by Sheldon Needle

Accountants who are interested in the consultative selling of technology services and products should realize that this is not at all a matter of selling. It is about listening, interpreting and problem-solving — with the skills of a professional consultant.

For years, CPAs have heard that consulting is a great area to enter. However, only a small fraction of those who try it succeed. The primary reason they fail is because they lose sight of the consultant’s true mission of helping clients to do a better job of running their businesses.

Consultants are typically called in to solve a specific problem. This can mean many things, such as moving the client from a legacy system, providing more functional software, or helping to manage an installation. The consultant or reseller comes in and solves the specific problem.

This scenario is fine, but how far does it go toward solving the total corporate problem, and, more important, does it help build a strategic relationship between the client and the consultant? If the project’s goals are short-term, it may never lead to anything else.

Projects that are long-term in vision are better for you and your client. The trick is getting management to take an enterprise-wide perspective toward improvement. This entails operational systems and processes, analysis, quality issues, customer perspective and more.

This is a way in which consultative selling becomes an ongoing discussion of opportunities for improvement in your client’s business and how your services can help make things happen. But there are several keys to its successful execution.

Careful listening

Many consultants try to impress their clients with how much they know about technology. How utterly boring and beside the point this is! You never learn anything when you talk.

Several years ago, I lost a valuable opportunity by spending time trying to impress the prospect with my knowledge of management and computers. After an hour, he got sick of hearing about this and never bothered calling me in again.

When listening, be ready to ask many open-ended questions to get the needed information. Open-ended questions do not ask for “yes” or “no” responses but, rather, invite speakers to think more about the point they want to make.

Processes

Company processes essentially drive operations. But processes are often relics of past assumptions about how things should be done. The time to challenge old assumptions is when looking at new systems.

The way the new system operates is just as important as its features and functions. Your job is to determine how things should be done, then find a system that mirrors that.

Determining how things should be done and which systems work best are what the “best practices” databases of large consulting firms are designed to do. In addition, you will want to measure the costs of completing key processes based on the old system, and then compare this to the new system where improvements have been suggested.

Company plans

An important tenet today is relating technology planning to a client’s business plan. Since few companies have meaningfully written business plans, it is often your job to help management articulate its goals.

Goal articulation is a subtle process that requires leadership and a general understanding of all the key elements of the enterprise. This includes not only production or distribution, but also marketing, financial reporting, cost accounting and so on. A true generalist with outstanding communication skills is necessary to accomplish this.

A recent example of combining planning with tech requirements involved a mortgage banker. Mortgage banking has become a very competitive industry, with a premium placed on loan approval turnaround.

The company in question decided that, in order to remain competitive, it had to reduce turnaround time from two days to 30 minutes. This sounds like an impossible task, yet this objective remained foremost when seeking a new software solution. But, before going deeply into vendors, they invested time in thinking through how the new process would need to work to achieve the necessary turnaround time. This process involved key people from all departments and unconventional thinking about how things could be done.

This painstaking process resulted in a rough concept of a new process, and crystallized when they saw new software that offered the latest in workflow and program “triggers” to move documents through the system. Triggers are such things as e-mails being sent to the appropriate parties to facilitate the movement of approvals, and their automatic storage.

Without having gone through the process improvement step themselves, the company would not have been nearly as well prepared to make the optimum software choice.

Skills you need

At one time, having a knowledge of accounting and a basic understanding of computers was about all you needed to consult successfully. Essential skills go way beyond that now. In order to do the best possible job for clients today, you need a suite of skills, including:

Data modeling. This is the ability to lay out a company’s information system, including all essential operational and financial data, in relational diagrams. This is based on a study of the data needs of various

departments to minimize redundancy, identify areas of improvement, eliminate unnecessary data, and maximize the utility of reports.

Activity-based costing. ABC is a method of tracing costs to the activities that drive them and tracing the activities to the products and services they relate to. This replaces the traditional means of allocating indirect costs based on direct labor hours.

Data warehousing. Even smaller organizations can benefit from maintaining extensive historical detail about customers, products, costs, etc. The consultant has to be adept at helping decide which data can be strategically useful in analyzing activities.

Strategic marketing activities. Once it was enough to assign a class code to a customer for analytical purposes. Now, you need to know the customer class and an array of demographics about customers and their buying behaviors. You also need specifics about marketing channels and what product characteristics are important to different classes.

All the required marketing data can be captured through the computer and used strategically to identify customers and target mailings.

Quality management. This may involve technology such as specialized call-tracking databases, more responsive order-tracking systems, more specific data on customer returns, and customer surveys.

Change management. The best information in the world operating with the best software will never achieve its potential without the enthusiastic support of operating personnel. The consultant’s job includes introducing new systems and new technology in a way that creates personnel “buy-in” by making them feel like they are owners and not just bystanders.

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