For accounting professionals to grow their firm's book of business, they must know its existing stories. And while not all accountants are meant to be salespeople, constantly cross-selling or marketing new services, they can -- and should -- develop into better storytellers.
This requires firms to communicate and train their staff on these stories, ranging from client successes to failures, from the firm's brand messaging to its strategic plan. And it starts with the classic information-gathering questions.
Firm professionals can only promote the services they know, and it's up to those service line leaders to educate them, according to Angie Grissom and Scott Bradbary of The Rainmaker Companies, which provides training, consulting and alliance services to accounting and consulting professionals.
"It can be something as simple as a lunch-and-learn where service line leaders and brand-new people are brought in," explained Bradbary, Rainmaker's executive vice president. "You tell 10 staff people about this service - not all the details so they get bogged down in it, but what you're doing. A client success story, and a client 'trainwreck'."
"When you asked them to do something, and they ignored that and suffered the consequences," Rainmaker owner and president Grissom clarified. "There's a difference between the facts of a service and having the service leader share a story. People remember a story."
For 12 months, the niche leaders of Seattle-area CPA firm Shannon & Associates have shared theirs over regular lunches. With these experts educating the rest of the firm, staff will be empowered to not only promote the service lines, but the professionals that lead them.
"We want you to introduce and endorse that person," Bradbary explained. "When a client says, 'I paid a lot in taxes last year,' then [you say], 'Let me tell you about Joe, our senior partner.' You want to personalize it and endorse that person."
Meanwhile, the larger story for Maryland-headquartered audit and assurance, tax, and consulting firm SC&H is their recent growth, according to managing director and co-founder Ron Causey, a result of making business development a critical part of their strategic plan.
"Business development is necessary for our firm, for individual career growth and prospects," Causey explained. "We want to retain and attract the best and brightest, and to do that, we have to have a compelling story and the components of a compelling story. We're growing, growing at a faster rate than most CPA firms, and we can say that, put it out in words. But then we have to live it. 'Here are some ways we live it.'"
Even armed with a persuasive story, some accountants still need help selling it.
"We hired a new business development person for one of our new practice areas," shared Kim Nichols, SC&H's director of sales and marketing. "Traditionally, CPAs tend to be a little more introverted and might not be comfortable going out and selling business. The woman we hired is bringing in her own business and acting as a mentor for the group, helping them reach out to clients and going to networking events with them, to help them gain some confidence."
Shannon & Associates also puts a training emphasis on networking, according to partner and administrator Julia Atwood. "We had cross-selling training, and network training was really great, too," she explained.
Once the firm's key leaders have shared their knowledge, the staff should learn how to effectively promote it. Service line descriptions should be brief because, according to Bradbary, "If you can't give it in two sentences, you shouldn't give it."
The number of service lines highlighted should be similarly focused. "In the last three years, firms are getting so many services, especially the larger firms," Bradbary said. "It's overwhelming for young people, senior managers and new partners. Some of the best firms are saying, we want to highlight three to five services for the year to make sure clients know what we do. And reducing that number is what we encourage them to do."
These young people should be exposed to these service-learning opportunities early and often, according to Bradbary and Grissom, through both meetings and firm literature. "There's a menu of services, a playbook each firm should have with the services of the firm listed, and list who offers each with key indicators to show clients," Grissom explained. "And you might need them updated every year."
Along with encouraging younger staff to attend their monthly lunch-and-learns, SC&H gives them business development and marketing guides with information like the firm's services and how to qualify prospects. From there, according to Causey, staff can talk to their mentors about how to get further involved in marketing.
Regular pipeline meetings are also a good time to feature firm services, which Grissom advises firms to do once every two to three pipeline meetings.
SC&H's pipeline meetings, known as monthly director calls, rotate topics, according to Causey: "One might be the actual pipeline, with each director talking about their top three prospects or pursuits ... . Another theme of the monthly director call was cross-selling. That particular call was to come up with the top three clients we can cross-sell to. Another theme: What are the biggest challenges we are facing when trying to sell our services?"
