Getting More Business From Existing Clients: The Mine Beneath Your Feet
By, Bruce W. Marcus The Marcus Letter
Inherent in every client may lie a way to mine as much as 20 percent more business than you have now. That mine is a source of more business that you should expect to get from existing clients.
The technique is a process that you should be using anyway for client service, client relations, and client retention (which, by the way, are three different things). Four simple steps...
Identify the appropriate client -
Find a basis to hold a conversation (particularly if you're dealing with someone you don't normally deal with frequently, or that your partners service)
Carry the conversation from a client satisfaction inquiry to a service information inquiry, to a frank selling situation
Perform the service -
One thing you may find is the need for a service that you don't normally perform. That means that you'll have to consider whether or not to add that capability.
The Appropriate Client -
There are clients for whom your service potential is at a maximum. Either they're too small, or they have in-house capabilities, or they need things you just don't do. There are clients whose businesses have changed with the economy and new technology, but for whom your service has remained the same. There are clients whose business have grown, while your relationship with them has not.
In fact, almost every client offers potential for growth, but time limits us to only the likeliest candidates. These might be...
- Your larger clients. Obviously, they're the most dynamic, and have the most going for them. At the same time, no large company can ever be sure that they're getting every possible tax advantage, that their cash management systems are the most effective, that they're financials are always telling them what they (or their banks) need to know, that their computer systems are still equal to the needs of their businesses. In fact, every new tax law, and many other laws, afford an opportunity for contact, and a potential upgrade in your relationship.
- Clients that you or the current engagement partner knows at first hand are susceptible to an expanded program.
- Clients in dynamic industries that you know are subject to regulatory change, or are affected by the new tax law.
- Clients that you feel might be feeling neglected or under serviced
- Clients for whom you're performing a limited range of services, no matter how small.
There may be other parameters, but the point is that it's worth taking some time to list and prioritize before you start the process. Go with the likeliest first (unless you'd like to try one or two training calls with the less likely prospects).
Initial Contact -
Essentially, you want an approach that seems rational to the client, particularly if it's someone you haven't been in touch with on a regular basis.
If you are the managing partner, it's not only appropriate for you to contact any of the firm's clients, it may also be flattering. The point is that you don't want to have a client put off by the notion that your only purpose is to sell.
The appointment can be set up by either you or the engagement partner, and in some cases that may be done easily. Send a letter first (conspicuously CC: to the engagement partner), that's something like....
Dave and I were talking about your company the other day, and we realized that while you've been a client of our firm for [ ] years now, you and I haven’t talked lately, and I haven’t had the opportunity recently to thank you for your business.
I'd like to take that opportunity now. Can we sit down for a few minutes at your convenience?
We're also very concerned that we're serving you well and efficiently, and meeting your [accounting -- auditing -- tax, etc.] needs thoroughly and effectively, and I'd like to talk to you about that as well.
I'll call you in a day or so, to arrange a meeting at a time convenient for you.
The Follow-up -
The trick is to avoid having the client ask, on the phone, what this is all about -- in a way that forces you to deal with him by phone. The purpose of the follow-up phone call is just to get the appointment, not to answer questions. Very important. The following is a worst-case scenario...
"What do you want to see me about?"
"Well, as I said in my letter, we haven’t talked recently, and as the firm's managing partner, I really want to know our firm's clients better. And while I assume that you're happy with the service you're getting from Dave, you should know who I am too, and that I'm always available as a backup."
"OK, I've met you. I'm really too busy to socialize."
"I'm with you on that, which is why this is a business call. It's quite possible that our spending a few minutes together might offer another perspective on what we're doing for you, and how we might improve our service to you."
"What did you have in mind?"
"Nothing complicated, but I'd really like to meet you and discuss this in person. Is next Tuesday at 10 all right (always move to the specific time)?"
Most calls will be a lot easier. The point is that you have to move to the appointment as quickly as possible, and avoid discussion on the phone that can foreclose a fact-to-face meeting.
The Meeting -
The meeting itself should be informal. The objectives are simple –
To lead the conversation to a discussion of his or her business and industry
To listen. And not just listen, but to look for opportunities to better serve that client
To reach a point at which you can ask the magic question, “If you could resolve that problem, how would it help you?” Not would it help you, but How would it help you?
If the client starts to answer that question – How would it help you? – that client is going to sell himself to the point where you can say, “Let’s start on that first thing in the morning.”
The script for the meeting can't be literal -- you've got to be at ease with it. Whether you spend time on pleasantries or not is a function of what you're most comfortable with.
