The accountant’s guide to selling
Accountants may be good at the technical work but not all are natural salespeople. Philip Fisher suggests some selling options for the shy and retiring types who’d still like to grow their practice.
At its worst, selling is merely telling lies about things and hoping that nobody spots the dishonesty until you have made a sale and done a runner.
That is not the kind of reputation that any self-respecting firm of accountants wishes to develop.
In the past, many got involved in touting tax-avoidance schemes that ultimately failed to work. When confronted by a client who has just been obliged to pay HMRC a large amount of money that they claim you promised would never become due it is easy to recognise that over-promising is not all that it is cracked up to be.
Therefore unless you are willing to live with the consequences, hard sell is probably not the best way to build a practice that is expected to endure for decades.
The strengths that make accountants good at their discipline do not tend to include those that characterise great salesman. We tend to be shy, retiring types who are very good technically and believe in offering a good service.
On the other hand, the best salesman would quite happily offer you one grandmother free if you purchased the other and not turn a hair when you pointed out that both had passed away before super-rainmaker was even born.
Given this seemingly insuperable stumbling block, those in practice need to consider how best to harness skills and concentrate efforts to sell the wonderful products that they have available, if only the world knew. There are numerous approaches, any one of which might be ideally suited to your practice.
One possibility is to hire in help. My own experience in this area has generally been pretty negative. While people who claim that they can sell accountancy and tax services are ten a penny and many of them manage to worm their way into highly paid jobs. Only about 10% are then capable of delivering anything near to what they promise. That is the nature of the beast unfortunately.
Then there are any number of training courses available that promise to turn the callow into selling superstars. Once again, you are probably likely to learn more about the talents of those selling courses to sell courses than develop significant skills unless you have ability in that direction in the first place.
Similarly, there has been a fashion for employing cold callers, either internally or through some kind of external agency. I can honestly say that I have never gained a single piece of work on the back of cold calling.
Personally, I put the phone down as soon as I realise that anyone is trying to sell me something and therefore I may not be the best advocate for this mode of business generation.
From bitter personal experience, cold callers have occasionally managed to fix what they referred to as high quality meetings with prospective clients. However, having wasted significant amounts of time in research and preparation, in every case the people on the other side of the desk were merely trying to get free advice or a quote with which they could beat down the advisers they actually wished to appoint in the first place.
So what does work? Coming back to the introduction of this is sales and marketing series, building a good reputation is the best way of selling your services.
If clients keep coming back, that is a good start. They will then inevitably recommend you to their friends and anyone else who happens to need the services of an accountant. You can certainly consolidate this by mixing in the right circles, whether that’s sporting, social or business-related.
It also helps to have something to sell, which distinguishes your practice from others plus enthusiasm for telling the story about why your offering is so good. You could base this on price, although generally accountants who sell things cheaply are unlikely to prosper in the long term.
Niche areas of practice might be a better approach, as referred to in the sections on branding and marketing. Ultimately, it could come down to your own personality and those of your colleagues.
I like working with people who make me comfortable and so do most others. Therefore if you can make clients like you, in principle, they will buy more of your services and pay properly for them.
The other debate about selling that always creates controversy is teamwork. At one end of the scale, there is a sometimes fanatical belief in some firms that everybody from top to bottom should get involved in the sales effort. This can include programmes of calls and meetings that are rigorously enforced, using methodologies more familiar to those commonly associated with individuals selling dodgy insurance products rather than professionals with integrity.
It seems far more sensible to determine who has any kind of skill in this field and allocate most or all of the work to them, allowing those who have spent years learning how to specialise in technical areas to specialise in technical areas.