Clients Don’t Buy What a CPA Firm Is Selling
Charles H. Green
2007 - When clients don’t buy what a CPA firm is selling,
it isn’t likely that they don’t want what you’re
selling. More likely it’s that they’re not buying
how the service is being sold
example, a potential client is talking with several accounting
firms about a significant assignment. One firm has expertise
in that area and understands the client’s issues,
and the meeting goes well. The firm bids competitively,
recognizing the value of potential future work. The final
presentation is a hit, but another firm gets the engagement.
firm is surprised because the winning firm is not one that
many in the business community would consider to be as competent.
A week later, the firm asks the client for feedback. The
client politely demurs, suggesting that the bid price may
have been a bit out of line; maybe next time. The firm is
puzzled, and concludes that things really are getting awfully
competitive out there.
month later, a partner of the firm accidentally (though
legally) hears that the winning bid was 25% higher than
the firm’s own bid. Some weeks later, the partner
sees the would-have-been client at a golf course, and in
that informal setting tells him of the new information,
saying, “I can appreciate that perhaps you told me
price was the issue to avoid a difficult conversation, but
I would consider it a favor if you’d be truthful with
me and help me understand what happened. It happens too
often, and I don’t know why.”
client assesses the CPA’s sincerity, and replies:
“The truth is, there just wasn’t that sense
of something—chemistry, trust, click, I don’t
know what—that we had with the other firm. You had
a fine track record and lots of good things to say. Your
firm certainly has the credentials and clearly understands
our business—but we just didn’t connect, we
didn’t feel like you understand our company. You were
eager to be helpful, but it was as if you were eager to
be helpful for anyone—not just for us.”
CPA firm partner asks, “What could we have done differently
or better?” The client responds, “I don’t
know. It’s just one of those things. You have to get
your times at bat. But I think we’ll be seeing you
again one of these days.” The partner leaves the golf
the Problem Isn’t
Maister, this author’s co-author on the book The
Trusted Advisor, wrote in another book, Managing
the Professional Services Firm (Free Press, 2004):
“[T]he problem is never what the client said it was
in the first meeting.” Accounting-firm clients, from
CFOs to treasurers to comptrollers, have no trouble telling
their CPA firm what they want.
professional services providers, such as lawyers, actuaries,
and management consultants, are highly abstract, disciplined,
analytical, structured, and unemotional. But accountants
stand out within professional services on one dimension
in particular: They are the most level-headed, “reasonable”
professionals. Perhaps it has to do with the need to balance
debits and credits, to cross-foot spreadsheets. It may involve
the ubiquity of money: Not every issue is a legal, human
resources, or information technology issue, but every issue
must be financed or budgeted or has other financial impacts.
Those qualities are the perfect characteristics for financial
managers. Other managers in a company look to financial
managers for permission to undertake initiatives; for guidance
about what is reasonable; for parceling out resources and
rewards; for evaluating whether things are going well; even
for defining the very rules by which the rest of the company
general, such a person will strive to be clinical, removed,
judicious, fair, analytical, detached, balanced, cautious,
deductive, and will strive not to appear whimsical, passionate,
partisan, emotional, confused, indecisive, erratic, or otherwise
not in control.
Financial Services Buyers Buy
like the one described above are typically made in two stages:
screening and selection. The first stage is somewhat rational.
Round up the usual suspects, throw in the chairman’s
favorite, rate them objectively on criteria assessed by
an assistant controller, then narrow down the field to three
or so firms to be invited to submit bids and make presentations.
CFO is likely to describe the selection process as being
just as rational as the screening process, but the truth
is otherwise. The personality traits of financial buyers
show why such a person will want a process that is objective,
data-based, defensible, analytical, and—above all—rational.
The next-to-last thing the CFO wants is a wrong decision;
the very last thing he wants is the appearance of a wrong
is how accounting firms end up being presented with questions
Tell us why we should hire you.
Tell us what is so different about your firm.
Tell us how you would go about this work.
Tell us about your credentials and references.
Tell us what you know about our industry and our business.
a firm being interviewed will generally be told things like:
We want your best people on this.