The crucial point to remember is that you're not there to sell -- you're going to ask questions -- systematically, and in ways that lead the client to persuade himself. The client persuades -- you don't, and that's why this system works.
There are four distinct categories of questions you're going to ask, with each categories answers leading to the next categories questions. The categories are...
- Situation questions, designed to elicit basic information regarding the client's needs or problems. "How would you describe your product line?" or "What are the principal competitive factors in your business?", allow you to...
- Turn up potential problem areas that you can help resolve
- Give you the opportunity to be a good listener and build rapport
- Problem questions, designed to move the discussion to focus on the real needs, and most urgent problems, faced by the client. The emphasis here is on focus. "Do you find yourself losing market share?" or, "Are you satisfied that your current reporting systems are giving you adequate information, on a daily basis, to allow you to make fast business decisions?" Take the information you've gotten from the situation questions, and turns it into a probing of the depth and gravity of the problem or the prospect’s needs. While there may be a tendency and urge to offer solutions, it's too soon; the client isn't ready to hear that. Problem questions, on the other hand, focus on the client's real problems and needs -- frequently more concisely than the client has done him or herself. By clarifying the problem, by seeing it more clearly, the client frequently sees a greater urgency to solve the problems. Vague and ill-defined problems tend not to be urgent.
Prematurely suggesting a solution can lead to rejecting the solution or offering excuses why the proposed solution won't work. This approach also deprives the client of the sense of participation in the solution that’s so crucial to this kind of selling.
Problem questions also allow you to learn more about an opportunity, problem, or potential problem, and allow you to demonstrate -- through the relevant questions you ask -- your ability and experience. Better to demonstrate than to describe that expertise.
- Implication questions, designed to focus on the implications to the client of not addressing the need or solving the problem. Questions such as "How much do you think it's costing you, in expenses or lost opportunity, not to have a firmer grip on your day-by-day company performance?" or, "How will not solving this problem affect your competitive situation?", magnify or quantify the significance of a problem. They ask, in effect, "what are the implications to your business of not solving these problems?"
Implication questions bring to the discussion the ultimate realization that the problem is clear, that the need for solution is urgent, and that you understand the nature of the problem. This context serves as a platform for successfully bringing the client to the conclusion that you are capable of solving his or her problem; of filling the need.
- Need-payoff questions, designed to focus on the benefits to the client or client of your addressing the need or solving the problem. It's at this point that the client is made to understand your service, and how it can help solve the problems. "If we could figure out a way for you to acquire that company without more debt, how would that help you?" or, "If we could install a reporting system for you that would keep you up-to-the-minute on the crucial data you need to run your company on a day-by-day basis, how would this help you run your company more effectively?", bring the client into a receptive mode for your explanation of how you can help.
If the three prior groups of questions are properly handled, the answers to Need-payoff questions will invariably be in your favor.
Need-payoff questions also tell you whether the client has any unresolved concerns, and how seriously the client sees the problem and the need for solution. They lead to a distillation of his or her vision of the company. Favorable answers are the clues to tell you that the client is prepared to discuss your services, and the terms of engagement. And by having established the value of the solution, you have a better context for pricing. Because the return on the investment in your service is so clear, the price is less arbitrary; less of a concern to the buyer, in terms of the value offered by your services.
And you'll notice that there's no closing, in the traditional sense. The client persuades himself. You'll recognize that point at which you say, "Why don't we come by on Monday and get started on this."
The Follow-up -
You may not have the client on line with additional services in one visit, in which case you may have to set up a second or even a third appointment. At each appointment, you'll stick to the questioning mode, until the guy agrees to start Monday.
Important -- If you don't find additional services are needed, or if the guy doesn't buy what you're selling, you still want to send a follow-up thank you letter for his time. Things change.
And even if you don't sell him in the first visit or two, you'll still have a sense of how your service is perceived, which alone makes the whole exercise worth it. There’s even gold in that outcome.
Voice of the Editor
Which isn’t completely true. I mean, occasionally I drop by when I manage to sneak out of the nonstop frat party over at Going Concern, but I’m mostly a wallflower over there. I’m happy to say that I’ve been given express permission (or explicit orders, if you like) to wander over here to AccountingWEB more often.
Why is that, you might ask? My job is to replace the irreplaceable Gail Perry as Editor-in-Chief. What does that mean? I don’t really know! I think it’ll be fun getting a feel for things, throwing in my own thoughts here and there, and listening to the discussions you’re having about the accounting profession.