Last summer, we met with a senior partner of a large regional firm in the South. When asked why he wanted to talk with us, his answer was surprising.  “You know,” he said, “I’m 41 years old and I’m beginning to plan for my retirement. Frankly, I’m worried. None of my younger partners, and actually only a few of the older ones, have the skills and desire to go out and develop business. Unless they get better at bringing in work, they won’t be able to fund my retirement.”  This partner realized that he was at his limit. He had the skill to bring in more business than he could possibly do or supervise. So, for the firm to do better, he saw that he needed to get the other partners as proficient at bringing in business as he was. During the previous year, to enhance his colleagues’ skills, he engaged a well-known sales franchise training firm to conduct a program, and invested two days of his partners’ time. What was the result? Absolutely nothing. No additional effort by the partners. No perceptible improvement in skills. The same disappointing results as before. Ultimately, the result for this partner was that his retirement remained in jeopardy. In addition, he damaged his internal credibility and wasted his partners’ time. We’ve seen this pattern repeated in many accounting firms. Most sales training doesn’t make a bit of difference in generating more business, because it doesn’t adequately address the complete challenge and extent of building business-generating skills.

To show you what we mean, lets take a closer look at why many professionals underachieve in areas of business development. The reasons we find most prevalent are:

  • They simply don’t know how to market or sell. Many accountants lack the full complement of skills necessary to bring in business. In fact, many view business development as a natural talent rather than a skill-you’re either born with it or you’re not. They also mistakenly perceive marketing as glitzy brochures or high profile public relations which should automatically result in business. Many see selling as simply persuasive talking or high-pressure closing tactics;
  • There is no good reason for them to hustle harder to bring in work. As professionals, people face enormous pressures to stay chargeable. This keeps most of them extremely busy. Doing proactive business development, even with present clients, is often seen as extra work.
  • Many professionals don’t know where to look for new business. Numerous professionals, especially younger professionals, don’t know who to target for promotional efforts, or where the best sources of new business are. And, in many firms, there is no way to learn where to focus your effort for the best payback. Even if there are proven business generators within the firm, rarely is time or effort devoted by the rainmakers to teach their skills to others.
  • Many professionals don’t like prospecting and selling. If they did, they would have become salespeople instead of accountants. The prospecting and selling process often leads to feelings of personal rejection and failure as well as lowered self-esteem. Logically, many professionals seek to avoid this unpleasantness by avoiding the prospecting and selling process altogether. Also, many professionals set themselves up for failure because they don’t effectively use marketing tools to pre-qualify hot prospects. Without effective personal marketing, every business development call ends up being a cold call or a tough sale. And this leads to more frequent rejection and failure.

Adopting the behavior of a sales person is totally inappropriate.

  • It’s too hard to change. Changing business development behavior is difficult simply because it requires change. This takes time and requires commitment and a system of application and focus on continuing incremental improvements. Most sales training efforts are one-shot programs that lack any approach for continual improvement or reinforcement. Accordingly, no improvement or positive change occurs, and no results are produced.
  • They think they should behave like sales people rather than professional consultants and relationship managers. Common sales training reinforces this tendency in professionals. Sending professionals out on sales calls with old fashioned sales techniques that were originally designed to sell copy machines and other tangibles is tantamount to consigning an auditor to an engagement with an abacus instead of a personal computer. Adopting the behavior of a salesperson (which is what common sales training instructs) is totally inappropriate for the consultative personality of a professional. Credibility can be destroyed completely when an accountant “shows and tells” the “features and benefits” to a prospective client. It is even more inappropriate in an existing client relationship. As you can see, traditional sales training fails to address any of these challenges and may, in fact, add to the problems by teaching the wrong approach. So, how can you develop the skills you need to succeed?
How to get results

To get results, your skill-building programs must address each of the following six barriers. Also, as an individual, you should view each of these areas to see where you personally may fall short. In this way, you can clarify what steps to take in order to build your business-generating skills.
Here are some ways to address deficiencies in your skill-building efforts.

  • If your professionals lack the full complement of individual marketing and selling skills necessary to produce results:

(1) Start by recognizing that business development is a skill that can be acquired just like auditing. It is not simply innate.
(2) Develop a plan of attack to build skills in all aspects of business development. This would include prospecting, personal marketing, face-to-face situations involving new clients and services, managing existing relationships, following through on marketing activities, telephone selling, account development strategies, and time management.
(3) Success isn’t accidental. Think about the best business generators in your firm and at other firms you know well. What distinguishes these partners from the others? What do they do right? Use them as success models to get others started using the same approaches and adopting the same behavior.

  • If your professionals lack good reasons to hustle harder:

(1) Incorporate goal setting into the skill-building programs. Let each professional define his own reasons for trying harder-reasons that are personally valid and inspiring.
(2) Set specific behavioral goals-actions that will be taken-as well as desired outcomes.
(3) Set a six-to-eight-week deadline for results. Monitor results in a group setting. Give them a method that they like. Give them a Method that they like.

  • If your professionals don’t know where to look for new business:

(1) Give your professionals a systematic way to define where their best opportunities lie. For example, mostprofessionals should focus first on their current client base to determine work opportunities and service strengths.
(2) Concentrate on developing ways to maximize referrals from both current clients and third parties.

  • If your professionals don’t like to market and sell:

(1) Find out why they don’t like it. Some professionals may be unsure of what marketing and selling really is. Others may be skeptical of their ability to do it. Rather than ignore this area, you must surface and address any inhibitors.
(2) Give them a professional selling process with which they are comfortable. If accountants have a well-defined methodology for selling or marketing, we’ve found that they like it better and are more at ease in a selling situation. It also allows them to be natural when promoting work.

  • If it’s too hard to get your professionals to change:

(1) To foster change, you need to get your people into action. One approach that works, we find, involves a contract of action-a commitment to others that the professionals will follow through on the actions he or she prescribes.
(2) Stress incremental improvement and continual reinforcement. Take care to ensure some quick successes so that professionals are motivated to continue honing their business development skills.

  • If your professionals don’t want to be turned into salespeople, don’t make them!

(1) Help them use their diagnostic skills to identify with whom they should be doing business and what prospective or current clients should be buying.

Transforming your firm

Today isn’t yesterday. Proactive business development is now a requirement for professional practitioners. We’ve found that success in business development centers on the capability of individual partners and the focus, vitality, and intensity of their business development efforts. So, to enhance your results, start by investing wisely in the business generating skills of the professionals in your firm.  Be aware, however, that most sales training offers only a partial solution to the problem. Above all, you need to make a commitment to transform your firm through a planned, systematic skill-building program.

Good Selling,

Dave Rothfeld