Personal Planning and Coaching for Your Firm, with Terri Sommella
Presented by Terri Sommella
President, Sommella Market Strategies
Contact firstname.lastname@example.org 
Thursday, February 15, 2001
Visit the AccountingWEB Workshop Calendar  for upcoming sessions.
Learn how personal planning can provide immediate return to your firm's marketing investment. Ms. Sommella will explain the benefits of personal coaching, how to maintain enthusiasm for planning, how to add focus to a plan, how to leverage client satisfaction so as to bring in new business, and more.
Read the complete transcript of the workshop!
February 15, 2001 Session Sponsored by Intacct 
Session Moderator: Hello everyone and welcome! Today we are pleased to have Terri Sommella with us.
From innovative Marketing Plans and Plan Reviews to Personal Planning Sessions for Partners and Principals, Terri Sommella has been pointing the way to success for over 15 years. Her Opinions and Recommendations identify her clients' areas of distinction and offer the most effective methods to exploit those areas of distinction. Goals are established with Principals and the strategy delivered is clear and concise. Terri's clients realize a return from their marketing investment since she identifies the most direct route to reaching those goals.
In addition, internal Marketing Directors and Partners become a more cohesive unit through third party insight. Today Terri is going to share with us some of her ideas on how an investment in personal planning can provide immediate return to your firm.
Terri M. Sommella: Welcome and thanks for joining us. If you brought any questions with you today, feel free to throw them out here now. I want to make sure everyone walks away with at least one key point specific to your firm.
In today's workshop we'll talk about the components of an effective Personal Plan and the role of sales training and coaching in that process. We'll also touch on the value and impact of this program to help you make that internal sale.
Whether you hire an outside coach to conduct and manage the program or try to develop a similar program in-house, every firm should institutionalize Personal Planning. Why? Because every firm leaves millions of dollars on the table each year and spends entirely too many partner hours on non-productive selling situations. Lawyers acknowledged this problem seven years ago, made the investment and are now experiencing an exceptional return.
Jerry Weisenfeld: Can you explain non-productive selling situations?
Terri M. Sommella: Nonproductive selling situations are situations in which a partner spends his time on non-viable opportunities, i.e. there's little chance of success.
Now, more and more CPA firms are taking a hard look at personal plans as an option for their marketing toolbox. Yet most firms who have tried to create a planning program are not getting results. Why are so many of these plans ineffective?
1. Plans are vague or impersonal. We'll get into more detail on this in a bit.
2. Partners don't define where their plans will take them.
3. Sales training and coaching are overlooked as a component of the program.
4. Partners don't get the "What's in it for me?" question answered.
Craig V.: Are there any templates or guides out there for personal marketing plans?
Terri M. Sommella: There are, but we've found them to be counterproductive.
Fernando Alvarez: Are you talking about personal marketing plans or general personal planning?
Terri M. Sommella: Personal planning encompasses marketing and business planning among other things.
Becky Dowd: How can we get them to "get it"?
Terri M. Sommella: That's a great question! As we'll see, there are ways to do this as we work on developing the program.
These 5 common mistakes diminish the effectiveness of the program. When this occurs, partners fail to see results; enthusiasm tapers off after a few months and the program dies. We have a dilemma. Whether your firm has committed to an integrated, strategic marketing program or are making tactical investments in new brochures, business events or public relations, your investments are designed to get you "Found" by potential clients.
These are all critical marketing functions but once a prospect "Finds" you, the CPA still has to know how to control the sale! Here are a few related marketing challenges that we all share:
1. ROI. Even the best marketing programs take time to produce their intended effect.
2. Missed opportunities. Accountants encounter and too often inadvertently squander selling opportunities every day.
3. Lack of time. Partners around the U.S. cite lack of time as the #1 deterrent to business development efforts. We all know it but no one has resolved it so we have to address the issue.
4. Industry changes. Practical Accountant's Howard W. Wolosky writes, "Traditional tax and accounting work still makes up the bulk of the practice for most firms, however, the future growth will not be in those areas."
