Accountants must make sure they are proactive in their approach to business development or face shrinking fees in the future, warns Alex Moyle
This article was first published in the June 2019 UK edition of Accounting and Business magazine.
There was a time when someone was more likely to divorce their spouse than leave their accountant, but times have changed. Accountancy practitioners, as with other areas of professional services, are facing emerging and growing challenges, including increased competition, pressure on margins and technological developments.
Firms of all sizes are find themselves facing some difficult choices:
- Should I charge existing clients less?
- Can I add more value to clients in order to charge the same?
- Shall I look for new services to sell?
- How can I win new clients who want the service I deliver at the price I charge?
This last challenge can be the last resort for firms, as proactive selling is often hard to land and isn’t within the core skillsets of many practitioners. But the consequences of not being proactive in your approach to business development could leave your firm with shrinking fees and very little insight to where future revenues will come from. So where should you start if you want to change your approach to business development?
Change your mindset
First you have to change your mindset. There is a common misconception among accountants that selling, or business development, is about cold-calling people and asking ‘Do you need a new accountant?’ But in fact this approach would not work for a full-time salesperson, let alone an accountant. The approach for successful business development is to try and stay front of mind among the types of people who you want to call you when they have a need. Instead of thinking ‘Who can I get to buy my services?’, try asking ‘Who do I want to think of me if they need accounting services?’
You also have to understand exactly what your clients need: what problems do you solve for them? This is harder than you think, as you are likely to have three or four different customer profiles. Over and above accounting services, some will want peace of mind; some want you to hold their hand; some need a sounding board. How recently did you research what problems your clients think you solve for them? The best firms regularly engage with clients about the challenges they are facing and learn where they can add the greatest value. They then use this to reinforce their value proposition to existing clients and make it the focus of their marketing activity for new client acquisition.
Spotting the gap
One significant challenge in business development is that by the time a potential client contacts you, they are likely to be halfway through the buying process. This means you need to find ways of giving value and building trust even before they have a need. This could include offering Budget briefings or contributing to local chamber of commerce events. Whatever your approach, a critical part of your business development strategy is showcasing your capability by offering free insights and thought leadership. Ask yourself when was the last time you spoke at an industry or networking event. If you cannot remember, your business development strategy may be in need of a refresh.
And then there are the tricky, softer areas of feelings and gut instincts. A lawyer once said to me: ‘How you feel about my service is irrelevant; my job is to sell your house.’ Needless to say, it still leaves a mark on my soul. I have known many other professionals who think that what a customer feels is secondary to the technical service they provide. But in today’s world where it has never been easier for clients to move between accountants, how people feel about you and your service is the only thing that differentiates you from your competition. Feelings are also a key part of how you retain existing clients. By regularly canvassing client satisfaction, firms are able to resolve areas of frustration before they cause a client to look for other solutions.
You might be one of the lucky few who need do nothing, safe in the knowledge that all your clients are loyal and new ones knock on your door every day. But more likely you know you need to change how you go about winning new clients and retaining existing ones.
The key to your success is getting the right mindset, knowing your customers’ needs and working to add value to your whole target market. This way you will be the person people think of at their moment of greatest need.
Alex Moyle is author of Business Development Culture – taking sales culture beyond the sales team.
"Try asking ‘Who do I want to think of me if they need accounting services?’"