While these methods are effective for internal training, firms are also benefitting from hiring outside help. "An outside consultant was much more impactful," explained Shannon & Associates' Atwood, who brought in Kuesel Consulting's Art Kuesel. "Over four months we implemented a really intense training program with takeaways, worksheets for each program. We started with things like cross-selling and gave them cross-selling worksheets; we worked on developing elevator speeches and how to look for opportunities." One thing they discovered in the process, she shared, was that "not everybody really knew all the services of the firm."
The external perspective was also valuable to Sue Watson, chief operating officer of San Diego-based CPA firm LevitZacks, which also hired Kuesel for marketing training after, she stressed, the "absolute key [of getting] the managing partner on board."
"It really helped having an expert to rely upon," she shared. "I sat there for six months before I contacted him. It was overwhelming. But someone can distill it down to a usable road map."
With this guide, firm professionals can market outside the office, at networking events, community service functions and conferences, promoting firm services and developing referral sources. At the same time, more firms are reporting LinkedIn as a valuable enough tool that they also provide staff training on the social network.
Perhaps the most essential part of a firm's story, which can be conveyed through both internal sales calls and LinkedIn groups, is the "why."
As author Simon Sinek put it in his popular TED talk, "Very, very few people or organizations know why they do what they do. And by 'why' I don't mean 'to make a profit.' That's a result. It's always a result. By 'why,' I mean: What's your purpose? What's your cause? What's your belief? Why does your organization exist? Why do you get out of bed in the morning? And why should anyone care?"
The "why" for training your staff in sales and marketing is simple and economically mandated: Firms can no longer remain passive in an increasingly competitive market.
But the larger why, the firm's reason for existing and serving its clients, boils down to a passion that empowers staff to want to promote it -- and is also contagious. "Life's too short not to be passionate about something," Bradbary mused. "Communicate your passion and align your passion with what clients are passionate about."
Good marketing programs, then, not only attract clients but inspire staff. "From two years ago to today, you wouldn't even know this firm, it's not the same," Atwood said, reflecting on Shannon & Associates' only recently making marketing a focus. "The people I would say would have never brought in a client - the shyest second-year staff person, the shyest senior -- to watch a team grow like that is pretty remarkable. "
Watson witnessed a similar behavior shift at LevitZacks. "There were people here for 35 years that hadn't thought about cross-selling, but it's a change in mindset of helping to provide solutions. With the revenue, you see a benefit and every level of employee bringing in clients that they didn't in the past. I just got out of a meeting with a young man that embraced it completely three years ago. He was uncomfortable [selling] as a CPA, and now he's been nominated by [the California Society of CPAs] to be an emerging young professional. He spoke in Sacramento. It helped his career and made him a more well-rounded professional, instead of just a technician ... . Now he's going to be the leader of a new niche we're focusing on."
Despite these successes, however, it's important to remember that not everyone fits into the marketing mold. "The thing that Art pushes and we definitely embrace, is that we're not trying to turn anyone into a salesperson," Atwood explained. "We're giving them the tools to build relationships."
The most vital of these tools is communication, which can be developed through training, but also via technology. A couple of years ago, SC&H implemented a "full-blown" customer relationship management system to capture and track necessary prospect and client data. "It has become mission-critical for us to run the firm," explained Nichols, "instead of blindly going after these pursuits."
One of "a couple things we started more recently is sharing referral sources," Causey added. "Directors have tremendous referral sources and those people [at other levels] can only have so many. We need to leverage those referral sources deeper within the organization. We are starting to introduce potential referral sources to up-and-comers."
Bradbary channeled leadership author John Kotter's Leading Change in explaining, "We under-communicate by a factor of 10, 100 or even 1,000."
"We have got to communicate often," he continued, "in a variety of ways, so that the mission and vision are crystal clear - the stories, myths and legends. The myths and legends of organizations and teams I've been around, their old traditions - telling those stories is so important."
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