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Pathways to Growth: Putting the sizzle back in the steak

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For many years, only the largest accounting firms had business developers on staff. For smaller organizations, the very idea of “selling” seemed somehow beneath our profession. And with audit and tax nearly the only offerings on the menu, there wasn’t a lot of sizzle to sell.

When they did engage in salesmanship, mid-market players might hire a friendly banker — someone with a wide smile and a fat Rolodex (Google it, millennials). But think about it: Our annuity work, so easy to renew every year, is being replaced by consulting work, which is often project-driven. If there was ever a time to include hiring business developers in your long-range strategy, it certainly is now. I predict that within five years, BDs in the mid-market will be as common as, well, every other function that’s represented in today’s modern CPA firms.


Ahead of the curve

Rob Lightman, principal and director of business development at Top 100 Firm Withum, wrote the book on selling in the accounting space. According to the Princeton, N.J.-based firm’s website, Rob oversees “the acquisition of new client relationships and spearheads the outside sales function.” Notice the use of the “S” word — Withum is not afraid of sales, and you shouldn’t be either!

After a brief period with a small firm, Rob spent about 10 years as a tax compliance specialist for Arthur Andersen. Late one night it dawned on him that pushing out tax returns at 2 a.m. just wasn’t his jam. So, Rob moved into tax consulting and, later, tax software sales. An avid student, Rob was blessedly unburdened by stereotypes about salespeople (that they love to party, drink a ton, are intellectually lightweight, etc.). He did well in sales, and his success attracted attention, including that of Big Four firm PwC, which hired him to work in business development for the firm’s private client services group.

In 2009, Withum managing partner and CEO Bill Hagaman recruited Rob to what ultimately became starting a business development function for the firm.

Unfortunately, not all Withum partners shared enthusiasm for business development. Many had no idea Rob was even there, and those who did know of him saw little need for his function.

When I started consulting with Withum soon after Rob arrived, I learned that he had not been asked to attend the annual partners’ retreat. I strongly suggested he be invited. It was clear to me that Rob needed to be at the table. We both knew this would take some work.


Skills and obstacles

In order for our professionals to succeed, they need two sets of skills in equal measure. The first is the capacity to establish the firm’s technical credibility, and the second is the ability to navigate prospective client politics and power to persuade others. (Rob has both, by the way.)

These skills are essential in a crowded marketplace with commoditized offerings. For example, a less sophisticated buyer who doesn’t see much difference among three audit providers will often defer to prior experience. Selling capabilities are even more important in markets where revenue is increasingly of the non-annuitized variety, and sustainable, profitable revenue depends on creating a robust opportunity pipeline.

Despite Rob’s expertise, there was not a mad rush of partners beating a path to his office. A small number relied on him and worked with him consistently. But over time others saw the value and followed suit. Today, Rob oversees a 12-person sales group that operates across Withum’s seven-office territory. About 75 percent of his time is spent coaching and managing the team, with the rest devoted to pursuing large opportunities.

Rob’s well-oiled team is successfully selling high-margin opportunities. Each doesn’t necessarily repeat every year, but these projects drive large chunks of more profitable revenue, and are the result of a full pipeline.

Jim Bourke, the head of Withum’s advisory services group, which is very much a non-annuity business, “gets it.” And Rob has seamlessly worked with Withum’s marketing team, underscoring the essential integration between sales and marketing. Rhoda Maraziti, the chief marketing officer, has a lead-generation machine that enables leads to find their way to Withum, ready to be picked up by Rob’s group.

More than a decade after Rob joined Withum, his value to the firm has been magnificently realized, and widely acknowledged. If your partners or firm leaders are stuck in the antiquated, anti-sales mentality, I encourage you to share this article with them. I gladly sing the praises of a sales guru who beat back the naysayers to find respect, and well-deserved success.

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Business development Client acquisition WithumSmith+Brown Gale Crosley
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