Unlock Professionals’ Potential by Redefining Your Firm’s Training Approach
July 19, 2016 | The Whetstone Group

For so long, firms have searched far and wide for solutions to their business development challenges. Young, and not-so-young professionals have participated in what I would, by no scientific means, guess is millions of hours of business development training programs. These programs are touted as creating superstar rainmakers in order to solve the firm’s new business needs and fill the sales pipeline with opportunities. Participants learn tools and techniques to generate leads and close the big sale.

The challenge most professionals have implementing the skills from business development training is twofold: First there is a natural aversion to “sales” the way many professionals think about it—which is going out into the market, telling everyone you meet about all your firm’s services and asking them to hire you. Second, in this context business development becomes an “add-on” skill set, or worse, an added set of responsibilities and tasks on top of what professionals see as their primary job.

When professionals view growth as a secondary responsibility and they have a natural aversion to what they think is required of course the result will be less than ideal. Current partners may perceive this as apathy or a sense of entitlement among the next generation. Young professionals may perceive this as an unrealistic expectation and outdated way of doing business.

The result is often a lack of engagement in activities that lead to organic growth as well as a lack of success in attracting high quality clients. It may cause young professionals to leave the firm, or the profession altogether. It puts pressure on the firm’s ability to fund partner retirements. It may cause a firm’s culture to become production oriented vs value driven.

So rather than as something “extra” let’s look at business development training curriculums for professionals in a new way. Train young professionals to practice their profession in a way that leads to new opportunities—namely the behaviors of becoming a trusted advisor with clients. Start early when young professionals (millennials) are energized, ready to make a contribution and eager to take on responsibility for adding value to clients. Give partners a system for looking at client relationships, expanding opportunities and getting younger folks involved in conversations about clients to share a new perspective based on what they’ve learned in working with the client.

Think about some of the skills that are important to being good at developing new business: relationship development, understanding needs, communication, questioning, problem solving, and trust building. All of these skills apply directly to the process of client service. Teaching these soft skills in the context of working with clients enables young professionals to practice and gain confidence with the skills that will make them great at cultivating new business. At the same time, they are deepening client relationships and creating a more satisfying practice for themselves.

If the firm’s goal is to increase young professional engagement and grow the firm, developing the behaviors of client service that lead to opportunities should be a central component of the firm’s training curriculum.

Firms wrestling with the issue of employee engagement will find that teaching young professionals skills which can be integrated into their core function will reinforce the behaviors sooner—becoming a natural part of the way they practice. The result is professionals who have deeper, more trusted relationships with their clients, create more fulfilling relationships, add more value and derive more satisfaction from their careers. Often this leads to improved retention of rising stars.

Client Loyalty
May 6, 2016 | The Whetstone Group

CPA firms of all shapes and sizes are taking a long look at their client service process. And it’s no wonder, considering that client service is THE differentiator among CPA firms and is the linchpin in client loyalty.

CPA firms often rely on revenue numbers, realization and chargeable hours to determine how business is going. But by giving your clients a voice, you’ll learn what you can be doing better, how to sustain high performance, and how you can more effectively grow your firm’s top line.

Consider this: a study to quantify the impact of client loyalty on revenue by InfoQuest found that a “totally satisfied” customer contributes 2.6 time more revenue than a “somewhat satisfied” customer, and 14 times more revenue than a “somewhat dissatisfied” customer. If we assume that customers who rate themselves as “totally satisfied” are loyal, it’s clear that loyalty plays a significant role in how much revenue a client generates for your business. Not only that, improving the lifetime value of your client base by increasing client retention levels significantly impacts your firm’s ability to grow its top-line because you aren’t constantly replacing revenue from clients who are leaving the firm.

Not only that, totally satisfied clients will refer business to you and serve as a reference if you ask…making it easier to attract new relationships as well.

Beyond the revenue impact, though, is the fact that working with loyal clients who recognize the value of the relationship with your firm, seek your counsel, are fun to serve and take your advice create for a very fulfilling practice. They create interesting professional opportunities and an enjoyable atmosphere. Who wouldn’t want to practice public accounting in an environment like that?

Satisfaction vs Loyalty

Satisfaction and loyalty are related, but not the same. Satisfaction is often tied to a project or engagement. Loyalty is tied to the relationship. Both are important – you can’t have loyalty without satisfaction first. But loyalty helps to insulate the relationship from brief periods of dissatisfaction. If I’m a loyal client, I’ll allow you the opportunity to fix a satisfaction issue. I may even become more loyal if the issue is resolved quickly and to my liking. However, if I’m merely satisfied, and then become dissatisfied I’m more likely to look for an alternative service provider because there is nothing else tethering me to the firm.

So ask yourself, “what are the proactive measures we are taking as a firm to measure and improve client loyalty?” If the answer is “not much” or “I’m not sure” you may want to consider starting at the beginning by understanding what your clients value in a relationship, and how you’re doing delivering in those key areas.

How do You Know What Clients Value? Ask!

