In many CPA firms, business development skills and techniques aren't even discussed until a manager is ready to move to partnership. And as they say, it's hard teaching an old dog new tricks.The ability to bring in new business for the firm is typically a condition of partnership, and yet firms aren't equipping their managers and senior managers with the skills they need to do so. Your staff is the future of your firm; give them the tools that they need to help build your client base and prepare them to become leaders.

Sales training

Whether formally or informally, you should hold customized training sessions for your staff, managers and senior managers. The best method for providing sales skill training is to develop an over-the-career approach that builds on each learned skill, includes repetition of key points, and provides the opportunity to practice certain skills in a non-threatening environment.

Early in their career, staff sessions should include lessons on identifying client needs, how to talk benefits, and networking training. The sessions later in their careers (manager/senior manager level) should move into more advanced prospecting skills, such as using high-gain questions to determine the needs of a client or prospect, working the sales cycle, overcoming objections, and closing sales.

Working with staff early and teaching them to network, bring additional services to clients, and even get involved in prospecting will pay off in the long term - not only in terms of staff skill development, but also in terms of improving employee retention and the firm's bottom line.

Involving younger staff

You might not believe it, but your firm's staff wants to be involved and feel like they're part of the group. If they believe that they can contribute to the firm's growth, they will feel more valuable and enjoy higher job satisfaction.

Typically, entry-level accountants don't start work knowing how to perform business development. And it's a pretty rare staff member who will feel confident enough to contribute without some direction.

Because marketing and sales do not come naturally to everyone, it's helpful to add a mix of sales and marketing activities into staff routines early on, so it becomes a fixed aspect of how they work.

* Developing their product knowledge. At staff meetings, go over two or three product sheets - have service specialists present them and then ask each attendee to identify a client who could use the service, and then follow up.

Nothing will make staff more effective at business development than understanding your firm's products and services. They don't need to understand the technical aspects of the service delivery. Train them on the symptoms that indicate a need for the service and the benefits and deliverables that your firm provides. Most importantly, make sure that they know who to go to internally if they discover an opportunity.

All of this information can be documented in a one-page product sheet, which can be used in training. Be sure to answer questions so that they feel comfortable with the information. The goal is to get everyone to the point where they are at ease bringing up new services with clients.

* Completing homework. Ask your staff to each identify one new service need that a client may have during fieldwork. Or, ask staff to do research on a prospect before a sales call.

* Practice makes perfect. Have your staff present to partners - even technical information such as audit procedures. This gives them experience speaking in front of a group of people.

* Becoming involved. The staff should pick a community organization and become active on a board or special committee. This way they will get out and meet people.

* Let them tag along. Take your staff out on sales calls. Meet ahead of time to plan the sales call, and again afterward to debrief and discuss any follow-up.

* Have a game plan. Hold planning meetings and debriefing meetings before and after events (e.g. chamber events and networking events with referral sources). Discuss items such as how to work the room, how to present your 30-second speech, and how to open conversation beforehand. After, regroup and discuss who people met, what they talked about and how to follow up.


Accountability is an often-overlooked aspect of business development that should be introduced to your staff members early in their career. Institute some kind of tracking record, then review it with them monthly or quarterly, and see whom they are talking to and what the next steps are.

Young staff don't necessarily need a specific growth goal, but do identify specific, quantified action steps that they need to implement to contribute to growth, such as attending a specific number of industry or community events, or identifying a certain number of new service opportunities with clients. Follow up to ensure that they understand that growth is important to the firm, and that everyone must contribute.

It's up to you to create a growth culture in your firm, and make it clear that every employee is responsible for building the firm's business. It can be built into the way staff are taught to serve clients, and by demonstrating by example that the firm makes time for business development.

For this to happen there must be accountability - for everyone, from partner to staff.

Diamonds in the rough

You'll be amazed at what your younger staff will accomplish in terms of business development if you just explain what to do and teach them the skills they need to succeed.

Many staff members enter accounting firms when they are fresh from college, bringing with them a wealth of technical knowledge, but limited people skills. Give them the tools they need to grow, and the whole firm will reap the rewards.

Larry Bildstein, CPA, is the president and CEO of The Whetstone Group Inc., in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, which specializes in helping CPA firms grow and build their business through effective growth planning and marketing.

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