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What a CPA Firm Is Selling

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					    a Trusted article                                           Charles H. Green, 2007

                                                                  When Clients Don’t Buy
                                                           What a CPA Firm Is Selling

    Relevant Resources          When clients don’t buy what a CPA firm is selling, it’s unlikely that
                                they don’t want what you’re selling. More likely it’s that they’re
    Wall Street Run Amok:
                                not buying how the service is being sold.
    Why Harvard’s to Blame
                                For example, a potential client is talking with several accounting
    Article:                    firms about a significant assignment. One firm has expertise in that
    Banking Relationship        area and understands the client’s issues, and the meeting goes well.
    Strategies and Fake Trust   The firm bids competitively, recognizing the value of potential
    Blog Post:                  future work. The final presentation is a hit, but another firm gets
    Dealing with Pricing        the engagement.
    Objections: Podcast with
    Charles H. Green on         The firm is surprised because the winning firm is not one that many            in the business community would consider to be as competent. A
                                week later, the firm asks the client for feedback. The client politely
                                demurs, suggesting that the bid price may have been a bit out of line;
                                maybe next time. The firm is puzzled, and concludes that things
                                really are getting awfully competitive out there.

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                                                                                           Charles H. Green, 2007

                                                                               When Clients Don’t Buy
                                                                         What a CPA Firm Is Selling

                    A  month later, a partner of the firm acciden-
                       tally (though legally) hears that the winning
                 bid was 25% higher than the firm’s own bid. Some
                                                                         be helpful, but it was as if you were eager to
                                                                         be helpful for anyone—not just for us.”
                                                                           The CPA firm partner asks, “What could
                 weeks later, the partner sees the would-have-           we have done differently or better?” The cli-
                 been client at a golf course, and in that informal      ent responds, “I don’t know. It’s just one of
                               setting tells him of the new informa-     those things. You have to get your times at bat.
       When clients               tion, saying, “I can appreciate that   But I think we’ll be seeing you again one of
                                   perhaps you told me price was the     these days.” The partner leaves the golf course
     don’t buy what
                                   issue to avoid a difficult conver-    dumbfounded.
       a CPA firm                  sation, but I would consider it a
      is selling, it’s             favor if you’d be truthful with me    What the Problem Isn’t
                                   and help me understand what hap-         David Maister, this author’s co-author
    unlikely that they
                                    pened. It happens too often, and I   on the book The Trusted Advisor, wrote in
    don’t want what                  don’t know why.”                    another book, Managing the Professional
      you’re selling.                  The client assesses the CPA’s     Services Firm (Free Press, 2004): “[T]he
                                    sincerity, and replies: “The         problem is never what the client said it was
      More likely it’s
                                   truth is, there just wasn’t that      in the first meeting.” Accounting-firm cli-
     that they’re not              sense of something—chemistry,         ents, from CFOs to treasurers to comptrollers,
     buying how the                trust, click, I don’t know what—      have no trouble telling their CPA firm what
                                   that we had with the other firm.      they want.
     service is being
                                   You had a fine track record and          Most professional services providers, such
          sold.                   lots of good things to say. Your       as lawyers, actuaries, and management consul-
                                firm certainly has the credentials       tants, are highly abstract, disciplined, analyti-
                 and clearly understands our business—but                cal, structured, and unemotional. But accoun-
                 we just didn’t connect, we didn’t feel like you         tants stand out within professional services
                 understand our company. You were eager to               on one dimension in particular: They are the

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                                                                                       Charles H. Green, 2007

                                                                            When Clients Don’t Buy
                                                                    What a CPA Firm Is Selling

                   most level-headed, “reasonable” professionals. How Financial Services
                   Perhaps it has to do with the need to balance     Buyers Buy
                   debits and credits, to cross-foot spreadsheets.      Decisions like the one described above are
                   It may involve the ubiquity of money: Not         typically made in two stages: screening and
                   every issue is a legal, human resources, or       selection. The first stage is somewhat rational.
                   information technology issue, but every issue     Round up the usual suspects, throw in the
                   must be financed or budgeted or has other         chairman’s favorite, rate them objectively on
                                financial impacts. Those qualities   criteria assessed by an assistant controller,
         The CFO is               are the perfect characteristics    then narrow down the field to three or so
                                   for financial managers. Other     firms to be invited to submit bids and make
     likely to describe
                                   managers in a company look to     presentations.
        the selection              financial managers for permis-       The CFO is likely to describe the selection
      process as being               sion to undertake initiatives;  process as being just as rational as the screen-
                                     for guidance about what is      ing process, but the truth is otherwise. The
       just as rational
                                    reasonable; for parceling out    personality traits of financial buyers show
      as the screening             resources and rewards; for        why such a person will want a process that
      process, but the             evaluating whether things are     is objective, data-based, defensible, analyti-
                                   going well; even for defining the cal, and—above all—rational. The next-to-last
    truth is otherwise.
                                  very rules by which the rest of    thing the CFO wants is a wrong decision; the
                   the company operates.                             very last thing he wants is the appearance of
                      In general, such a person will strive to be    a wrong decision.
                   clinical, removed, judicious, fair, analytical,      This is how accounting firms end up being
                   detached, balanced, cautious, deductive, and      presented with questions like:
                   will strive not to appear whimsical, passion- • Tell us why we should hire you.
                   ate, partisan, emotional, confused, indecisive, • Tell us what is so different about your
                   erratic, or otherwise not in control.                firm.

