I think you may just be the perfect CPA for me and you are exactly what I am looking for to help with my business. But I just signed an engagement letter with another firm. Huh?

Those of you who have read my articles before have likely assumed that this prospective client made an uninformed decision to hire the “wrong” CPA since they had not spoken to you. Since many of my articles are about business development, you may have also assumed that this article would focus on becoming more visible and more effective as a business developer. Following this line of thinking, you would not have spoken to this prospect and so you would assume that you did not miss an opportunity. That would be a great assumption, but it would be too easy and quite incorrect.

If you had not spoken to this person and they engaged another firm, in fact you did lose an opportunity. However, for this example I am sorry to say you had already spoken to this prospective client during their evaluation process and they still signed a retainer with someone else. You lament “but they told me that I was the perfect CPA!” True, they did share this with you, but a potential reason as to why another CPA scored the client’s business is the crux of this article. Therefore, let’s examine this hypothetical depiction of what could be a very real situation you may have encountered in your practice and will likely encounter in the future.

I am going to put this into a Q&A format recounting the typical dialogue between the CPA who missed the opportunity to score and me.

BT: Thinking back to the time you had your first, and perhaps only, meeting with this particular prospect, how did it go?

CPA: I believe it was a good meeting; they have a business that we have handled before. In fact, we have a great deal of experience with these types of clients, produced very good work, and have had a high degree of success. This client would have been smart to engage us for their business.

BT: How long was your meeting?

CPA: Initial client meetings and consultations are typically an hour.

BT: Did you tell them about all of your experience in their industry?

CPA: Yes, we discussed my background and the firm’s experience at length.

BT: Did the prospective client ask you good questions about your background and experience with their types of business?

CPA: Not really. They did not seem very familiar with what questions to ask.

BT: Then how did you discuss your background and credentials at length with them?

CPA: I told them all about me, my background, our firm, who is on our staff and where they went to school, interned, staff assignments, etc. I told them about our firm’s history, and we enjoyed a cup of coffee together.

BT: In speaking with the prospective client about their business needs, which nuances were unique to their company that were different than others you have worked with previously?

CPA: Well, for the most part their company seemed the same as the others we have handled. In fact, it was quite typical for a business in that industry.

BT: Has this prospect ever changed accounting firms before?

CPA: I’m not sure, but they didn’t say so.

BT: Did you ask them?

CPA: Well…no.

BT: Did you discuss specific requirements or any expectations the client would want from your firm?

CPA: Briefly, but there wasn’t too much time for details.

BT: Do you know why this prospect is looking for a new firm?

CPA: Again, I wasn’t able to get to that level of granularity—after all it was just the initial meeting with them.

BT: How about what capabilities they absolutely must have from any firm they engage?

CPA: I’m sorry, but I don’t know that either.

While this is a bit of an exaggeration, these are the types of questions I might ask a CPA after learning they had not gotten an engagement they thought was ideal for them. We often find a common thread in analyzing these situations: the CPA actually asked the prospective client very few questions and spent much of the time “selling” themselves and their firm.

In a profession that relies so heavily on relationships—why don’t CPAs ask potential prospects more questions? The answer—a misguided focus! The CPA was focused on the wrong area during the call or meeting. They were focused on themselves rather than on the client, the client’s business, and how they could positively impact its success!

Whenever discussing a matter with a prospective client for the first time, the focus must be on the client. The goal is to find out all the information you can during the initial meeting. The objective should be to ask as many good questions as possible to expose and identify challenges, learn about the parties involved, their personalities and the politics. It’s important to learn about and understand the underlying dynamics, and ask what the client expects from their ideal CPA firm.

The more you learn about the client during this initial meeting the easier it will be to recount and demonstrate your experience and competency as it relates to their company. As the meeting draws to a close, you will have the opportunity to summarize key points and connect your prior successes with the client’s current situation. Remember to discuss a “next step” as to how you will proceed.

Clients often need an opportunity to be truly heard by someone willing to listen to their story—someone with their best interests in mind. Listening to your prospect and giving them the opportunity to speak shows them that you care as much about them as you do about getting their business.

Following this approach provides two key benefits:

First: It puts the focus where it belongs—on the prospect! Asking good questions helps the CPA get the facts about the situation the prospect is facing, and learn more about the personality of the client, and how they might react when working together. Knowing that there is room for flexibility and discussion may allow greater latitude for success, while a recalcitrant client may require significant additional time to be invested, which could jeopardize the account’s profitability.

Second: No selling required! Most CPAs I talk to say they hate to “sell.” This approach dramatically reduces the amount of “sales time” required. The beauty lies in the simplicity of the system. By asking good questions, you have the opportunity to demonstrate your competence in the subject area by using anecdotal evidence. The more and better questions asked, the better information received and the better positioned you will be to win the engagement. And it won’t feel like selling.

Try asking more and telling less. Asking great questions is the route to more engagements and one of the best ways to grow your practice and your firm’s revenues.

Bill Taylor is president of Corporate Ladders, a business development consulting and coaching firm specializing in top line revenue growth for legal and other professional services firms. You can reach him with your questions or comments by phone at (201) 825-8296 or email at wbtaylor@corporateladders.com.

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