These challenges can be overcome through individual business development or "Personal" Planning. Think about it. The most immediately profitable marketing investment our firm's can make is to provide accountants with the sales skills they need to convert opportunities into clients and revenue. In addition to sales training, an effective personal marketing plan combines business and strategic planning, marketing and coaching.
An effective Personal Planning Program begins to pay off immediately. Participants will begin to achieve measurable results within 3-4 months. A custom tailored business development program should be applied to each participant in a one-on-one confidential setting. The coach should be experienced in all areas of business development within the accounting profession and especially in the methodology of the sales process.
Dennis Malcolm: Another issue we face is measurement. If you can’t pinpoint revenue exactly correlating to marketing dollars, then it's looked at as worthless
Terri M. Sommella: Dennis, we'll see that measuring this program's success is quite easily done.
Through the one-on-one sessions the coach can help each participant to identify and address his or her own barriers, problems and fears.
The partner is also free to talk openly about his or her clients. For example, in a recent planning session, a partner was conveying to me the value of his top client. When asked which other services the firm provided to this client, the partner fell silent. Eventually, he relayed that he had tried cross-selling before but "it didn't work."
He had brought another partner in who serviced his client poorly, didn't return phone calls, etc. The client became very upset and was in real danger of moving. The marketer had no idea that this was at the root of the partner's "refusal to market." We were able to help the partner overcome this barrier but the point is that this kind of information would never have been disclosed in a niche or committee setting.
Tracy Jackson: Is there ever a scenario where coaching can or should be done in more than a one-on-one setting?
Terri M. Sommella: Tracy, we can see that the one-on-one allows partners to open up.
Jerry Weisenfeld: Do you recommend that coaching be between the marketing director and the accountant...or accountant to accountant?
Terri M. Sommella: Jerry, the coaching should be done either with a coach or sales trainer unless the marketer has these skills.
Jim Woodfield: What preparation does the accountant need to undergo prior to a coaching session?
Terri M. Sommella: Jim, I don't know how other coaches handle this. We have various Needs Assessment questionnaires and preliminary materials.
This one-on-one meeting is a training session in and of itself. Partners and managers learn how to leverage existing prospects and referral sources and improve the quality of each client contact. They learn how to identify a viable opportunity and save valuable hours of time currently wasted.
Partners will often say that they couldn't possibly handle one more client. So why do they need better selling skills?
First of all, if you probe a bit, you can find that as much as one third of their clients don't belong in their portfolio. These "D" clients pay slow, challenge bills, want everything for nothing or make unreasonable turnaround demands. In almost every case these are clients that were never actively chosen, but were accepted when the phone rang. With the current capacity issues and recruiting difficulties, partners know that they cannot afford these clients.
The purpose of personal planning is to define, profile and target a more desirable market segment and allow participants to pursue work that is more professionally stimulating, economically valuable and emotionally gratifying. The results include firm growth, better clients, happier clients and a higher quality of life for the participants because they like what they are doing and who they are doing it with!
Craig V.: Ideally, how often should these coaching sessions take place, and for how long?
Terri M. Sommella: Craig, our sessions are 60 to 90 minutes per partner.
Let's talk about program goals. Seminars convey knowledge, but a Personal Planning Program needs to educate, train and coach CPAs on how to sell accounting and consulting services effectively but also with dignity and professionalism.
To expand on that a bit, the planning session should help participants to:
1. Develop the right kind of relationships, with the right people at the right time and in the right way.
2. Sell additional services that clients want and need and strengthen present client relationships by developing stronger alliances.
3. Work the client as a team to identify and fulfill a greater range of client needs, including cross-selling the capabilities of other CPAs in the firm.
4. Recognize and convert opportunities to develop new clients.
5. Define value to overcome price concerns.
6. Communicate more effectively and comfortably with clients and their firm's entire client service team.
7. Generate additional revenue, confidently, reliably and effectively, with dignity and without sacrificing current billings or spending additional time.
Are these goals attainable? ABSOLUTELY! Will Personal Planning turn every partner into a solid Rainmaker? No! We can, however, enable our success on the front end by selecting our participants wisely.
Jerry Weisenfeld: Do individuals determine they need to be coached or does someone in the firm appoint who needs to be coached?
