[IMGCAP(1)]The accounting field may appear at first to be almost the opposite of sales. After all, you’re not trying to get a hospital to buy the latest x-ray machine. But the truth is: If you’re in business, you’re in sales. That’s the only way you can sustain and grow your accounting practice.

This reality can, of course, be very uncomfortable for accountants, but if you think of sales as persuasion, you’ll realize that you’ve been practicing sales techniques since childhood. Every time you try to convince someone to see the movie you want to see, for example, you’re selling or persuading.

It’s also true that every time you talk to someone about your business, you are selling your service. It doesn’t mean that you have to be at all pushy or manipulative about it. In fact, the old image of the fast-talking, overbearing salesperson is just that … old. Most of the best techniques avoid that stereotypical salesperson persona entirely.

As you are spending time with clients and prospects, here are some ways to sell your accounting services without feeling as though you’re working in a used car lot:

Listen to potential clients. One of the common negative beliefs about salespeople is that they talk and talk without letting anyone else get a word in edgewise. The truth is that an excellent business developer knows how to listen. This is how you find out what your client needs so you can specifically address how you can fill those needs.

Show that you understand the problems of your clients. If you listen to your client’s needs, you have the opportunity to empathize with that client’s problems. This allows your potential client to develop trust in you quickly. For example, when a client describes an issue to you, tell a story about how you resolved a similar issue for another client. This is a way of communicating your experience without the old fashioned sales pitch.

It’s all about them. Never forget that for a potential client, it’s all about what you can do for them. Your credentials are great, but what’s the bottom line? Any potential client wants to know what benefits they will receive from working with you. How can you help them improve their business? How can you make their financial operations more efficient? How can you decrease their expenses? That’s what they want to know.

Do your homework. When you find a prospect whose business you want to attract, do some research to see if you can determine what that prospect needs. Of course, review the company’s Web site, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Search online for press releases, annual reports, articles about the company, articles by key executives, and articles quoting key executives. When you meet with your prospect, he or she will be impressed with what you already know about the company. It demonstrates your interest in truly serving the needs of an organization.

Don’t miss sales opportunities. While you don’t want to push your business on everyone you meet in social situations, learn to watch for opportunities. Networking really is as important as everyone says it is. You never know when you might meet someone who needs your firm’s services. Never leave the house without business cards, and feel free to speak proudly about your firm when someone asks you, “What do you do?” Let’s say someone responds by saying, “I run an interior design firm.” If you’ve worked with an interior design firm before, mention it. If you genuinely find it to be an interesting field, say so. If you know anything about specific accounting issues that might arise in that field, mention that as well.

Know your strong points. If you aren’t sure what distinguishes your firm from your competition, it’s time to sit down and figure it out. Just being an accounting firm isn’t enough. You need to establish something that is special and unique about what you can offer clients.

Remember that everyone at your firm represents you. The truth is that everyone on your team is in sales, and all of them represent your firm’s brand when they’re out and about. Just as you should network for your business, so should all of your employees. This means that everyone needs to have a clear understanding of the strong points of your firm, and they should be trained in how to talk about your business.

Pay attention to your current clients. Many businesses focus so much on getting new clients that they forget to cultivate the clients they already have. But the truth is that it’s easier to maintain a client than to gain a new one. Still, just because someone has hired your firm in the past doesn’t mean they’ll continue to do so unless they feel they’re valued as a client. This means that you need to stay in touch with your existing client base and constantly add value to your services. What can you do that will make your firm even more attractive to your current clients, and how can you show them that they’re important to you?

Build long-term relationships. When you pay attention to your existing clients, you build long-term relationships. When you always deliver what you promise, you build long-term relationships. That’s how you sustain your business for many years. When your firm makes a mistake or is unable to meet a deadline, offer to make it up to the client. When you show your loyalty by going the extra mile and taking responsibility for errors, your clients will show their loyalty in return.

Learn how to “close” a sale. You’ve probably heard about the art of “closing” a sale, and the idea may make you cringe. But there is no “fast talk” involved. “Closing” is simply about clarifying what will happen next. If you feel that a prospect is very interested in your firm, you can simply say, “I’d love to arrange for our firm to take care of your accounting needs. Can we set up a meeting to discuss the details next week?” If you feel that your prospect is lukewarm, you can simply ask, “Can I call you next week to talk about it some more? I think we could really help your company decrease your tax burden.” If that still feels like too much for the circumstances, you might simply want to try to schedule a lunch where you will intermingle business talk with small talk. Again, it’s all about cultivating long-term relationships — whether with an existing client or prospective client.

For many accountants, the idea of closing a sale or speaking with pride about their firm is simply uncomfortable. In order to network and build your business, however, it’s necessary to overcome some of your shyness. Learn about body language so you can read the responses of others. This will help you to feel more confident as you try to step beyond your comfort zone. Then, think about how you like to be treated when someone is offering you their services, and you’ll act appropriately. Simply remember that you aren’t a salesperson per se, but you are always selling.

As a shareholder at The Growth Partnership, Lisa Benson guides the strategy and operations of the Lead Generation Services Division. Using a sophisticated nurture-marketing model, she and her team of experienced marketing and business development professionals help accounting firms achieve a delicate balance between short-term results and long-term relationships.

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