It doesn’t matter if you’re in a firm or working for a department or function inside a company; at some time or another, you’ll have to sell something. However, I’ve discovered that the conundrum for most tax pros and accountants is they a) think they know how to sell, or b) they think don’t need to know how to sell.
Inside a company, you’re often selling management on issues and projects related to the company’s bottom line, such as internal audit or a new cost control system. Conversely, in a firm, everyone is responsible for sales, from the receptionist all the way up to the partner in charge.
Most often, sales skills are important for client recruitment and retention. Yet, sales isn’t the first skill accountants traditionally think they need. Their focus is on numbers, instead of how to get or keep clients, or sell more services. In addition, they’re not taught in college how to sell, although a marketing course or two might help. Instead, they are learning all about accounting and tax, with the goal of passing the CPA exam, becoming an enrolled agent or just plain practicing accounting.
Selling is also important because professionals are graded or evaluated on numbers – and this is the way most firms promote staff accountants to managers and directors. If you’re bringing in more work, doesn’t it make sense to “value” an employee by giving them a loftier title and more money?
This traditional model of billing more hours is still prevalent in firms, although we’re certainly seeing more value pricing firms who charge a monthly fee for services. In this case, sales are based on volume, not hours – and along with value pricing comes the valued client-accountant relationship of being in touch more often throughout the year, rather than just a few times for tax filings.
No one doubts the importance of selling in the professional services space, but can you actually learn “how to sell?”
Sure, anything can be learned. You can try and take courses on sales skills, but most of what you need to know can’t be learned in a classroom or online. Instead, one of the best ways to learn how to sell is to shadow someone else who knows how to sell – and close – a client engagement.
To do this, go on in-person visits with more seasoned partners who can show you the ropes. I think it’s a good practice to tag team any prospect meeting, or even an in-person client meeting. What this says to the client is several things:
- It shows the client/prospect that the firm cares about its business because more than one person was brought along.
- Chances are, some great ideas will come out of more than one firm rep at a meeting. After all, if you ask two people for their opinions, you’ll get three answers.
- A tag team is a great opportunity to ask for a referral. Remember, your clients want referrals to new business just as much as you do.
However, shadowing may not be always ideal because some older members of the firm may not want the younger folk or someone else ‘tagging along,” to put it mildly. You get into turf issues and older partners and directors who think the younger members are trying to replace them. Transparency is key if the partner/staff relationship is going to succeed.
If you’re in a much smaller firm, or even a sole practitioner and don’t have someone to shadow to learn how to sell, ask for help outside the firm. While it may seem like you’re taking away business from the competition if you network with other accountants, do it in a non-threatening way. A great way to network is at local meet-ups and groups; chances are, you’ll be the only accountant in the group. Ask the leader to find a speaker who can talk about sales techniques and/or network with members before and after each meeting.
Remember, you can only get better at selling by really listening and anticipating what the client or prospect needs. It’s a cliché, yet so true: You don’t know what you don’t know. Most of the time, clients and prospects don’t really know what they need, other than the obvious tax return or month-end report.
It’s up to you to listen to their situation and evaluate what they need. That’s how you learn to sell.
Firms can also do the following:
- Educate staff on the “ideal” client. Not every prospect or referral will be good for the firm. For example, the prospect could be in farming and ranching, but the firm neither has a niche in this area nor anyone skilled in the firm to handle particular tax and accounting issues. Of course, referral sources need to learn about the ideal client as well, but it’s imperative for staff to know that, too. If a younger member has never really sold professional services, you can’t assume he or she knows this concept even exists.
- Incorporate an evaluation on selling into annual or quarterly reviews, with specific goals in terms of percentage increases or number of new clients. However, be careful; the danger here is that a firm may be setting up one of the staff members to fail if they don’t have it in them to sell. This is definitely the case with many staff members. Sure, selling skills can be learned, but no one wants to be evaluated on something that isn’t attainable.
- Use social media to connect with prospects and referral sources. Social media is more popular than ever, and I’m seeing huge engagement in all generations, not just millennials. And, remember, if you don’t let your staff spend time on social media, they’ll find a way to do it anyway. Instead of scrutinizing their time, encourage them to focus a certain number of minutes a day on, for example, LinkedIn, and then report periodically on their progress. LinkedIn is great for networking connections, but it’s also a great place to publish content because everything is searchable, as well as a good place to participate in group discussions.
What are some of your own best practices for sales? Leave a comment below and let’s start a conversation!