Mark Lee considers the steps start-up practices can take to ensure they maximise the chance of new contacts becoming clients.
Not every accountant is keen to build up their practice, especially those who feel they already have enough clients. But for the rest, especially start-up practices, there is an understandable desire to convert new contacts and connections into clients.
In recent articles I have suggested a seven-step approach as to how accountants can STAND OUT from the crowd. Let’s now take that a stage further. This means focusing on the sixth step (follow up) I explained in the second article.
In the context of this article I will consider how you can follow up in the hope of converting new connections into clients.
No magic wands
One of the reasons so many accountants dislike networking is because they have unrealistic expectations. They feel it’s been a waste of time if they don’t return from events with at least one new client. I’d be surprised however if many people attend networking or other business events in the hope of finding a new accountant.
The only exceptions are likely to be those people who have recently started a business but who have yet to appoint an accountant. They may not have attended the event with the intention of finding an accountant, but they may be more open to the idea than more established business people.
My point here is that you cannot expect to wave a magic wand and instantly convince new contacts that they both need a new accountant and that you are best placed to perform this service. If that’s your objective you will invariably be disappointed. It makes as much sense as when a single guy or lady attends a party hoping to find someone who will agree to marry them in the next few days.
However, if you set more realistic expectations you can increase the number of new contacts who subsequently become clients.
The seven steps framework
I outlined the seven steps in the two articles referenced earlier. To remind you, the framework addresses seven factors that will influence the people you meet. These factors, which can be recalled as starting with the letters A-G, are most relevant as follows when considering prospective clients:
· Your Appearance – what impression did you leave with the prospect? And is this confirmed if they check you out online?
· Your Business branding and messaging – was this sufficiently clear, relevant and memorable?
· Your Conversational impact – were you evidently listening more than talking and able to engage the prospect with relevant stories of how you have helped other clients like them?
· Your Dependability and trust – did you evidence this when you met and how can you do so as part of your follow up?
· Your Experience – does the prospect know you have sufficient relevant experience to provide the support and advice they need?
· Your Follow-up from the meeting – this will be focus of the remainder of this article
· Your willingness to Give and share – which can also form part of your follow up where appropriate
It’s never too late to start
A member of AccountingWEB sent me a message recently. He said: “I wish I’d read about your seven steps framework before I started attending networking events last year. I’ve not got much benefit from networking to date but I’ve persisted. Now, I know what I’ve been doing wrong and what needs to change.”
I would guess that this accountant has been collecting business cards from people he hoped might be prospective clients. No doubt he gave them his business card too and has been waiting for them to contact him.
Perhaps he added them to his mailing list and has sent them some generic newsletters. Or perhaps he just sent a standard message to everyone he met at each event. So he had followed up. Once. Not surprisingly he has been disappointed by the subsequent lack of interest in his services.
Anyone in a similar position could now choose to follow up and contact those people in a more personal and effective way. A starting point would be to go back through that old pile of business cards and picking out those whom you can recall and feel it could be worthwhile contacting again. Don’t assume they will remember you though. So you will have to re-introduce yourself. This is when it pays to have noted on the back of each card you received when and where you met people.
Prospects or suspects?
I’ve been talking about prospects and prospective clients. Actually most of the people you have met are probably simply ‘suspects’. That is, you hope or suspect that they may become prospective clients. This only really happens once they have expressed some interest in talking to you about your services.
Part of the reason for following up with new contacts is to see if your suspicions and hopes are correct. May I suggest that you do this subtly rather than too overtly? At least until after you have established some form of relationship with them, beyond the initial chat you had when you first met.
Categorise your new contacts
I suggest you divide your business cards into four groups:
1. People you spoke with sufficiently to judge that they may have the potential to become clients in the near future
2. Those people who you feel have the potential to refer prospective clients to you
3. Those people you spent less time with and who you hope have longer-term potential to become clients or referrers
4. Those cards you took out of politeness but who seem unlikely to ever become clients or to be able to refer prospects to you
The thing about that fourth category is that you don’t know who they know so don’t write them off.
In the context of this article we are focusing on the first group. Can you call them or email them to follow up on something they talked about when you met?
To evidence your dependability you may have promised to do or send something specific by way of follow-up after you met your new contacts. Make sure you keep those promises. Failure to do so will count against you, as it suggests you cannot be trusted.
Follow up ‘meetings’
We are all busy. Respect your prospect’s time and recognise that they may not be able to make time to meet you for a coffee “to continue the conversation we had when we met recently.”
Alternatives include phone conversations and Skype.
In most cases such ‘meetings’ with prospects will be easier to arrange if you identify a clear objective that appeals to your prospect. Indeed a well structured email or phone call to arrange such meetings can help ensure you only meet up with prospects rather than with suspects.
Clearly it is generally easier to help a prospect become a client than some random person about whom you know very little.
What makes someone a prospect?
I said earlier that prospects are people who have expressed some interest in talking to you about your services. How can you find out if this is the case?
Ideally you will have done this during your initial conversation when you first met. This is part of what I mean when I reference ‘conversational impact’ as the third stage of the framework.
If you didn’t do it when you met then you either have to do it on the phone or when you have your follow up ‘meeting’.
Of course you could ask them a direct question. But you might be more comfortable starting with more subtle questions, listening to the answers you get and adapting your conversation accordingly. Does your prospect seem interested in the stories you are sharing about clients you have helped who seem to be in a similar situation to the prospect?
Generic follow ups
The problem with all of this is that’s it doesn’t generate immediate new clients and it takes time to follow up personally with everyone you meet.
This is all very different to the position when someone approaches you directly or in response to an advert or promotional material. You know they are prospects – so you simply need to focus on ‘closing the sale’. [See: Closure is crucial for start-ups and Getting prospects from ‘no thanks to ‘yes’] Both articles also contain advice and examples that can be adapted to help turn the people you meet into clients.
There is a temptation to simply send everyone you meet a generic follow up message. You may see this as ticking a box so you can say you follow-up with everyone you meet. Except that you don’t. A generic message is just that. It doesn’t tick any of the seven steps that can help you to Stand Out. It’s what so many other accountants do. It’s boring and it’s unlikely to convert any of your new contacts into clients. Wasn’t that the objective?
Mark Lee is consultant practice editor of AccountingWEB. He has created a seven step framework to help accountants who want to STAND OUT; he facilitates The Inner Circle group for accountants, entertains as a conference speaker and is chairman of the Tax Advice Network of independent tax specialists who provide support to smaller practices.
Mark will be speaking at this year’s Practice Excellence Conference on 6 November at Dexter House in London.