[IMGCAP(1)]I am consistently surprised by CPA firms’ lack of process when it comes to obtaining new clients.

Every professional services firm produces proposals on a regular basis, but the process can be inconsistent and challenging, often resulting in scrambling to make deadlines and delivering a weak bid package. From the RFP or that initial call or lead until fruition, there are often many missteps that can be such a detriment to the partners who are trying so hard to close the deal.

In this article, we’ll examine some critical, and often forgotten, aspects of the proposal process, including some tips you can learn to streamline the proposal process—before, during and after that proposal is signed, sealed and delivered.

There are 10 areas of focus that will ensure you secure prospective clients by solidifying your connection with the decision-makers. I will explain the importance of each area and offer specific tips and techniques for each:

1.  Conduct an Interview – Questions! Ask plenty of questions!

Set up a time with the prospect for an “interview” to identify hot buttons, pressing issues, and why they are looking to change service providers.

Include questions like:

•    Who is your current CPA?
•    What is the size of the organization?
•    What is your annual revenue?
•    How many employees do you have?
•    Are there any other related entities?

Dig deeper….and actively listen to their answers. Don’t be so focused on your next question that you interrupt them before they are through. The longer they talk to you, the more they will have “invested” in you.

Other questions to ask are:

•    Are you in need of any services that your current firm is not able to provide? If so, what are these services?
•    Why are you considering changing accountants?
•    Who is your attorney?
•    Who is your banker?
•    What are you currently paying?
•    What other firms are you considering?
•    Were you referred to us? If so, by whom? If not, how did you hear about us?

Tip: Don’t feel that you are taking up too much of their time by asking these questions; on the contrary, they will appreciate your questions as a sign of enthusiasm about potentially serving them. If you are responsive now during the initial introduction, that tells them that you will most likely remain responsive to them during the engagement.

2. Determine the Decision-Making Process – It’s important to determine the process by which the accounting firm will be reviewed and by whom the final decision will be made. And, yes, you’ll be asking a few more questions, including:

•    Can we meet with you and your management staff before we put together a proposal? If so, when and who will be in attendance? (This includes the full name of the person and their title.)
•    How and when will a decision be made?

I can’t tell you how many times I have asked partners about these kinds of details for upcoming prospect meetings and was told that they didn’t know who would be there (most hadn’t asked) and didn’t have any type of agenda for the prospect meeting.

3. Internally Communicate - Make sure all professional staff know about the opportunity.
Communicate the opportunity to the professional staff in the firm so everyone is aware of who you will be meeting with and when. Don’t be tempted to just use the name of the client as a prospect, but do tell a brief story of how the opportunity came about. Include the referral sources, including the Web site, attorney, returning client, etc. If possible, send a link to the LinkedIn profiles or biographies of the main players, including board members, officers, shareholders, etc., as well as the C-suite, and don’t forget to include the treasurer or CFO. It’s a small world—and getting smaller every day—and this is the time to identify who knows who and how.

Another reason for internal communication about new business leads is that it keeps everyone informed about new opportunities—and knowledge is power. This will encourage your professionals to “step it up” so they can be acknowledged. Communicating opportunities to the whole firm helps improve morale and also educates professionals at all levels about “how it’s done.”

4. Leverage Relationships – Identify and leverage existing relationships. Make sure that you follow up with anyone who replied to your internal communication about the prospect meeting. What else do they have in common with the decision-makers at the prospective company? What else can they tell you about that person and/or who else might they know? I encourage a conversation between the staff so any relationships can be relayed at the prospect meeting. Knowing who knows who can be very beneficial, but not knowing who knows who can be detrimental. (I knew a firm that sent out a team to a prospect, only to hear from the prospective firm’s president that he was the brother-in-law of one their accountants (the accountant didn’t know they were even pitching the firm as a prospect!).

