Jean-Luc Bourdon
Molly Sargent

CPAs: Improve Your Sales Performance

Three leading strategies show you how.

November 2, 2009
by Molly Sargent

Let’s demystify selling. So many people say that they are “afraid” to sell. Ironically, however, many of those same people are excellent in client interactions that aren’t considered “sales” calls. They engage clients with many of the very behaviors sales people use, for instance, speaking easily with clients about the clients’ problems, offering suggestions on how to address those problems, answering tough questions, making plans to follow up and actually following up. Same behavior, different name.

Perhaps you’d like to be more effective at helping to bring business into the firm but you find yourself feeling reluctant to “sell.” Consider these techniques that can both increase your comfort and your success.

They Talk First, You Talk Second

It’s simple, right? Maybe not. Asking questions of clients before you start offering solutions to their problems sounds easy and obvious. In reality, it’s so tempting to walk into the client’s office, armed with all of your passion, experience and knowledge and start sharing your insights and product or service knowledge before learning enough about what the client’s issues and interests are. Here are the problems with that approach: you may be off-the-mark about what the client’s nuanced issues are and you’ll lose credibility trying to solve a problem that doesn’t resonate with that client; the client may not be prepared to hear your story because most of the clients have their own story to tell first; you can come across as slick and canned, so even if you’re brilliant, your solutions will sound rote, unthoughtful and commoditized.

Think about the questions you’d like to ask before going in: Ask questions to which you know the answers to verify your assumptions; also ask questions to which you don’t know the answers — there’s nothing better than a surprise answer from a client to help you to formulate a novel, targeted solution that stands out from the competition.

Solve a Problem, Make a Sale

What moves clients and prospects to action is anything that keeps them up at night; therefore, you’re first responsibility is to find out their problems and offer ways to solve them. There are two challenges with this simplistic approach: one is that your competition is trying to do the same thing, so you need to be clever in order to distinguish yourself; secondly, sometimes despite your best efforts at asking questions, clients don’t even know what their own problems are — in other words, they don’t know what they don’t know.

To overcome these two hurdles in closing business deals, here are a few ideas. Of course, ask questions. But to beat out your competitor, you’ll need to ask very good questions, questions that go beyond the information you’ll need to justify talking about your products and services. Ask questions that sound like those of a business owner: What keeps you up at night?; How is this impacting your business?; What have you tried so far?; or What seems to be getting in the way of your efforts?

Consider what your new client’s long-range goals are. For example, is it client attraction or retention, or revenue and profit growth. With these goals in mind, take into account the broad context in which they operate when formulating your problem-response. Ask questions such as: What are your most pressing goals?; Why? Why now?; and What does success look like. Avoid tactical questions whose answers you could just as easily have researched on the Internet or from another source. Stick with open-ended questions that seek context, needs and implications.

Finally, recognize and maximize the value you are able to bring them just by being in the business and showing up in their office. You already know the patterns, trends, issues and information that your new clients don’t have the time or access to discover. Your worth is partly your ability to bring to their attention, problems that they aren’t yet focused on but should be; problems to which you have ready, tested and easily implemented solutions.

Fail to Prepare, Prepare to Fail

It goes without saying that you need to strategically determine in advance every aspect of a sales call that will enable you to be successful. Yes, there are many factors you can’t anticipate and control in an upcoming client meeting — like what the client will say and how they’ll react to your proposal. But there are, nonetheless, many that you can control: Think about how you’ll introduce yourself, how you’ll state the purpose of the meeting, how you’ll lay out the agenda and talking points; consider what provocative, insightful story or statistics you can share at the start of the meeting to frame the discussion, to demonstrate credibility and to draw the client into a topic that is of importance to him or her and to you; decide in advance which questions you’ll ask and how to ask them; and anticipate objections, concerns, questions and comments so that you have well-founded responses that are intelligent but not defensive.


As a professional who works with clients, you have the trust of the client and the credibility to hear about unmet needs. By following these key principles in client interactions, you’ll not only set yourself and the firm up for success. You’ll set the client up for success as well.

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Molly Sargent is the Principal of Norwalk, Connecticut-based Professional Impressions Consulting. She has trained and coached thousands of financial professionals and client-facing executives in professional image, presentation skills, business etiquette and sales effectiveness. Since 1985, Molly has helped major accounting firms and Fortune 500 companies, including Aetna, American Express, AT&T, Citibank, Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan, Key Bank, MasterCard, PricewaterhouseCoopers and Prudential achieve breakthrough results.