We need a very good price on this.
Good value is very important to us.
are all rational questions and discussion points, from which
one can draw comparatively different ratable and rankable
answers, so they fit the analytical requirement for rational
decision-making. More important, those questions are emotionally
acceptable to the financial buying organization, people
who want to see themselves and be seen by others as fitting
the financial image.
deeper truth will not be spoken aloud: The financial buyer
really wants someone who makes him feel good about the decision.
Someone he can trust, someone whose selection will allow
him to sleep at night, someone he knows will go the extra
mile, who can be depended upon to speak the truth, who knows
the limits of his abilities and is not embarrassed to admit
them when appropriate, someone who will behave appropriately
in all circumstances, who knows how to finish his sentences,
who treats his people the way the CFO treats his own staff,
who “gets how things work here at XYZ”—and
are subjective qualities that defy objective rating or ranking
and involve inferences and observations from interactions
with the firm and its representatives, rather than responses
to direct questions. In short, the financial buyer is trying
to make an emotional decision that he can then comfortably
the Problem Is
S. MacNamara, former U.S. Secretary of Defense, once said,
speaking of politics, “Never answer the question you’re
asked.” He may have been right in politics. In business,
he’s only half right.
selling accounting firm cannot avoid answering the question
asked by the CFO—and the firm must also answer the
questions that are unasked. Those questions cannot be answered
directly, as in “You can really trust me to work well
with your people” or variations thereof, because “Trust
me” is about the least trustworthy thing one can say.
Instead, the firm must demonstrate those qualities in how
it sells itself.
1: Sell by doing, not by telling. The most
effective client relationships are those that have been
around for a while. The firm and the client have gotten
to know each other and the client has come to trust the
firm. Because the best selling is virtually indistinguishable
from doing, the CPA firm should design the sales process
as much as possible as if it had already won the job.
firm should build into the sales presentation how it would
work with the client upon getting the job: engaging directly
with the client as much as possible; talking openly and
collaboratively about design and staffing alternatives;
suggesting key issues to be decided; generally behaving
with comfort and ease; having a conversation, not making
a sales pitch.
CPA firm that builds selling-by-doing into its sales process
will become more open, transparent, and collaborative, precisely
the behaviors that let the client assess trust, compatibility,
“fit,” “chemistry,” and other intangibles.
clients set up sales processes to be distant, formal, and
structured, and that must be respected. But within bounds,
a CPA firm can suggest to clients that the selection process
be more action-oriented. It is, after all, in the client’s
interest to get the kind of freewheeling insights and ideas
that come from open exchange.
2: Client focus without the vulture. Here
is an exercise. A CPA dissociates herself from the winning
or losing of a job, picturing herself in the future beyond
the decision and feeling utterly indifferent about whether
she won or lost.
holds that thought, then asks herself, “What does
this client really need, not just from this project, but
in a much bigger context?”—without being limited
by the request or her own service offering.
now has some sense of what the client needs, but is not
vested in winning or losing the job. She then returns her
attention to the job at hand, picturing herself calmly advising
the client about what needs to be done, and how, and when,
and with what approach and resources, moving the client
forward in the larger direction of what needs to be done.
who can honestly speak the truth about what needs to be
done, without attachment to winning and losing, will convey
the biggest emotional truth to the client: They will convey
that they care about the client. This—focusing on
the client’s needs for the sake of the client—differs
from the usual kind of client focus that is the focus of
a vulture: Focus for the seller’s sake, not the client’s.
the factors driving trust—credibility, reliability,
security—none ranks higher than this sense of the
seller’s being able to put the client’s needs
ahead of his own need to “get the deal.” And
here the paradox of trust kicks in: Truly separating from
the need to win enhances one’s chances of winning.
H. Green, MBA, is founder and president of Trusted
Advisor Associates. He is the author of Trust-based
Selling (McGraw-Hill, February 2006), and co-author
with David Maister and Robert Galford of The Trusted
Advisor (Free Press, 2000) (reviewed in The CPA
Journal in January 2001).