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                                                                                   Charles H. Green, 2007

                                                                        When Clients Don’t Buy
                                                                  What a CPA Firm Is Selling

                • Tell us how you would go about this                The deeper truth will not be spoken aloud:
                   work.                                          The financial buyer really wants someone
                • Tell us about your credentials and              who makes him feel good about the decision.
                   references.                                    Someone he can trust, someone whose selec-
                • Tell us what you know about our industry        tion will allow him to sleep at night, some-
                   and our business.                              one he knows will go the extra mile, who can
                   And a firm being interviewed will generally    be depended upon to speak the truth, who
                            be told things like:                  knows the limits of his abilities and is not
        The deeper           • We want your best people on        embarrassed to admit them when appropriate,
                               this.                              someone who will behave appropriately in
      truth will not
                             • We need a very good price on       all circumstances, who knows how to finish
     be spoken aloud:          this.                              his sentences, who treats his people the way
       The financial          • Good value is very important      the CFO treats his own staff, who “gets how
                                 to us.                           things work here at XYZ”—and so on.
    buyer really wants
                                   Those are all rational ques-      These are subjective qualities that defy
       someone who             tions and discussion points,       objective rating or ranking and involve infer-
      makes him feel           from which one can draw com-       ences and observations from interactions
                               paratively different ratable and   with the firm and its representatives, rather
      good about the
                               rankable answers, so they fit      than responses to direct questions. In short,
         decision.            the analytical requirement for      the financial buyer is trying to make an emo-
                            rational decision-making. More        tional decision that he can then comfortably
                 important, those questions are emotionally       rationalize.
                 acceptable to the financial buying organi-
                 zation, people who want to see themselves        What the Problem Is
                 and be seen by others as fitting the financial      Robert S. MacNamara, former U.S. Secretary
                 image.                                            of Defense, once said, speaking of politics,

new are you as trustworthy as you think?                                        take the tq diagnostic test

                                                                                        Charles H. Green, 2007

                                                                            When Clients Don’t Buy
                                                                      What a CPA Firm Is Selling

                “Never answer the question you’re asked.” He             The firm should build into the sales pre-
                 may have been right in politics. In business,        sentation how it would work with the client
                 he’s only half right.                                upon getting the job: engaging directly with
                   The selling accounting firm cannot avoid           the client as much as possible; talking openly
                 answering the question asked by the CFO—             and collaboratively about design and staff-
                 and the firm must also answer the questions          ing alternatives; suggesting key issues to be
                 that are unasked. Those questions cannot             decided; generally behaving with comfort
                             be answered directly, as in “You         and ease; having a conversation, not making
        The most               can really trust me to work well       a sales pitch.
                               with your people” or variations           A CPA firm that builds selling-by-doing
     effective client
                               thereof, because “Trust me” is         into its sales process will become more open,
    relationships are            about the least trustworthy          transparent, and collaborative, precisely
     those that have             thing one can say. Instead, the      the behaviors that let the client assess trust,
                               firm must demonstrate those            compatibility, “fit,” “chemistry,” and other
    been around for a
                               qualities in how it sells itself.      intangibles.
          while.                                                         Most clients set up sales processes to be
                              Changing                                distant, formal, and structured, and that must
                      Principle 1: Sell by doing, not by telling.     be respected. But within bounds, a CPA firm
                   The most effective client relationships are        can suggest to clients that the selection pro-
                   those that have been around for a while. The       cess be more action-oriented. It is, after all,
                   firm and the client have gotten to know each       in the client’s interest to get the kind of free-
                   other and the client has come to trust the firm.   wheeling insights and ideas that come from
                   Because the best selling is virtually indistin-    open exchange.
                   guishable from doing, the CPA firm should             Principle 2: Client focus without the vul-
                   design the sales process as much as possible       ture. Here is an exercise. A CPA dissociates
                   as if it had already won the job.                  herself from the winning or losing of a job,

new are you as trustworthy as you think?                                            take the tq diagnostic test

                                                                                        Charles H. Green, 2007

                                                                             When Clients Don’t Buy
                                                                       What a CPA Firm Is Selling

                  picturing herself in the future beyond the           about the client. This—focusing on the cli-
                  decision and feeling utterly indifferent about       ent’s needs for the sake of the client—differs
                  whether she won or lost.                             from the usual kind of client focus that is the
                     She holds that thought, then asks herself,        focus of a vulture: Focus for the seller’s sake,
                             “What does this client really need,       not the client’s.
       Those who can            not just from this project, but in a      Of the factors driving trust—credibility,
                                 much bigger context?”—without         reliability, security—none ranks higher than
      honestly speak
                                 being limited by the request or       this sense of the seller’s being able to put the
      the truth about            her own service offering.             client’s needs ahead of his own need to “get
       what needs to                She now has some sense of          the deal.” And here the paradox of trust kicks
                                 what the client needs, but is         in: Truly separating from the need to win
     be done, without
                                 not vested in winning or losing       enhances one’s chances of winning.
       attachment to              the job. She then returns her           As with many apparently either/or ques-
    winning and losing,            attention to the job at hand,       tions, this one is best answered by defining our
                                   picturing herself calmly advis-     terms. Client feedback is indeed critical—but
      will convey the
                                 ing the client about what needs       how you get it varies radically by what you
    biggest emotional            to be done, and how, and when,        are trying to find out.
    truth to the client:         and with what approach and
                                 resources, moving the client
     They will convey
                                 forward in the larger direction
       that they care            of what needs to be done.
     about the client.             Those who can honestly speak
                               the truth about what needs to be
                  done, without attachment to winning and los-
                  ing, will convey the biggest emotional truth
                  to the client: They will convey that they care

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