5. Research - Learn everything you can about the company and the key players. Whether or not you collect any feedback from your professionals about the prospect, you should perform research on the company including the president/owner, C-suite and/or board, as applicable (i.e., industry trend reports). Put together a short list of references and existing clients for whom you have provided value that are similar in size and scope. Don’t wait for the proposal to do this. Give your professionals some success stories to sprinkle throughout the conversation. Use LinkedIn, Facebook, Internet Search, Google alerts, etc. Using social media can illuminate relationships that you can leverage.

6. Selecting the Right Engagement Team – Think strategically when putting together your engagement team.

By now, you should have some information to get your wheels turning. Consider brainstorming with someone objective about selecting the right engagement team. The lead generator should hand-pick the team based on knowledge about the needs and issues of the prospect and areas of expertise. To increase the chances to foster rapport, consider factors such as age, gender, and other areas of possible mutual and common interest to attempt making a genuine connection among the members of each team. Find out who all attendees of the initial prospect meeting will be on their side.

The most important aspect of the prospect meeting is to solidify some real connection among the service providers and the decision-makers at the prospect.

7. The “Pre-Meeting” Meeting - Determine your team members’ roles to address the needs identified by your prospect during the interview.

Determine who from your team will assume which role during the interaction to ensure you address the needs and issues identified by your prospect. Who will act as the relationship manager (head of team) and which other professionals will be on hand to address possible additional needs and issues identified by the prospect? Will there be a formal presentation? Does it make sense to use PowerPoint? Include a well-formed outcome of the meeting (two to three things you will leave the meeting having accomplished).

8. The “Post-Meeting” Meeting – Openly and honestly discuss how the meeting went. Ask yourself some questions:

•    Who generated rapport on each side?
•    Who will follow up on behalf of the group and how? What is the timeline, etc.?

Tip: Be specific. Don’t leave anything to chance or unassigned to someone. Is there a chance that someone can follow up on the question, “What will it take for us to be selected as your accounting firm?”

9. The Deliverables - If you still have to submit a proposal (as opposed to an engagement letter), consider presenting it as a working document for their review.

I hate to hear that a firm loses out on a bid because another firm came in with a lower fee. In order to remove fees as a possible reason for rejection, consider putting a statement in the proposal such as, “We would like the opportunity to discuss our fees with you should another firm come in with a lower fee,” or something like that, if the prospect is a good one and one that the firm can benefit from serving in the long term. Make sure the document you present answers all the questions from their perspective: who, what, where, how, when, and why after you have written your proposal.

10. Follow-up - If you don’t get the engagement, please find out why. The real reason. Sending out an objective survey after the fact is usually well received and will poise you better for consideration next time. Asking for honest feedback is perceived as a goodwill gesture from the perspective of lost prospects. We know they don’t mind because we’ve asked them; in fact, they appreciate it. If they don’t fill out your questionnaire or survey right away, consider offering them a gift card. And, finally, make sure you share the feedback with your professionals— appropriately of course.

Keeping your focus on these 10 areas might seem a bit overwhelming at first. I often equate it to a large family getting ready in the morning: Dad has an early meeting today and Johnny needs to pack a peanut-free snack, while Jenny has to remember it’s patriotic day, so put on her red, white and blue shirt, and Mom needs to take her vitamins. So much to think about and yet, after a while, it all becomes routine. Adopt one practice at a time and, as this new process becomes integrated, all involved will adopt these new approaches regularly. Why? Because not only do they make things so much easier, but it works!

Lisa Tierney, CLSC, is a certified professional coach and an award-winning consultant to the accounting profession which she has served for over 15 years. She is a frequent author, speaker and facilitator of workshops serving the accounting profession. She currently serves as the vice president of the Philadelphia Chapter of the Association for Accounting Marketing. She is a member of the CPA Leadership Institute's Leadership Panel and an active member of the International Coach Federation. Tierney Coaching & Consulting, Inc. serves multi-partner CPA firms across the country, offering customized marketing plans, business development coaching, leadership development programs and innovative incentive comprehensive programs. Lisa Tierney can be reached at (267) 470-4250 or Lisa@CPAMarketingConsultant.com.

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