The ART in “Start” (Advice)
Accountants are “the world’s worst sales people,” and I have seen preciously little evidence over the last 35 years to dispute this assertion. (We don’t have to live down to the stereotype, though.) Before I attempt to give selling advice, let me offer this warning: When the best marketing and selling ideas are coming from the accounting department, the marketing/sales department needs lots of help. We will still try to help anyway, but especially in a client situation, any really good ideas from us should be worthy of consideration for a bonus.
Prospecting is tedious and frustrating. Even in our carefully defined target market, the proportion of “no’s” is still outrageously high. Despite many surveys saying otherwise, most company owners seem to be well enough served by their accountants that they will seldom force personnel changes. We are looking for that short interval of owner’s frustration when he/she realizes that a change must be made. Turnover presents a significant opportunity. Alligator skin is a valuable asset for a “prospector.” That’s why I appreciate my mailing and telemarketing services so much. When they produce a “warm” lead, the real “fun” begins.
When one of my Associates receives a lead through me from Professional Controllers, he/she calls to make a meeting appointment with the President/CEO, ASAP. Meeting with a “gate-keeper” (one who can say “no,” but not “yes.”) is usually of little value. A quick response (same day) gives us an advantage. The appointment-making phone call should be short (less than 5 minutes. We defer “interview” questions to the meeting. The Professional Controller lead generation process will give an Associate a lot of information about a prospect. Besides the necessary name, address and phone number, we usually know nature of the business, years in business, gross sales, fiscal year end, payroll service, accounting software, and some “hot buttons.” The prospect will have been expecting our call. If an Associate wishes, he/she may check the internet for more information before the face-to-face meeting.
At the meeting we ask for more information about why the “prospect” responded. The business owner ordinarily will confirm what we already know and will probably re-emphasize his/her “hot buttons.” As soon as we can justify a “close” (one of my interviews lasted only 15 minutes), we ask, “May I begin (this work) on (day/date)?” Wait for an answer. (Whoever speaks next “loses.”) If the answer is “yes,” you’re hired. Go to work!
If the answer is “no,” the real selling begins. Ask more questions to probe for objections. (Look in the COMPLUS web site for “Interview Questions - Clients.”) Answer the owner’s questions candidly, and again attempt to close.
- We fix problems.
- We work with the owner’s agenda. Considering today’s computers, “we will do Windows.” (2 + 2 is … “What number would you like it to be?”) Seriously, we draw the line at illegal or immoral -- but we will stretch a point on fattening (we want to be included for the parties).
- We promise to bring “truth” to the owner. Sometimes the owner might not like it, so we want a commitment to deal with the news and not “to shoot the messenger.”
- We can be part-time because we teach clerical personnel how to do their work. We define and monitor controls to assure that bookkeeping work is done properly. Baby-sitting is just expensive. If I have to sit next to a clerk day-after-day-after-day-after…, while the clerk does work that I know how to do, one of us is unnecessary.
- We help the owner to understand the implications of his/her choices so he/she can run the business without feeling blindfolded. The accounting system should be a feedback mechanism to influence decisions going forward, not just a historical archive.
- We help the owner to avoid surprises. Visualize the image of standing back-to-back with the owner, linked elbow to elbow. Together we have a 360-degree view of the world.
- We pledge to be the owner’s ally. We hope that the owner will have more than one ally, but he/she will have at least one.
- We pledge to support and improve professional and vendor relationships that the owner wants to (and should) keep. For example, we can enable the company’s CPA to be more effective for tax and audit work without compromising his “independence.”
- We support the owner’s prerogative to make decisions. If asked to make those decisions, I respond that I could -- but if you really want that, please call me President, and pay me accordingly. President and Controller are different positions on the same team.
- We will be part of the client’s competitive advantage. A better-informed owner is a more effective business person. We pledge not to work for a competitive rival of a client.
- We can be a variable cost. When we’re not needed, there’s no charge.
- Compared to a full-time Controller, we can do the work better for about half the price.
- We back up each other with COMPLUS group resources. Coverage is available if a Controller gets sick or goes on vacation. None of us has to say, “I don’t know,” until all of us have said, “I don’t know.” That’s very rare.
- We pledge to make each client feel like he/she is the only client we have, even though they all, intellectually, know better. Even when we are not actually present, we are still available.
The most common objection is a simple stall. Examples are
- “I’m too busy to deal with this issue now after all.” (The “busier” the owner is, the more we should be able to help. When the owner is up to his/her neck in alligators, our job is to drain the swamp. Waiting only makes matters worse.)
- “Let me clean up the mess first.” (How much should you clean before the “clean-up crew” comes in?)
- “I have to consult with others.” (If there are other decision makers, arrange to meet with all at the same time.)
- “We can’t until …(some event)… happens.” (Ask for a commitment of decision/action at a time certain after the event.)
- “I will do it myself.” (Is that the best use of the owner’s time?)
- “Please prepare a proposal.” (The harder we have to “work” for an engagement, the less likely we are to get it.)
“Chemistry” is critical. Smile. Act like you enjoy this work. If the owner doesn’t like you, he/she will never give you a chance to show how smart you are. If there is competition for the Controller’s role, “raise the bar.” We expect to serve as a talented executive, not just a clerk. Be confident -- we’re very good; we’re very economical and we’re worth what we charge.