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Winning an engagement: a step-by-step approach.

The message is clear. Accounting firms that hope to be successful in today's competitive markets must train employees to sell the accounting services they offer and sell them aggressively.

Many in the accounting profession perceive selling as somehow demeaning to their professional stature and believe it destroys the profession's dignity. But firms that have adjusted to changing markets and increased competition by developing and implementing more aggressive techniques are quickly gaining the competitive edge. They also are capturing a wealth of business opportunities that are there for the asking.

Selling is a simple process. It is not magical or complicated. There are basically two key elements to succeeding:

* Asking the right questions (who, what, where, when, why and how) to uncover the client's real needs.

* Communicating effectively how the firm's service or product will satisfy those needs.

Here are some proven, easy-to-apply sales techniques CPAs and their employees can use to generate new business, starting from the first meeting through the proposal presentation stage.


Most of us, when attending social or civic functions, tend to gravitate to people we already know. Or, if we arrive at a function with one or more colleagues, we tend to stay together and move about the room as a group. Although this behavior is most comfortable, it is the least effective way of making new contacts. To overcome the problem, CPAs should

* Set a goal of how many new contacts they will make before attending social or civic functions.

* On arrival, look for people standing near the bar or the food table. These people often are timid about initiating conversations with strangers and can be the easiest to approach. This strategy is a great confidence booster and a good way to succeed in meeting people.


CPAs should always greet new people with confidence, poise, a smile and firm handshake. It's important to listen carefully to the person's name and use it periodically during the conversation. The conversation should begin with small talk on where the person works, on how they are associated with the group sponsoring the event or on world events.

Once rapport is established, moving to business conversation should be easy. This transition can be made with questions such as

* What type of business are you in?

* How long have you been in business?

* How many employees?

* What are your responsibilities?

* What types of clients do you serve?

* Do you use a local accounting firm?

One way to obtain instant credibility is to ask questions pertinent to the prospect's industry. This allows the CPA to mention his or her experience in that particular business. Clients want to be supported by people who understand their industry's management and operational concerns.

Before finishing the conversation, it is important to fulfill its objective. If the firm can help a prospective client, and if it seems appropriate to do so, the CPA can try to set up a meeting, possibly over lunch, to further discuss the prospect's business concerns. If previous conversation doesn't lend itself to this type of follow-up, the CPA should be sure at least to obtain a business card and then send the prospect periodic mailings of useful information.


If a meeting is scheduled, it is vitally important to prepare for it thoroughly. There are three steps to take beforehand:

* Research the backgrounds of the company and those who will attend the meeting. This information might be obtained by

1. Getting annual reports.

2. Talking with firm employees or acquaintances in the community familiar with the company or its industry.

3. Referring to industry directories.

4. Talking with contacts at local clubs and service organizations.

* Focus on the meeting objective, which is to get the prospect to agree to accept a written proposal.

* Rehearse the kinds of questions that will help to uncover the prospect's concerns and identify the players included in decision making.


The CPA should sound enthusiastic and happy to have the opportunity to meet with the prospect, greeting him or her with a warm smile and firm handshake. The meeting can begin with small talk about things observed in the prospect's office or place of business. It's a good idea to look for clues to common interests such as wall hangings, family photos and awards, all of which are opportunities to generate small talk and begin building rapport.

Since clients value timeliness in their dealings with CPAs, it is most important to avoid being late. First impressions are lasting, and promptness could determine whether the firm obtains an engagement. Even if the CPA expects to be only five minutes late, he or she should call and inform the prospect of the delay. The prospect will appreciate this sensitivity to the value of his or her time and may be able to complete a short task while waiting.

Before proceeding to business discussions, thank the prospect for his or her time. Once all the pleasantries have been exchanged, the meeting should proceed as follows:

* Get acquainted. It's best to sit upright in the chair and maintain good posture. This conveys real interest in what the prospect is saying. A very effective technique in one-on-one meetings is something called "mirroring," which is based on the premise that we all prefer to associate with people who are most like us. It works by paying close attention to the prospect's voice speed, tone and personality traits without mimicking him or her. For example, if the CPA tends to speak rather slowly and the prospective client speaks more rapidly, the CPA should increase speed. Mirroring not only helps make others more comfortable, it also forces the presenter to pay close attention to the prospect's reactions and unspoken signals.

Before making notations during a meeting, it's a good idea to ask if the individual has any objections. This courtesy should always be extended, especially since some people are disturbed by the loss of eye contact and undivided attention.

* Relieve buyer anxiety. When the CPA suggests a meeting, the prospect will be uncertain about the practitioner's intentions and expectations. It's important at the meeting, then, to offer some early reassurance. Here's an example: "What I would like to do this morning, Ms. Smith, is tell you a little more about the depth of our services and then ask you some questions pertaining to your concerns about your business. If after discussing your present situation I believe we can service your company, I will be asking for some direction from you on what you think our next step should be."

This opening is valuable because the prospect no longer has to wonder how the meeting will proceed. He or she can relax and concentrate on what the CPA says, rather than worry about what the practitioner will be expecting.