Terri M. Sommella: We'll talk about qualifiers in a bit.
Proposed participants should always be assessed for suitability before inclusion in the program. This process should be based on criteria that suggest likelihood of sales success! First and foremost, at least some members of firm management should participate to assure the program's visibility and success. We all know that change takes place from the top down.
Does the selection process mean that we only choose those partners who are the natural Rainmakers? Not necessarily.
Individuals who fall within the following categories could be good candidates for the program:
1. Partners with key contacts or high visibility, but who have difficulty converting these contacts into clients.
2. Partners whose practice is threatened by a client base of troubled companies or industries in decline, or which faces pricing pressures.
3. Successful Rainmakers who want to improve their ability to evaluate opportunities and recapture time currently wasted on unproductive situations.
4. Managers on a partner track. Due to the staffing shortage, achieving partner status will become increasingly difficult since firms cannot take the risk of becoming top heavy. Business development skills are a key factor in partner selection decisions.
If a CPA has no market position from which to sell, Personal Planning can help them figure one out and guide the participant in how to establish that position. Lack of a position will, however, delay sales results. This is one factor to consider during the selection phase.
As important as the selection process may be, the proper components of the program are more so. Sales training and coaching are usually overlooked and yet these components drive the program! Selling is not a skill people are born with. It's a learned skill set. As with any skill, it requires knowledge backed up with practical application. Once a sales methodology is learned, it takes application to reinforce the knowledge until the student internalizes the skill. For this reason, the first few sales of each participant should be guided by proxy, by a coach or sales trainer until the participant realizes that it works and that he or she is comfortable with the process. It's the training, the immediate and constant reinforcement that makes a participant successful.
Education and training are entirely different. Education makes people knowledgeable about a subject or task and helps them to understand. It tells them what to do and might even tell them how to do it. It includes steps, procedures, techniques, rationale and theory. But it isn't training. If your firm has ever invested in sales seminars, you will know that this is true. A seminar can leave a participant charged up but as soon as the individual returns to their normal routine, most of what they learned is immediately forgotten!
CPAs know that education is not training, which is why they invest so heavily in training college graduates. Training makes people skillful enough to succeed on the job. It is a result of hands on experience and counseling. It empowers them to succeed.
Personal Planning should combine education AND training, i.e., targeted sales planning with an immediate, real-life application. The guide or coach needs to stay close to each CPA while he or she learns, answering questions and giving guidance at the point of greatest urgency when the opportunity is ready to be grasped. For some partners, "Sales" is a mystical force that they do not understand nor do they want to. Perhaps it is an issue of Fear.
We can do much to eliminate these views by presenting selling in logical terms that appeal to a CPA's way of thinking. Selling is nothing more than a structured, disciplined way of thinking that allows the partner to create a reliable path for a client or prospect to follow in order to reach a decision. The tough part is adhering to the methodology once we are shown the way. This requires discipline. Our natural inclination, even in the most tenuous of openings, is to go directly from "Hello" to "buy from me!" This is shown by the fact that in 30% of selling opportunities, no decision is made and nothing gets purchased. In most of these situations, the sales process is completely by-passed. Not only did this 30% answer No Decision but also valuable time was spent pursuing "opportunities" which were non-viable in the first place!
By focusing the participant's efforts and teaching them how to recognize these time wasters, 15% of this time can be recaptured. 15% can have a significant impact on billable hours and client satisfaction and will ease the strain of capacity problems.
Stephan Schiffman (The 25 Sales Habits of Highly Successful People) says, "The best sales people are professional problem solvers." Ask most CPAs what they enjoy most about their profession and they will usually say it is helping people to succeed, solving their problems, etc. Through a Personal Planning Program, the coach can capitalize on a CPA's problem resolution strengths to the partner or manager's advantage. Participants learn how to earn the right to advance and determine what the prospective client wants.
Marketers always want to know how to motivate partners. Lack of motivation can be more correctly referred to as lack of an identified motivator. Unless we're dead, everyone has some motivator. It might be material, professional or ego-driven but it's there. The one-on-one sessions can be used to probe for The Carrot, the highest self-motivator within each participant. This motivator becomes a driver for the individual's personal plan.