Coordinated efforts to improve client service can yield some of the greatest returns on investment of any growth activity. To be most effective, any effort related to improving client service should germinate from feedback from your best clients. Often when firms measure satisfaction, they focus on engagement satisfaction. How satisfied were they with the outcome? How did they enjoy the experience of working with your team? What could you do differently? How would they rate the deliverables? While important, these surveys don’t adequately measure the satisfaction with the relationship—which is what drives loyalty.

Consider a formalized program to learn the following from your clients:

  • What attributes of service do they associate with your firm?
  • What attributes of service are most important to them in hiring a CPA?
  • How satisfied are they with your firm’s delivery of the attributes that are most important?

Understanding your clients’ perspective enables you to define the behaviors of client service that will enhance loyalty. You can then train everyone in the firm on the behaviors for consistent delivery. Clients will begin to see and feel the difference between your firm and others in the market.

To learn more about how The Whetstone Group can help you learn what attributes of service will lead to client loyalty for your firm, contact us today!

A Physical Therapist’s Guide to filling your CPA Firm’s Pipeline
September 8, 2015 | The Whetstone Group

If I created a list of Frequently Asked Questions from among my clients at the top of the list would be this: “What’s the most effective way to fill my pipeline with opportunities?” Everyone wants to know the secret.

The secret is—there is no secret. There is no one best-practice, one-size-fits-all, guaranteed to work solution. Be leery of anyone who tells you otherwise.

It’s probably not the answer you were hoping for.

My husband is a physical therapist. In his practice patients often come to him looking for a quick fix to their aches, pains and injuries. Most of these issues have developed over time—through repetitive use or as a result of bad habits or poor judgment in overexerting during exercise in order to make up for a lack of activity in the prior months. Sometimes the pain is systemic – meaning it’s derived from an entire system that isn’t functioning the way it should.

Regardless of the issue 80% of the patients he treats are looking for the shortest path back to wellness. In most cases, their expectation of treatment isn’t realistic. Rather than a pill or a cure to their problem, the prescribed treatment often involves guidance from a physical therapy professional, diligent adherence to a set of exercises and likely some instruction to be patient and lay off some of the activities they may have put them in his care in the first place.

It may also involve a little discomfort.

I know that look of disappointment he receives when he delivers the news, “Stick with this program for the next 12 weeks and you’ll start to see results”. Oh the incredulity. I’ve GIVEN him that look when he’s talked me through the process of rehabbing my knee due to a running related injury.

It’s the same look I receive when I talk with CPA firm clients about the process involved with filling their pipeline. They expect to be able to turn the hose on full force and create a flood of opportunities after little to no activity up to that point. The fact is the pipeline isn’t filled overnight. And a lack of opportunities in the pipeline isn’t created overnight. It’s a long-term issue that has developed over time. It may be systemic. It probably requires some patience and diligence (and maybe some discomfort) to fix it.

Here are a few ideas to get you started:

  1. Evaluate what’s already working. Think through your firm’s last five good proposal opportunities. How did they originate? How can you replicate the situation from which they originated? Do more of what’s already working.
  2. Analyze your firm’s top 20% of existing clients. What do they have in common (size, industry, ownership structure, business stage)? Are there similar issues/challenges among them you have helped solve? Do you have other clients you can help with the same issue? Can you ask them for referrals to their peers to help solve the issue?
  3. Examine your firm’s communication strategy to the market. Have you defined your key target market opportunities? Is there a plan in place and communicated internally so everyone in the firm knows what kind of opportunities you’re looking for? Are you communicating with a message to the market frequently (monthly) and consistently (using the same branding messages)?
  4. If the answer to #3 is yes, the time may be right to proactively reach out to the market. Make phone calls (or hire someone to make them on your behalf) or engage in networking events to schedule some face-to-face meetings to do needs assessments. Do you know the right questions to ask to help figure out how you can help your prospects?
  5. Cultivate referral sources. Do you have relationships with referral sources you can cultivate? If not, you need a plan to develop those trusted relationships. When was the last time you met with key referral sources? Make sure you’ve articulated the types of opportunities you’re looking for. Do you have a list of your top 10 prospects? Share that list with your best referral sources to see if they can help with an introduction.
  6. Deal with systemic issues in your business development process. Do you need additional training to be better at business development? Does your staff know what’s expected of them in their contribution to the firm’s growth? Think about your firm’s approach to client service—do you have a consistent client service process that fosters client loyalty? Develop in internal communication strategy to make the business case for filling the pipeline and growing the top-line to everyone in the firm. Determine if any culling is needed to make room for better, more profitable clients.

It takes a combination of activities, implemented over time to improve your firm’s pipeline wellness. How much time? Stick with this program for the next 12 weeks and you’ll start to see results. Better yet, seek help from a professional to guide you.

Contact The Whetstone Group at 319.447.6400 or info@thewhetstonegroup.com to learn how our professionals can help.

The Hard Truth about Soft Skills
August 28, 2015 | The Whetstone Group

“We’re in a relationship business.”

I’ve heard this more times than I can count during the 20+ years I’ve worked with CPAs firms. It’s the one constant in the CPA profession.

But, I wonder…have we devalued relationship building? We have access to limitless technology tools as a means of communicating and finding the information and answers we need. We rely on online tools to connect with clients, prospects and referral sources. We automate communication. Does that become a substitute for real, in-person interaction?

