by August J. Aquila

It is well known that many accountants have completely erroneous perceptions of marketing and selling a professional service — marketing doesn’t work, selling is unprofessional and pushy, and why would anyone get a degree in accountancy just to be a salesperson?

It is also well known that the lifeblood of any organization is bringing in new business.

So, how do we bridge this gap?

First, firm marketing directors can educate and train accounting professionals in the differences between marketing a product and marketing a professional service. When you market a product, you can get someone to buy it even if they don’t need it at the present time. It makes no difference if it’s a car (0 percent financing) or your favorite brand of cereal on sale. For example, last week our local supermarket had a brand-name candy bar on sale — four for $1. Did I need them? No — but the sale price encouraged me to stock up. The manufacturer persuaded me to buy the candy that I didn’t even know I needed.

Now, can marketing or an accountant persuade a prospect to buy or stock up on audits, especially when the prospect doesn’t need one? I doubt it. If the prospect’s lending institution only requires a review, the prospect won’t be enticed to move up to an audit no matter how good my offer is. Marketing a service (advertising, public relations, articles, etc.) at best keeps your name in front of your prospects and clients. When the need for a service arises, you hope that they call you.

There is another major difference between services and products. As marketing expert Bruce Marcus told me recently, “If I sell you a product, the product stays and I go. If I sell you a service, I stay.” Since the service provider is staying with the client, firms have to make sure that that individual has the right technical, business, sales and personal skills to properly work with the client.

Clients come to pros
It’s true! Clients come to us because they have problems that are beyond their knowledge and expertise. They do not come because we have a great Web page or a slick brochure. While those marketing tools are necessary to keep our name in front of client, clients look for a professional who has the experience and skills that they need to solve their problems. If you don’t have them, you are not in the game.

Remember that clients are looking for professionals when they have a need. If the client does not have a pressing need, you cannot actively sell to them, but you can maintain the relationship and gain an understanding of the problem.

Selling is tougher today
The marketplace has changed drastically over the last 20 years. You and I are not the only game in town. Clients have an array of choices available to solve their problems.

Professionals must recognize that today’s clients know there are other options. In fact, each of us has helped make this a reality through our marketing programs. We have educated our clients. We have broken the ties that were based on relationships alone. Today, it is not the relationship that matters, it is the service that is delivered. In the eyes of the client, service has become more important than any personal relationship.

At the same time, clients’ businesses have become more complex. New technology applies to all types of industries and services. Different management techniques abound. International dependence and interdependence is common for most businesses today.

Finally, there is an evolving and changing perception of accountants on the part of the public, especially in this post-Enron period. Not only have accountants lost some of their luster, but technology has taken away from them their “black box.” Clients today have the same technology (QuickBooks, Turbo Tax, etc.) that was once the domain of the accountant.

Today’s client not only needs and wants greater sophistication and skills, but a more meticulous understanding by the professional of what they need and want, and how best to meet those needs. While marketing promises may attract prospects, it is only with professional services delivery that you can keep them.

What they don’t teach
Howard Roark, the protagonist in Ayn Rand’s “The Fountainhead,” said, “I don’t design buildings to have clients, I have clients in order to design buildings.” The same can be said of accounting firms. You don’t have a firm to have clients, you have clients in order to practice your profession. If you want to change the makeup of your firm, you need to change your clients. No successful professional practice can be irrelevant to the needs of its clients.

And yet too many firms grow randomly by accumulating clients and then fitting services to meet those clients’ needs. This is, at best, a haphazard growth strategy. Firms that grow in good and bad economic years understand the needs of each client, and then structure the firm to meet those needs. It is only by meticulously defining the type of client you want to serve and then building your services to meet their needs that you will prosper in today’s competitive environment.

If prospects come to you because of your skills, then the only thing professionals can sell are solutions — and there is nothing unprofessional about that. Firms use a variety of tactics to generate leads and opportunities, but let me make one thing perfectly clear — the ultimate selling (i.e., the solution to the problem at hand) can only be done by the professionals themselves.

While there are many ways to uncover a client’s problem, here is a procedure that has worked well for me.

1. Identify the right prospect for the firm.
2. Discover the prospect’s problem.
3. Demonstrate that you understand the problem.
4. Help the prospect realize  you can resolve the problem.
5. Show your personal value and the value of your solution.
6. Watch the prospect decide to retain you.

Good luck!

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