Many CPAs picture the selling cycle as something like this: Have a meeting where you identify a need, write a proposal, sit down with the prospect and walk out with the business.I call it the two-call close, and it's often more of a fantasy than a formula.

Successful selling is a process, not an event. And it takes time and patience. Plan your steps strategically and you'll get the business more often. It will take a little time, but you'll end up not just with the low-hanging fruit, but with a relationship that will continue to yield business over the long haul.

Step it up

Unless a client is ready to hire you on the spot, you need a progressive process that will lead to the sale. What you accomplish during each step in the process is important to improving your chances of being awarded the business. If you do it right, your odds increase as you execute the steps.

Building a good relationship is one of the two key components in business development. The other is establishing credibility. And both are developed through multiple face-to-face interactions.

The focus of successful opportunity development is identifying and selling the appropriate next step. If you do this right, you'll increase your odds of successfully achieving the overall objective - selling your solution.

Stretching out, or elongating, the process lets you present your thought leadership in bite-sized pieces. This permits the buyer to develop an appreciation for you and your offerings. It's the difference between peeling back an onion one layer at a time, versus trying to gobble down the entire thing in one sitting and getting heartburn! Prospective clients don't like information overload - or heartburn.

Once you train yourself to think in terms of next steps, it will become intuitive. Every time you're talking with a prospective client, focus on two things - the objective of the meeting at hand, and the appropriate next step.

For example, say that you're meeting with a controller and a chief financial officer. The CFO is much more ready to buy than the controller. Think for a second what the logical next step should be. It's not to return with a proposal, but rather to meet with each of them separately so you can uncover more clearly the needs of the controller and move her one step closer to commitment.

Here are some examples of other next steps:

* A return visit during which you present thoughtful responses to specific questions asked during the previous meeting.

* A meaningful e-mail in which you thank the buyer for his time and offer a suggestion for how to approach a particular challenge. In this case, you're not so much giving away the store as offering a hint of what you can bring to the table.

* A follow-up e-mail to which you attach additional information, such as an article you wrote, a description of a similar project, a testimonial, a client reference, etc.

* A phone call in which you propose returning in order to discuss his needs further.

* A follow-on meeting with additional professionals to strengthen the relationship and continue to build credibility.

These and other next steps help the buyer get to know and trust you. But keep in mind that you may not know exactly which step is the right one until the current meeting unfolds. Watch and listen for clues that will reveal your next move. Over time, you'll get better at assessing the perfect next step. The prospects will tell you whether you're moving too quickly or slowly by their reaction to your next step recommendations.

Here's another tip. I almost always ask the following question as I begin a meeting: "Is there anything that's changed since we last met?" In any dynamic environment lots of things change from day to day - personnel, budgets, priorities, etc. Asking this question puts you in touch with hot buttons, enables you to recalibrate your strategy, and helps you avoid spending time and energy on issues that are no longer relevant.

Ready?

Remember that a buyer will not buy until she is ready; trying to unnaturally force that process can mean you'll never get the business, and you certainly won't build the relationship and credibility required. It's time to close the business when the buyer is ready to buy something from you - and not before. Your job is to get them closer with each next step.

Proceed by steps and reap the rewards.

Gale Crosley, CPA, is the founder and principal of Crosley+Co. (www.crosleycompany.com), providing revenue growth consulting and coaching to CPA firms. Reach her at gcrosley@crosleycompany.com.

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