In addition, I think many professionals in public accounting convince themselves that high quality work will speak for itself and that relationships are ancillary. They discount the value of soft skills such as communication and relationship building.

They believe that their excellent technical skill and production will lead to all the opportunities they want—both within the firm as well as opportunities with clients. To some extent, when young professionals are early in their careers with their firms this is true. A 1-3 year professional on the staff of an accounting firm has a primary responsibility to contribute to the firm’s growth by providing excellent client service, being technically proficient, and meeting deadlines.

But the hard truth about the soft skills of relationship building is this: technical expertise will only take a person so far. Professionals who are interested in taking their careers to the next level will soon realize that in addition to strong technical skills the ability to develop real and trusted relationships unlocks greater opportunities.

In addition, most of us experience the greatest satisfaction with our chosen careers when we practice with a sense of purpose—meaning we understand and can articulate how what we’re doing professionally is making a positive difference for clients. How can we discern this without having built a relationship with the client and understanding those issues that are most important to them? Will they share their greatest struggles and challenges if they don’t trust us? Can they trust us if there isn’t a relationship?

Internally, existing leaders are looking for professionals who can influence, motivate, strategize and organize. Building relationships offers the perfect context in which to develop these critical skills.

So, if this is the hard truth, how do we develop these soft skills? Here are a few practical ideas to get started:

  1. If you tend toward being an introvert, it may not be natural for you to extend regular invitations to meet for lunch or coffee. You may need to create some kind of system to help you. Create a planned set of activities for getting to know people and put those activities in your calendar. Stick to the plan.
  2. Be strategic about the relationships you build. Think through the purpose of connecting with someone. How can they help you? And equally, if not more important, how can you help them?
  3. Don’t shy away from a conversation because someone is rude. Sometimes other people are just as nervous as you are. Forge ahead. Every time you try will make the next time easier. If the person you’re trying to engage doesn’t respond after a few attempts you can either ask them outright why you’re having a hard time connecting or move on to the next person.
  4. Recognize that it’s your responsibility to reach out and build these relationships. Don’t expect others to come to you. When you take the opportunity to reach out, you’ll find that 99.9% of the people you contact are accommodating. Once you reach a more senior-level position remember to be receptive to those younger professionals who are reaching out to you. Be a good steward of your position.
  5. Take time and make the effort to build relationships with people over personal as well as business topics. You may be able to get by keeping people at arm’s length for a little while, but true relationships eventually must go deeper in order to create trust.

Building relationships is critical. Practice the skills necessary to develop and maintain mutually beneficial relationships—both internally and externally. Accepting this hard truth and shoring up these soft skills will unlock unlimited possibilities.

Shore up Your Relationship Skills and Step up Your Results
June 22, 2015 | The Whetstone Group

I was reading an accounting industry publication on the airplane a couple weeks ago. The statistic was that 75% of all accountants now practicing will be retiring within the next 12 years. While there may be some debate as to whether this statistic is being overstated even if the true number is 50% there is serious challenge. For many firms this group of retiring CPAs contains many of the profession’s current rainmakers.

Without a plan to bring along the next generation of business developers it might not be a comfortable ride into the sun set for current partners over age 50. One key area that has changed for CPA professionals in the past 20 years is relationship development.

If you started in the profession during the 70’s and are good at business development you are used to building relationships face-to-face with both prospects and referrals sources. Without electronic communications, cell phones and other mobile technology—most business was conducted via phone and in-person meetings. Those who started in the profession after 1999 are used to responding to email with an email; a tweet with a tweet and a text message with a text message. It may work for some as a way to successfully develop opportunities, but public accounting is still a relationship business. Loyalty is created by building strong relationships.

So how can professionals shore up their relationship building skills? Here are five ideas to start:

  1. Go ahead and email clients but plan a face-to-face encounter with “A” clients at least monthly. This will go a long way toward building trust, making them feel important, and giving you opportunities to assess their needs and figure out ways you can help.
  2. Similarly, to build a strong referral relationship make sure your communications includes a face-to-face meeting at least quarterly with each referral source. Like your clients, a strong relationship with referral sources is based on trust—which is built between individuals over time. Also make sure you can articulate the benefits to the referral source of referring clients to you. Obviously the benefits of what you do for their clients is important, but what’s in it for that referral source to work with you?
  3. Pick up the phone and have a conversation vs. replying by email every third time you communicate with a client or prospect. You’ll be amazed at what you can learn during the course of at 15 minute give-and-take conversation vs a 2 minute reply to email.
  4. Have a “we care” meeting with “A” clients (and maybe high-level “Bs”) at least once per year. No agenda or objective other than to take the opportunity to thank them for their business and ask how are we doing meeting your client service expectations. Take notes and address any issues you uncover.
  5. Put a hand written note on paper newsletters or an invitation to a firm event or a firm announcement for 3-5 clients each time one of them gets distributed to clients. Even if the client can’t make the event he/she will likely remember that you took the time to invite them personally and may also remember the topic of the article/event/announcement at a key moment when they need help in that area.