Becky Dowd: How do we uncover this?
The one-on-one session is the key. It gives the coach the opportunity to get the partners and managers to think expansively about their practice, what they want out of it and how to get it. This is challenging and requires mental effort. But the sessions should be professionally refreshing and enlightening as well.
1. Learn to express value, not product. There are still many CPAs who, when asked what they do for a living, say: "I'm a CPA" or "a Tax Manager." They have created no basis for preference in the minds of referral sources not to mention prospects. Clients and prospects only care about what we do in terms of what it does for them. So participants need to express the value of their services in meaningful terms that the listener cares about. This expressed value should tie into the participant's key message, which we'll talk about in a minute.
2. Redefine the target. This requires effort and challenges the partner's thinking. When I was first hired as an in-house marketer, I was told that our target market was, "Medium-sized, privately-held businesses." How do you create an impression on the vast sea of businesses that fit that profile? We tried the shotgun marketing approach and managed to achieve name recognition, but this approach is very expensive and measurable results are painful to achieve. During the planning session, it is critical to get the partner to identify and visualize the true target market for his or her services. This can be more difficult than it sounds. THE OPPORTUNE TARGET MARKET IS AN EMERGING SECTOR OF THE PARTICIPANT'S CLIENT BASE TO WHICH HE CAN APPLY HIS EXPERTISE. Remember that our biggest competitor isn't another firm, it is "no decision." This puts a premium on focusing the partner's marketing efforts where they will most reliably produce results and recapturing time now wasted on low percentage opportunities. Personal Planning shouldn't create additional marketing hours on a time sheet. It should dramatically improve the rate of return.
3. Identify a key message for the new target market. The message is defined by the problem he or she solves for the targeted market's biggest concern. For instance, during a recent planning session, we identified the partner's opportune target market as veterinarians. The service he offers which addresses a vet's biggest concern is business valuations. Now when this partner is introduced, he says that he provides business valuation services for veterinarians. The image of this partner's sweet spot is now clearly projected. Who will the referral source think about the next time he or she meets a vet? This partner's key message that he'll write, speak and talk about is how to attract investors and sell a vet practice for top dollar.
Terri M. Sommella: Is this making sense?
Becky Dowd: YES
Jerry Weisenfeld: Yes
Terri M. Sommella: Just checking!
4. Establish and articulate the financial goals that will guide the participant's efforts and the coaching advice. This is often the first time that most CPAs have thought about goals in measurable terms. Many partners find this challenging. For some this exercise is difficult because to articulate this, implies a responsibility to see it fulfilled. However, stimulating this thought process is critical to the participant's success. How much does the partner want/need to originate over what period of time?
5. Test for target market/service viability. Once the financial goal has been established, determine which services and number of clients will be needed to reach the goals. In some cases, the target and/or financial goals will need to be readdressed based on lack of viability. If a partner wants to originate $100,000 in new business this year with a planning service which has an average fee of $10,000, can he add 10 new clients this year without creating capacity problems?
6. Define the strategy. After the new target market has been identified and the financial goals and metrics set, the strategy needs to be created to achieve the goals. Participants must think strategically rather than tactically. It may be opportune to apply a major account development approach with several partners to maximize the value of current clients and generate profitable new ones. Whatever strategy is offered, the CPA must help to shape the approach in order to achieve buy-in.
7. Identify and cultivate the right contacts. Even the best message is ineffective if delivered to the wrong person, at the wrong time, in the wrong way, without proper set-up or staging.
Jerry Weisenfeld: Do you find that most CPA's are willing to sell/market themselves if someone will show them how?
Terri M. Sommella: Absolutely!
The Personal Planning coach should help participants to identify their "right" contacts as well as those time wasters to avoid. This is absolutely specific.
Finally, the coach suggests initial tactics to get the CPA started and help them to establish completion deadlines. This is just the beginning. Whenever a prospect or client has been identified as a viable opportunity, the coach would show the participant how to manage the sale so that each stage or event becomes more predictable. Predictability plays to a CPA's strengths.
