Many partners will look you in the eye and tell you they convert 95 percent of all the opportunities they are given. What isn’t said is that those opportunities were referred businesses, clients that were going to do business with them unless they did something horrendous. That’s like saying they walked through 95 percent of doors that were already open. But it's a different story if you're talking about actually seeking out prospects and turning them into fee-paying clients. Accountants struggle to sell—but there is a solution.
The Reasons for Sales Difficulties
History. Despite the uncertain nature of referrals, once turned into clients the vast majority result in predictable, regular work. Those recurring fees have traditionally provided a warm security blanket for so many firms that there hasn’t been a perceived urgency to take control of producing more. Thus, historically, accountants have not been taught to sell, because there was little reason to.
Fear. Another major reason the profession struggles to sell is fear, because accountants believe it is too difficult and they won’t be able to do it. And the fact is, selling accountancy services beyond compliance work can be a hard nut to crack—unless you know how to go about it.
The type of selling required to bring in new accounting clients is based on relationships. There’s an old saying that we’re not in the accounting business—we’re in the relationship business. This is a good philosophy on which to base your sales efforts.
Stigma. For many years, conventional thinking was that selling was beneath professionals, including accountants. Selling was something other people did, people who didn’t mind being seen as a little shady—but certainly not those qualified to practise accountancy.
So of course accountants didn’t want to sell — who would want to be seen in such a light?
To be successful in growing a firm, partners and senior managers need to overcome all three of these barriers and build a culture of selling. Unless that happens, it will always be an uphill struggle to bring in new clients.
For those who fear or hate selling for any of these reasons, though, here’s a useful thought to keep in mind: If you truly believe in your services and your value to your clients, then aren’t you actually helping people by offering them your services? So instead of even thinking of it as selling, try reframing the process as the first way you help a business before they even sign on with you.
If you don’t have a value proposition that is clearly defined in your own mind, you’ll fall into the trap of simply selling the same services as every other accountancy firm on the planet. Too many in our profession get in front of a potential client and start rhyming off the services they provide—we do audits, we save you money on taxes, we do yearend statements, and so on and so on ad nauseam. Then for good measure they throw in their generic website promises—we put our clients first, we are your trusted advisor, blah blah.
So How to Proceed?
Instead of same old, same old, you need to be investigating, developing points of discussion, and make sure there is something to discuss before you begin. If, for example, the prospect has an adequate compliance service in place and you’ve offered them the alternative of another adequate compliance service, then what is there to discuss—price?
There’s no valid reason for them to switch to you. You need to offer them something superior than they currently have.
In short, you are allowing the prospect to want what you’ve got by making what you’ve got fit their needs.
Winning Your First Client
In order to "sell" with confidence, to attract the type of clients you’ve identified as ideal for your practice and to practice this type of relationship-based differentiation, you must believe in yourself and in what you are offering.
The phrase "winning your first client" doesn’t mean what you may think. I’m not talking about your first client acquisition. Rather, it means selling yourself to yourself—becoming comfortable in the belief that you are the right fit for this prospective client.
When you can develop this confident self-belief, your self-esteem is not riding on acquiring any given client. The approach towards a potential new client becomes something like this:
“Let’s have a conversation and see where it takes us. If we can take it further, fantastic. If not, all we’ve done is spend 45 minutes of our time and you’ve had an independent view of your business free of charge. It’s a win-win in either case, so let’s relax and enjoy our conversation.”
This is now “selling” matures into “attracting", as shown in the illustration.
About the author:
Martin Bissett is founder of the Upward Spiral Partnership, a UK-based consulting firm that specializes in the implementation of professional selling skills and leadership development for partners and senior managers in the accounting profession. His new guidebook",An Introduction To Selling To Attracting New Clients With Confidence" is available by emailing your name and address to [email protected].
About Martin Bissett
Martin Bissett formed the Upward Spiral Partnership Ltd (USP) in 2012, specialising in Grade A Fee Growth and Preparing Senior Managers for Partnership within the Accounting Profession.
Clients for USP include:
Pennsylvania Institute of Certified Public Accountants (PICPA)
Institute of Chartered Accountants of England and Wales (ICAEW)
Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA)
The Added Value Network (AVN)
The 2020 Group
The IAPA Group
Russell Bedford International
The Alliott Group
Chartered Accountants Ireland
Additionally, Bissett has launched a speaking career that has taken him to 16 countries in the first 6 years of its existence.
Bissett has held a position as Board advisor at the Raft Foundation and has been a visiting lecturer at Bolton College, Accrington Rossendale College, Bacup and Rawtenstall Grammar School, Southport College, The Peter Jones Enterprise Academy North Manchester, The North West Society of The Institute of Chartered Accountants of England and Wales.
Bissett has received the Powered Person of the year award from Business Link, the youngest ever winner of the award.
The Institute of Sales and Marketing Management has recognized him as a Fellow of The Institute.
The Business for Good Organisation has recognised him as a finalist for Global Impact Maker of the year.
Bissett currently has 4 recognised and registered trademarks which he uses in his consulting work. Amongst these are his A.C.C.O.U.N.T.S.(tm) mnemonic, employed in the accurate forecasting of proactive fee growth within an accounting firm.
As of May 2018, Bissett has published 11 books on practice development in the Accounting Profession. The most of any author.
His book ‘Passport to Partnership’ appeared on the curricula of the AAT Level 3 qualification at Bolton College.
He has the best-selling book in North America (Passport to Partnership) on leadership development in the accounting profession.