* Exchange information. The description of the firm should be brief. The CPA can mention how long it's been in business, explain in general terms the breadth of its services and then focus on uncovering the prospect's concerns. Use who, what, where, when, why and how questions to gain insights into the company's needs. For example: What are your long-term plans for growth? What is the state of your receivables? What method do you use for inventory control? Where would you like to see your company improve most? Avoid questions that require yes-or-no answers. Open-ended questions are effective because they allow the listener to focus on key words and tonalities.

Once the CPA obtains enough information to identify key concerns, he or she should begin to focus on them by describing specific services and solutions the firm can offer. Once this is accomplished, it's possible to begin to close the meeting as follows: "Ms. Smith, based on our conversation this morning, I believe our firm can provide you with the types of services and guidance that will help you attain your long-term goals for the company. If you agree we could be effective in doing so, what I would like to suggest is that we submit a written proposal for your accounting and consulting needs. I am, of course, looking for direction from you as to our next step." If the prospect agrees, it's time to set a delivery date for the proposal.


It is vital in the proposal stage to focus on the specific concerns raised in the initial meeting.-In other words, the CPA shouldn't make the mistake of trying to sell the prospect something he or she hasn't identified as necessary. The CPA should be sure the proposal and presentation are relevant.

To ensure relevancy, it's effective to focus on

* Conditions.

* Results.

* Commitment.

Conditions. These are the concerns or issues uncovered in the meeting (such as, quarterly financials are consistently one month late, and the information at that point is almost useless). They should always be written in the prospect's own words, not as the CPA's opinions or definitions of the problem.

Conditions rarely contain the words "want" or "need." If a prospect; or client for that matter, uses either term, it's important to delve for more information: "Why do you feel you need that? What is happening in your business that brings it to mind?"

Results. This should identify specific (measurable) functions, effects and performance objectives that must occur because of the engagement. It is essentially a restatement of the condition, with a new conclusion (such as, the quarterly statements will be timely and useful).

Commitment. The commitment should state specifically how the firm's service or product will produce the results the prospect seeks ("Ms. Smith, we are prepared to deliver your quarterly financial statements no later than five working days after the quarter ends").


The final proposal presentation is the CPA's last best opportunity to secure the prospect as a client. Here are some pointers to increase the chances of succeeding.

* Determine who will attend the meeting and how the proposal can benefit each individual specifically. Discuss those benefits in the presentation.

* Be sure to address those in attendance by name. This is particularly important when talking about proposal issues that pertain to their job responsibilities.

* Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse.

A recommended schedule for the proposal presentation is as follows:

* Begin by thanking the prospect for the opportunity to be there.

* Relieve buyer anxiety. Let attendees know what will be coming from beginning to end. Remind them they will be asked how they wish to proceed at the conclusion of the presentation.

* Summarize the concerns identified in the initial meeting and ask if the synopsis is correct.

* If it is, begin to discuss the conditions cited, the results sought and the commitment the firm is prepared to make to satisfying these goals.

* Verify conditions again and ask if anything has been missed or should be added.

* Close the presentation by telling attendees it's time for them to decide how to proceed.


If all has worked smoothly, the prospects should end the meeting with a clear idea of the firm's ability to pinpoint their problems and then help solve them. Since that's what most clients seek in a CPA, the firm that follows this approach has an excellent chance of success in securing the client.

Getting a new engagement is the culmination of a process that begins when practitioners reach out to people met at social or business functions. Selling one's services is an art that is not nearly as difficult to master as many CPAs imagine. The most important thing to remember about selling accounting services is that it is nothing more than asking questions to uncover real needs and then educating the prospective client on how the firm's services can fulfill them.

THOMAS M. HODGSON is marketing director and client services manager of J.G. Hodgson & Co., New Bedford, Massachusetts,


* CPA FIRMS THAT have adjusted to changing markets and increased competition by developing and implementing more aggressive selling techniques are quickly gaining a competitive edge. They also are capturing a wealth of business opportunities that are there for the asking.

* IN A STEP-BY-STEP approach to selling, the first move is getting to know prospective clients at social or business functions. Once personal rapport is established, moving to business conversation should be easy.

* IF A PROSPECTIVE CLIENT agrees to a meeting, preparation is vital. Among the research tools available are annual reports, industry directories and the CPA's contacts at local clubs and service organizations.

* THE STEPS to a successful first meeting are getting acquainted, relieving buyer anxiety by outlining how the meeting will proceed and exchanging information on what the prospective client needs and how the firm will be able to help.

* CPAs SHOULDN'T TRY to sell the prospect something he or she hasn't identified as necessary, They can be sure their proposals and presentations are relevant by focusing on the conditions the prospect has identified, the results he or she would like to achieve and the commitment the firm can make to reaching those goals.

* GAINING THE ENGAGEMENT involves nothing more than asking questions to uncover real needs and then educating the prospective client on how the firm's services can fulfill them.
COPYRIGHT 1992 American Institute of CPA's
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Title Annotation:selling accounting services
Author:Hodgson, Thomas M.
Publication:Journal of Accountancy
Date:Aug 1, 1992
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