Amanda Hansen: What is the best way to track progress?
Terri M. Sommella: Amanda, tracking is very easy since the coach is working on specific prospects or clients with each partner. We know who is winning.
Sales success requires continuous reinforcement and application of the new knowledge, guided by a practitioner who helps participants win while they learn. It is the doing that creates experience, confidence and ownership of the new skills. For this reason, it is important that the coach and the participant work as a team.
An effective program instructs participants to have contact with their guide before and after any sales contact. This means every client, referral source or prospect.
Amanda Hansen: I missed the early part... so maybe I missed this already but how can a coach keep track of many different coaches at one time?
Terri M. Sommella: Amanda, we recommend putting 12 partners or managers through the program at one time.
Why so much contact? Questions need to be asked to assess the selling situation and define the goals that the selling situation and contact circumstances allow. The CPA should be given instructions to establish control of the sale and if needed, specific wording and questions matched to the CPA's style and personality.
Coaching is a critical element if you want to achieve results. Think about it. If someone is in the participant's corner, sales situations become far less intimidating. Coaching produces results and therefore makes believers out of them. As the partners and managers see it working, they gain confidence in these sales methods and internalize and own them.
Remember that converting product-oriented presenters into needs-oriented professional sellers requires significant behavior change. Be patient. The end results are worth the effort!
Here is the impact on a firm-wide level:
1. Competitive Advantage. Personal Planning offers a competitive advantage since trained people always outperform less prepared competitors. As CPAs make better use of each client, prospect and referral source contact, billings increase while selling costs go down.
2. Increased Market share. Those who first recognize and respond to profession-wide change gain an advantage that competitors rarely make up. Many CPA firms are just beginning to understand and appreciate the importance of a focused, cohesive marketing and sales effort. There is a great opportunity for progressive firms to take advantage of the time it will take everyone else to get up to speed.
3. Improved Productivity. Confident, well-prepared people are more productive. Giving partners and managers the means to control their financial and professional destinies alleviates their greatest fear: loss of income or position.
4. Alleviation of the Partner Burden. As more CPAs contribute to business development, the burden of funding the firm and creating profit is distributed more equitably among all beneficiaries of the firm's growth, instead of being shouldered by a few Rainmakers.
5. Improved and Stabilized Cash-flow. By increasing the number and diversity of revenue sources, the firm diminishes its risk of severe revenue loss from downturns in one or two companies or industries, or the departure of key Rainmakers. Proper selling methods also speed collections and improve the firm's realization rate.
6. Staffing: Attracting and Retaining Talented CPAs. The battle is not just for clients, but also for talented managers and staff. A reputation for using progressive methods that yield competitive advantage helps the firm attract and keep the most capable people in the field. This includes specialists whose added skills provide opportunities to penetrate profitable new markets. You can begin to see real firm-wide results in about a year. Individual results begin immediately. Usually within 3-4 months measurable results are evident in the form of new clients and expanded services.
That's just the beginning. Long after the measurable results have been achieved, partners and managers will own a methodology and skill set that continues to pay dividends for the balance of their careers.
Session Moderator: We have just a couple of minutes left, so if any of you have other questions, please ask them at this time!
Session Moderator: Terri - thanks so much for a great workshop! You've provided lots of useful information!
Dennis Malcolm: Thanks Terri - great session!
Terri M. Sommella: You are welcome. Thanks for inviting me.
Liz Gordon: I appreciate the info - lets see if we can get those partners going now--
Doug Palmieri: Thanks - good session.
Michael Platt: Great job Terri. We really appreciate your participation in this workshop series!
Terri M. Sommella: Any time at all!
From innovative Marketing Plans and Plan Reviews to Personal Planning Sessions for Partners and Principals, Terri Sommella has been pointing the way to success for over 15 years. Her Opinions and Recommendations identify her clients' areas of distinction and offer the most effective methods to exploit those areas of distinction. Goals are established with Principals and the strategy delivered is clear and concise. Terri's clients realize a return from their marketing investment since she identifies the most direct route to reaching those goals. In addition, internal Marketing Directors and Partners become a more cohesive unit through third party insight.