Rick Telberg
Rick Telberg

Recession Delivers Wake-Up Call to CPA Firms

Slammed by the downturn, some savvy CPA firms are taking a long hard look at their business development activities and finding plenty of opportunities to improve. But practice development takes the same kind of technique and discipline that you'd apply to an audit or a tax return. Is your firm ready for that "a-ha moment" of insight? Send comments here.

September 13, 2010
by Rick Telberg

Are you trying to make your business better, or just bigger?

Today, when business is tight and competitive, accounting firms are scrambling for new revenues. But they're discovering it takes time and effort to fill a sales pipeline. It takes training, coordinating teams, coordinating market initiatives.

And then you drill down further and you need to know what your markets are. And that opens a whole new panoply of questions for a firm, questions about understanding the client's real needs, questions about how a prospect wants to be approached, questions about what kinds of clients you really want. At the same time, fees are under huge pressure.

What's the answer? It starts, says CPA firm growth consultant Gale Crosley, with understanding that "the key competency to winning business is knowing how to discover and build value at the client level."

The greatest value is not in the technical. The value is in understanding and addressing "the situation around the offering." The client doesn't want to hear you boast about doing a better audit. To the client, an audit is an audit. With that approach, she says, you "never get to the deep, hidden and personal needs the client had."

Even an audit client has individual goals, fears and motivations that need to be understood. "Buyers buy things for personal reasons and they justify them with business reasons."

Crosley tells accountants to look for the "contextual clues" to understanding a prospect's real needs. Take the time to ask the right questions one-on-one.

For instance:

  • How long have you been in this organization?
  • Where did you work before? What are you trying to do in your organization?
  • Is the organization supportive?
  • Do you have adequate resources?
  • How could your job be easier?
  • What are your top two or three areas of focus?
  • And finally, when you get close to the bone, what's the significance of this decision to your department?

Learning how to develop new business may be easier than you think. Most firms have a few good rainmakers. Go out with the best of them and just sit and observe. Notice that seeming small talk about personal details can lead to big insights and opportunities.

Then go out and practice on your current clients. If you've already talked to them before, try starting with something as simple as "what's happened since we last talked?"

Instead of what Crosley calls "random acts of networking," you'll be able to step beyond the "idle social chitchat." "Golf looks like play, but if you're doing it right, it's really hard work," she says. When you understand that there's a purpose, you'll be better able to connect the dots to figure out the reasons behind how a prospect makes a decision, and, finally, better able to insert solutions into the conversation.

Crosley believes that some smart firms are using this time for reflection to create "an a-ha moment" for themselves to re-learn the methods and processes of practice development. With those tools in place, you'll never be at the mercy of fickle markets again, because you did the hard work in the tough times.

COMMENT: What's your best practice development advice? Send comments here.

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Rick Telberg is president and chief executive of Bay Street Group LLC, advisors in marketing, management and strategy.

Copyright © 2010 CPA Trendlines/BSG LLC. All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission. First published by the AICPA.

Disclaimer: Any views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of the AICPA or CPA2Biz. Official AICPA positions are determined through certain specific committee procedures, due process and deliberation.