The S Word

We have worked with many accountants over the last fifteen years and, in the context of selling their services to new and existing clients, we find they come in four varieties:  
1 – There are those who sell well – and their numbers are increasing  
2 – Those who sell badly – and unfortunately the number of those is also increasing
3 – Those who can’t sell  – or think they can’t 
4 – Those who really don’t want to sell

In getting these people to sell and to sell well, one size does not fit all.  Each group requires a different management and training solution.  In this article we focus on each group and consider how best to approach them.

Those that sell well
Identifying and understanding who sells well is not always as simple as it sounds.  Some accountants may have generated results that would suggest that they sell well, however their success may have come in spite of (not because of) the way they sell.  Results can therefore be confusing.  Some people’s success lies more in their technical expertise or ability to be in the right place at the right time.  They may have inherited clients from others. In these cases, it would not be advantageous to hold these people up as role-models.

Whilst everybody is different and will find their own way to success, there are certain ways of winning work that can be defined and held up as best practice.  A firm should judge its fee-earners against these criteria and decide if they are really in groups 1 or 2.

Once an accountancy firm has determined those in group 1, they can encourage and reinforce their behaviour to the whole firm.  In promoting these individuals as excellent practitioners, time can also be built in for them to pass their skills to others.  This may require developing these individuals coaching skills as, whilst they sell brilliantly, they may need help to be equally successful coaches.   

Those that sell badly
Some of the individuals in this group will feel they are successful and be resistant to change. Others may be less successful and may come across as defensive.  This group often proves the greatest challenge, as it is often more difficult to ‘unlearn’ behaviour than it is to learn new skills from scratch.

Any training, coaching or development work for group 2 people needs to be carried out by very credible individuals.  It also needs to be based around the correct criteria, which we mentioned above.  As with those in group 1, the development of group 2 people needs to focus on the firm’s long-term goals and take into account the sensitivities of the individuals concerned.  This can lead to real improvements in selling ability and a greater confidence in accountants to win business.

Those that can’t sell/don’t think they can
There are some who say that there are people who can sell and people who can’t.  This view concludes that the people who can’t should not be involved in selling.  A managing partner of a major accountancy firm we work with often draws the analogy of squirrels and turkeys here.  Namely, if you want to get something from up a tree, you could try using a turkey, but you’re probably best leaving it to the squirrels.

Whilst this may be true, our experience tells us that there are far more people who have the ability to contribute to a firm’s sales effort than would appear at first glance. Some accountants are condemned as inadequate because they do not fit the stereotype of what a good seller looks like.  People sometimes believe that there is a correlation between extroversion and selling.  We believe there is no such correlation.

Limiting our selling resource to the people who do it ‘naturally’ misses out on those who could be very effective with the right development.  Also, if all our sellers are of a certain type we risk limiting the range of clients with whom we build strong relationships.  We therefore need to objectively define what ‘good’ looks like.  Then it’s a case of providing the necessary support that will give every person the chance to use their own personality to best effect when winning business.  Then and only then can we decide and redeploy those who genuinely can’t sell.

Those who don’t want to sell
Very few accountants spend years learning their profession with a burning desire to sell their expertise. Some see selling as something they would rather not do.  Images of used-car or other salesmen form in their minds.  Selling strikes a fear of being unprofessional.

Those who are good at selling professional services know that any kind of pressure selling or ‘trickery’ is likely to be counterproductive and not work.  Accountants in group 4 therefore need to be convinced of two things:
1. Selling their services well is a very professional and ethical thing to do
2. They do have the capability to sell well

Getting these people to build their capabilities in this field relies on firms adopting the approach we described group 3 individuals. To overcome the first issue, fee-earners need to be introduced to a rigorous and effective way of winning business. This should be based on building:
– a strong reputation and excellent relationships
– added value and trust
– an understanding of the client 
– credibility and the ability to demonstrate genuine interest in the client
– the client’s motivation to buy – at the right time and in the right way.

Summary
From our work with accountants we have found that when faced with selling, fee-earners tend to fall into four groups.  Some individuals straddle more than one, however very few do not fit in any of them.  The key to getting accountants to sell (and to sell well) is to establish who sits in which group.  It is then a matter of:
ß clearly defining best practice in building relationships and selling professional services 
ß providing the appropriate input to develop each individual’s capabilities.

Then and only then can new business performance measurement systems achieve success.  Any system that forces an individual to do things they do not like or do not feel good at will either be setting them up to fail or test their creativity in ‘working’ the system.

Individuals in accountancy firms will always be very busy.  If firms are going to get their accountants to sell well, they need to make selling something people make time for.  This means making it important, something people are good at and something they enjoy doing.

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