[IMGCAP(1)]A few years ago, all you needed to do to get a new client was return a prospective client’s phone call and you were “in.”

Today, however, the increased competition means that you are going to be measured and evaluated in areas beyond where you have been evaluated in the past. Not only do you need to be able to listen effectively to key concerns, but you need to translate those into solutions that speak to the benefits the client receives. And finally, you need to be proficient at the sales-pursuit process. Many firms are finding themselves off guard and unprepared for the sophisticated competition they face on big opportunities – and earning demerit points without even knowing it. Here are a few tips to help you improve your chance for success.

Step 1: Assemble an opportunity-pursuit team

It’s no longer acceptable to be a lone wolf. Building a pursuit team with the right blend of sales and technical talent (as well as managers and seniors who can learn the craft) will markedly increase your chances for success.

Step 2: Research and relationship building

Research the prospective client’s business, recent media exposure, circles of influence for the buyers and influencers, and come to the discovery meeting prepared with some great questions. These questions are intended to demonstrate your understanding of their business, as well as attempt to establish connections with the buyers.

Step 3: Ask great questions in the discovery meeting

In addition to establishing connections and commonalities in the discovery meeting, you have to understand what is most important to the buyers. Assume that you have only ten questions to ask in your meeting, and prioritize them. Prepare an agenda, complete with your questions, and stick to it to make sure you capture everything you need to win. Don’t embarrass yourself by asking a question that could have been answered with some basic research – this will earn you some demerit points.

Step 4: Confirm your findings with the prospect BEFORE you present a proposal

Make sure you are on the right track by rephrasing and confirming responses to the discovery questions while you are in the meeting. If that hasn’t happened effectively in the meeting, consider a “trial” proposal or summary of key concerns and needs that is presented informally to the decision maker(s) prior to the proposal deadline. This will demonstrate your understanding of their needs, and offer the prospect a window into what it would be like to work with you.

Step 5: Present a rock-star proposal

If you present something to your prospects that looks like a book report and your competition presents something that looks like a magazine, add a few demerit points to your score. In your proposal, lead with how you will solve the prospect’s issues and how your approach to serving them will address their key concerns. Use persuasive language, imagery and diagrams, which reduce your prospect’s need to read. People don’t like to read any more than they have to – limit your proposal to 15 pages or less. Finally, your expertise and capabilities are assumed, so don’t spend much time on them.

Step 6: Oral presentation

Don’t plan your oral presentation in the car on the way to give it. If you have a rock-star proposal but an abysmal and disorganized oral presentation, add a few demerit points. Prepare a great outline—PowerPoint deck if appropriate—and rehearse your roles. Don’t bring anyone to the oral presentation that doesn’t have a specific role to play. Close by asking for the business and clearly understand the buying process and next steps.

Step 7: Follow up

If you’ve confirmed the next steps, you won’t fall into the trap of not understanding the buying process or what the next steps are, and will be concerned with being a pest. If there is any follow-up needed, do it immediately. If there is a long time in between your oral presentation and the decision, find a way to stay in touch with the prospect weekly, even if it is just to send them an article on a topic you discussed or other item that would be of value to them in their business.

If you’re not a master of the sales process, you can see how quickly your demerit points can add up and have a significant effect on the prospect’s evaluation of you as a service provider. Follow these steps to minimize your demerit points and maximize your chances for success.

Art Kuesel works at Koltin Consulting Group, helping CPA firms across the country hone and maximize their sales pursuits and win more business. Koltin Consulting serves CPA, law, and financial advisory firms with strategic management consulting, M&A services, executive recruiting and strategic marketing and sales consulting. Art can be reached at 312.245.1745 or akuesel@koltin.com.