How to make the best of business development

When revenue or gross margin isn’t generating the income you need or want, and your technical knowledge or the efficient workflow processes you’ve developed aren’t enough. The solution is inescapable…you need a bigger or more profitable book of business.

When the need becomes great enough, you set the client files aside and put on your business development hat. And, let’s be real, the vast majority of you would rather have a root canal than take on the role of salesperson.
Business development specialist Craig Weeks claims it doesn’t have to be that way – successful business development need not be an exercise in self-punishment. AccountingWEB interviewed him so you can decide for yourself.
AW: Is the common wisdom really true that accountants dislike business development?
CW: As a general rule, professional service providers, whether they are engineers, surveyors, accountants, therapists, orthodontists, or piano teachers, generally dislike self-promotion. I don’t think accountants are any more sales shy than the other professions.
AW: Historically, most firms seem to have grown fairly passively…by having a community presence and positive word of mouth. Does that still work?
CW: Yes. The problem is that there is more competition today, the pace of business is constantly accelerating, and practices are finding they want to build their revenue more quickly.
AW: Is traditional marketing still effective in today’s business environment?
CW: If you mean sending out direct mail, placing ads in the Yellow Pages, employing telemarketing firms, putting a sign on the billboard across the street from your office, and the like, the answer is yes. But, the return on investment is declining – mostly because of increased competition, information saturation, and our current recession. Practitioners who undertake a traditional marketing campaign need a well thought out plan incorporating a budget, performance metrics, and frequent monitoring of results to ensure they are getting a positive return for their investment.
AW: Is there an approach that works better?
CW: Yes. Personal marketing works the best, but it is dramatically different than the traditional marketing we were just talking about because it requires the accountant’s direct involvement.
AW: Which gets us right back to practitioners feeling trapped into having to do something they really don’t want to do.
CW: But, it doesn’t have to be that way. It is all about personal comfort. Competent business development puts, literally, thousands – if not tens of thousands – of dollars in accountants’ pockets. If they can find a way to do it that is natural for them, they’ll keep with it because the payoff is so dramatic. At one end of the scale is the person who is socially bold, who can easily change hats and become an effective salesperson for his or her practice. This individual will feel comfortable approaching that new member of the local service club, introducing himself and then, as time passes, establishing and then nurturing a relationship and eventually asking that new friend for his accounting business.
AW: But, that’s not the average, is it?
CW: Not even close. The average accountant would, as my grandson puts it, rather eat worms. They aren’t as socially bold, so to try and act that way is extremely difficult. Even if you could fake it for a period of time, the psychological strain will eventually cause you to stop. But, what if you could be just as effective and not have to fake it? What if you could just be yourself? What if you could not only drive more profitable revenue to your practice but you could also acquire the business development skills to successfully entice and sign up the best, A-level prospects?
AW: That sounds like pie-in-the-sky. It doesn’t just automatically happen that prospects become clients. Someone still has to persuade them to do so…to sell them.
CW: It is true you do have to talk with the prospect. Nothing substitutes for that. But, there are easy ways to do it. You don’t have to be that rare kind of person who walks all alone across the gym floor at the high school prom and boldly asks the best looking guy/gal there to take a turn on the floor.
AW: But, even if you find a way to have a low-key conversation with prospects, don’t you still have to close them? Ask them for the business?
CW: If you are pitching something that isn’t actually needed, then yes, there has to be selling. For example, “Your 8330 Blackberry is passé; you ought to have the new 8530 because it makes social networking even easier.” But, we’re not doing that. People need accounting services. They’re going to buy them from someone. At the bottom line, they’ll buy them from an accountant with three qualities: likeability, awareness of, and solutions for, the prospect’s needs, wants, motivations, and desires. If you can establish in their minds that you have these three attributes, you will get their business because it’s what they want. Of course, things can go wrong if there is poor quality work, overcharging, not returning phone calls, etc., but we’ll assume those things aren’t problems.
AW: Easily said, but how does a reader of AccountingWEB learn how to do what you describe?
CW: I have a free blog solely devoted to accounting practice business development. There are more than 80 entries that talk about all these techniques in detail. It can be found at If I may be more mercenary, they can take a look at where I offer a comprehensive manual explaining everything.
AW: Any final words for our readers?
CW: The bottom line is accountants can become a really effective business developer and rainmaker for their practice. And they can do it while remaining comfortable and true to themselves. What it takes is utilizing proven methods coupled with good techniques, both adapted so they become a natural part of their interpersonal style.
Craig Weeks is located in Vancouver, Washington, and since 1996 he has specialized in helping clients as diverse as sole practitioners and KPMG practice groups become more effective business developers. He believes all accountants can become highly effective rainmakers while maintaining their individual interpersonal style. In 2009 Craig authored CPA Practice Builder, a how-to business development manual incorporating the very best of what he’s learned over the past 15 years.
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