Accountants: Time to face (dating) reality

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Finding a new client is a bit like finding a new partner - you never know what you're getting, so approach with extreme caution, advises Edi Osborne.

The heat of competition for new business is a bit like those dating reality TV shows, where hapless contestants vie for the attention of one lucky prospect. All of the drama makes for good TV ratings, but having finally won the date after a series of protracted challenges, many of the candidates admit that they got caught up in the fantasy of the competition and focused on winning rather than on whether the prospect was his or her type. It’s the same in business; if we are not careful we can lose sight of the big picture when a seemingly easier or immediately gratifying opportunity presents itself.
To keep yourself from falling in love with the wrong prospect, here’s a list of questions/criteria you might want to review when you go a-courting:

  • Would I be comfortable setting up this potential client to do business with my best clients?
    In dating terms: Would I fix this guy up with my sister?

  • Does this client share my same values around honesty, teamwork, etc.?
    In dating terms: Are they polite to servers and are they a good tipper? Would they give up their seat to an elderly person? 

  • Would this potential client be among the first you would recommend to be interviewed by the local business journal doing a story talking about accountant-client relationships?
    In dating terms: Would you be proud to announce to the world that you are seeing each other?

  • Would you be comfortable having anyone on your team work with this client and/or their team? At their location?
    In dating terms: Are you as comfortable at his/her place as your own? Are you OK with inviting your friends over to his/her house?

  • Would you be comfortable having this potential client come to dinner at your home? With your family?
    In dating terms: Would my parents like him/her? Would Nana approve?

  • If you were leaving your firm, and you could only take five clients with you, is this one of them?
    In dating terms: Is this Mr. Right or Mr. Right Now?

  • Is there an opportunity to expand the relationship beyond initial service interests?
    In dating terms: How do they feel about children, a family?

This is my list. Yours may be different. I’m not saying a prospect has to pass every one of these tests, but certainly most of them.
Speaking of tests, one of the meanest and smartest things my parents ever did was to insist that a certain older boy I had a crush on had to come spend a day at our house before they would let me go out with him. He arrived late, got bored easily, didn’t engage well in conversation or activities with my family, and spent much of the time looking for places for us to sneak off to. The bottom line is he failed the test miserably and by the middle of the day (he left early); I never wanted to see him again. Truth be told, my parents never would have let me go out with him, but they let me figure it out for myself. Pretty smart, huh? Don’t tell them I said so.
Finding and dating prospects can be both daunting and fun. However you feel about it, be sure you have a good idea of what your ideal client looks like before you head out the door. Consider setting up a group date with your team and theirs at their location and see how things go before you commit any further. Better to test the fit up front, otherwise you could be signing yourself and your firm up for some heartache.
Trudy Beard, CPA, CSPM of Independence, Missouri, took this idea of a group date even further. Here’s an example of why you want to involve your team in the prospecting process. She was swamped with work and yet, still had a hard time saying no to any new business that came her way. The result was a mismatch of clients that didn’t fit with her overall goals and strategy.
Her solution was to involve her team in all client prospecting decisions. According to Trudy, the results were spectacular on several levels:

  1. The team understood and embraced Trudy’s overall goals and did a good job of sifting through the opportunities to find those that were a good fit.
  2. The team was quick to identify clients that didn’t fit and that should be let go.
  3. The team was quick to take on more work from Trudy to free her up when presented with an ideal client opportunity.
  4. Trudy reported that the team’s skills grew tremendously as they took on more challenging work to help Trudy free up her time to pursue higher quality work. (The team thrived on the growth opportunities.)
  5. Involving the team in both her strategy and client selection improved their Strategic IQ such that they could make better real-time decisions about workflow priorities.

Essentially, the team saved Trudy from herself (just like my parents did for me) and her tendency to say yes too easily.
Taking a lesson from Trudy, saying no to prospects isn’t always easy. For that reason, I recommend you take your test list with you. It’s probably going to be a lot harder than you think to select just one prospect.

Edi Osborne has been providing the profession with out-of-the-box insights for more than 20 years. She is the driving force behind The Passionate Accountant, and CEO of Carmel Valley, CA-based Mentor Plus. She welcomes your comments and queries at [email protected].



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