Voices

What’s wrong with your firm’s sales process?

The sales process can be arduous even when you have a steady flow of leads coming into your office and plenty of existing work sitting on your desk. Between the appointments that stand you up and unproductive consultations, many accountants get discouraged with the process and wonder how to perfect it.

Conceptually, the sales process is an upside-down funnel (a.k.a., inverted pyramid) that has several layers that your prospects must go through. In other words, you start with a wide base of leads and the prospects work their way down the funnel to a tiny spout at the bottom when you close clients and bring them into your practice.

Much to my surprise, most small accounting firms struggle with separating the wheat from the chaff (e.g., qualifying leads), as well as how long it takes close prospects, and then wonder why diamonds are not dropping through the spout of the funnel.

Breaking your sales process into individual steps makes it much easier for non-sales professionals to appreciate how the process (or dance) works. Below is an illustration of 12 steps that you can take to capture more diamonds.

Step 1: Define your target audience into monthly buckets. Rather than target businesses based on proximity to your office location, target businesses by industry sector (e.g., construction, restaurants, lawyers, doctors, etc.).

Step 2: Craft a targeted message. Develop a direct mail letter that speaks to your target audience. You want a letter that is compelling and identifies the problem that keeps the prospect up at night and how your service helps to solve this problem. The most effective message will have emotion and passion wrapped into the letter, not industry jargon.

Step 3: Send a follow-up message. Develop another letter that builds upon your first letter. If need be, break the target audience into sub-targets (e.g., break construction into HVAC, electricians, painters, roofers/siders, etc.). Craft a letter targeting this specific niche (e.g., HVAC/plumbers).

Step 4: Follow-up phone call. Make your warm phone calls to the sub-target from Step 3.

Step 5: Qualify all leads generated. As the leads come into your office, all leads must be pre-qualified by answering a series of questions before you agree to a meeting. Start the selling process on the phone before meeting in person.

Step 6: Add leads to your newsletter list. All existing clients and prospects should be getting your email newsletter. This will add value to your relationship and educate them on the breadth and depth of your services and keep your firm top of mind. Even if they don't come on board after your initial consultation, keep them on the list. They may come on board many months later or refer someone to you.

Step 7: Keep a running list of all leads generated and their status on a spreadsheet. Every lead that comes into your office should be recorded onto one spreadsheet with the source of the lead, date, contact info, service requested, quote and next steps.

Step 8: Send follow-up letters to promising leads from one to three months ago. For those consultations that are pending and getting cold, it's time to warm them up and send them a letter that keeps them lukewarm. Customize it around their situation and why they should get started now.

Step 9: Call the lukewarm prospects again. Make a follow-up phone call to your prospects that are still on the fence (e.g., prospects you met two to six months ago). Try to identify why they haven't taken a step forward and address their fear. Try to make the move risk-free for them and address their inertia. Get them to take a baby step forward.

Step 10: Invite the old prospects to meet you for coffee. Send an email and invite the fence-sitters from six to 12 months ago to coffee. Create a compelling reason to get together and mention that you have something to share with them (e.g., a paperback book like "E-Myth for Contractors," a special report on tax changes, etc.) that is relevant to their business and can help them improve the quality of their life. Soften up the approach and use the meeting as a vehicle to discuss their business in this economy. Operate like a business coach trying to help them oversee their business, not an accountant.

Step 11: Use your monthly email newsletter to stay in touch. Use the greeting in your monthly email newsletter to announce what's going on in your practice (e.g., upcoming client/prospect appreciation event with outside speakers, holiday wine/cheese, etc.) and invite readers to attend. If one of your clients is an effective speaker, provide a forum for them. Develop a unique personality for yourself, which writers would call a "voice."

Step 12: Send invitations to clients and prospects for upcoming events. Create client/prospect appreciation roundtables that are informational in nature. For some events, you can be the presenter and others can be done by outside professionals. Topics to consider are saving for college, new tax laws for small business, succession planning, minimizing estate taxes, QuickBooks tips, business valuations, 1031 real estate exchanges, and saving for retirement in a recession.

My point is that the selling process is ongoing because some prospects take one to three years to close, while others are instantaneous. Yes, the courting process takes ongoing effort to remain top of mind. The challenge is to recognize that the process is not transactional; it's evolutionary and takes a series of steps to capture more than your fair share of new business.