How to sell technology to a CPA

By Jeff Onesto

When I think back on some of my most difficult sales, many of them, interestingly enough, have been involved with CPAs. This is a bit ironic because I, myself, am a CPA.
In sales you quickly realize that most people feel a bit uncomfortable negotiating a major purchase. Even today, the thought of having to negotiate the purchase of an automobile makes me a bit nauseous. I am not sure why this is or who is to blame, but it’s painfully obvious that a few bad experiences definitely spoiled the sales experience for many.
If you aren’t good at selling, relax, because if truth be told, the best selling isn’t selling but solving. The first trick is to figure out what problem needs to be solved. In my experience, the process of selling to a CPA has much less to do with demonstrating the economics of the solution and more to do with understanding the real nature of the problem. Be extremely careful not to jump to conclusions and mistake a symptom for the problem as this can drastically increase your cost of sale. A runny nose can be a symptom of an allergy or a broken heart – solutions to the same symptom are very different.
I remember one particular sale I was involved with where the customer was suffering from an abnormally long order-to-cash cycle and was adamant that new software would solve the problem. After some deeper discussions with company personnel, our team discovered that software wasn’t going to deliver the expected benefits because the overly involved president had to personally approve each and every sales order. All the technology in the world wouldn’t have changed the cycle time for this company.
Now that you have successfully identified and solved the problem, the only thing needed to seal the deal is to identify the compelling event. Without the compelling event, the sales cycle most likely will go on forever and the check will never get written. Unfortunately just like the problem, the compelling event or driver is seldom handed to you on a silver platter.
I remember back in the late 1990s when everybody was buying software thanks to the fear of Y2K. Personally, I classify events as either Tier I or Tier II. Tier I events are those that equate to three-alarm fires, where the business would actually cease to operate should it not solve the problem. Such was the case, we thought, with the Y2K issue. Tier II events are those that hurt, but will not cause catastrophic business failure. The failure to identify such events is exactly why, in good times, two out of every four sales opportunities result in no decision.
How do you avoid this? I suggest you look for the next best thing to Y2K – the individual driver that creates urgency around the transaction. Before I discuss this, I would like to get on the record that I am against artificially creating events such as sales discounts. The last thing I want to advocate is a win-lose transaction after all the hard lifting has been done.
In my experience selling to CPAs, I have uncovered some very interesting drivers behind technology purchases, such as the résumé builder and the power play. The résumé builder is where the individual is looking to enhance his or her résumé by implementing a well-known software solution. The résumé builder is a must have for a fast-moving, career-minded CPA. The power play is where the individual is looking to exert his authority before others get involved, such as the chief financial officer leaving IT out of the selection process.
To summarize, when selling technology to CPAs, don’t tell them it's technology and don’t let them know you’re selling. Every sale has at least two critical puzzles that must be solved: the problem and the compelling event. Both of these will require tremendous fact-finding skills. Last but not least, always sell professionally and remember that CPAs are people, too.
About the author:
Jeff Onesto, CPA, is director of product management for a software-as-a-service (SaaS) accounting solution provider. His prior experience consists of Big Six consulting, enterprise software sales and delivery, product marketing, and bringing Web 2.0 solutions to the mid-market.
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