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 sunset 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.

Business development doesn’t have to be hard.
July 28, 2014 | The Whetstone Group

Let’s face it – you most likely didn’t work hard to develop your professional service skills and expertise because you wanted to be a sales person.  That said, you probably also realize the importance of developing new business so that you can continue to practice your professional skills — it’s a conundrum.

What if I told you the most effective business development tactic you can employ is also the easiest AND least expensive? I’m guessing you’d want to hear more — so here goes. I’m talking about mining your existing client data to identify business development opportunities.

The Tried (and True!) 80/20 Rule

Start by listing your clients in order of the fees they pay you annually — highest to lowest. Then look at the top 20% on the list and calculate what percentage of your total revenue they represent. I’m pretty sure you’ll find that top 20% of your clients represent close to 80% of your revenue. It never seems to fail!

So take a look at those top clients – what makes them your “A” clients — what industry are they in, what size companies are they, is there anything different about the way you serve them? Have you asked these “A” clients for a referral and/or testimonial? They obviously trust you and depend on you for a significant level of service — they will be your best introduction to meet prospective clients.

Based on the profile of your best clients, what types of business development activities should you be doing to bring more of those into the firm? What professional organizations, publications, web sites, etc will put you in front of companies who match the profile of your “A” clients?

Now take a look at the next tier of clients — many times they represent significant growth opportunity. What can you do to move them up to the “A” list? The first step is easy – call them to schedule a lunch or meeting and catch up on their business.

Now take a look at that bottom 80% or so that are only accounting for 20% of your revenues. How many of them are there? What is the average annual fee/client? How profitable is it for you to continue to serve all of these clients? Is it worth referring some of these clients to smaller firms to free up your time to develop and serve more profitable clients?

Develop an Opportunity Matrix

Once you’ve identified your “A” clients and the next tier below the “A”s we’ll call them the “B”s — develop a simple matrix to identify where you have cross-sell opportunities. List these clients down the side of the matrix and list all of your firm’s services across the top. Fill in the cells with one of four statuses:

  • Providing/provided — you are already doing this service for the client (or have already done it if it’s a one-time project)
  • Proposing — you are already in discussions with the client about providing them with the service
  • Not applicable — you can’t provide the service for the client because you are conflicted out our because there is no need for the service based on the nature of their business
  • Opportunity — everything else!

Don’t make decisions for your clients, assuming they don’t want a particular service. Anything that isn’t in the first three categories — the Not applicable should only be used for truly non applicable services — should be considered an opportunity.

The opportunity matrix will help you prioritize which clients to meet with (those with the most opportunities) and what to prepare to discuss with them (the services you haven’t yet provided them).

Remember, cross-selling to clients is the quickest, easiest, least expensive way to develop new business. Use your client data to identify the right clients and right services to target for growth.  And even though you can’t rely solely on client cross-selling for growth, the data you have about your existing clients can help you identify the right prospects to target and help you meet them through referrals and testimonials.

See? It doesn’t have to be hard — you have what you need right at your fingertips. Good luck!

What Gets Measured…Gets Done!
July 3, 2014 | The Whetstone Group

Wow, I just realized it’s been a while since we posted something here. You know why? Just like most of our clients, this is our prime business development time. We’ve been attending conferences, reaching out through direct marketing efforts, and following up with clients and prospects who were unavailable during their busy season. Which is great (as long as all these efforts are producing actual results!).

If you are in the same boat — and I hope you are — it’s time to make sure you’re getting a return on your business development investments. Are all you people participating and contributing to firm growth efforts? Are your efforts producing new clients — the right clients? Are you getting referrals and following up with them? Maximizing new service opportunities with existing clients?

If you aren’t sure about the answers to any of those questions, take a look at our article on this topic. We present four pretty simple metrics with instructions not just on how to measure but also how to use the metrics to coach your people and build a culture of accountability.

You can access the article here. Be sure to call or email us if you have any questions or would like help getting started. And if you’re celebrating Independence Day this weekend, have a great holiday!

Content Marketing: A New Tool in Your Old Toolbox
March 19, 2014 | The Whetstone Group

If you’ve read anything about marketing strategy in the past year or so, you’ve probably noticed the term content marketing making its way into a lot of headlines. Also known as in-bound marketing, content marketing is creating or re-publishing relevant and valuable content online in order to attract and retain clients. Content can be anything from a whitepaper to a video clip to an article or info graphic.

What makes content marketing attractive to most firms is the idea that it can be used to lure the attention of clients and prospects, educate them about how you help solve their issues, capture some information about them and, when they are ready to discuss a solution with you, encourages them to contact your firm. Thus, the term in-bound marketing — meaning prospects that are ready to do business contact you directly. If you’re like many professionals and have an aversion to sales, the idea of prospects calling and asking you to do their work holds a lot of appeal. It sounds like the silver bullet. The holy grail. The coup de grace.

And, because there is so much buzz around the term content marketing, it’s tempting to think that it’s a new invention.

Content marketing is garnering a lot of attention — for good reason. It can be a very effective marketing tool. It certainly needs to be a part of a firm’s marketing mix. But it is only one of many tools that leading firms will implement as the battle for market-share wages on. Firms that place all their emphasis on publishing content may be missing the point. Content marketing isn’t new. There are new platforms — online outlets, more sophisticated email marketing systems, and automation tools to make getting content out to your target market and collecting lead information easier and timelier.

But all marketing — regardless of the distribution channel — is content marketing. The most successful firms have been content marketing all along.

Presenting a seminar or webinar to an interested audience relies on valuable and relevant content to position you as an expert. Mailing a newsletter via (gasp!) snail mail relies on content. Asking questions during a sales call and discussing solutions and benefits in a way that is meaningful to the person you’re addressing is essentially delivering content. EVERYTHING in marketing should have a value-add basis. If it doesn’t, you’re wasting your time and resources.

Also, prospects have different preferences when it comes to communication. As old-fashioned as it may sound, some prospects still prefer to receive communications in a printed format and not all your prospects are utilizing electronic media to the same extent. A mix of channels is your best bet in reaching the most prospects.

While it may sound like content/in-bound marketing will have people knocking down your door to do business; most in-bound leads will still require proactive follow up and working the sales cycle. Improving the quality of your opportunities is also dependent on your ability to market your content to the right audience. The fundamentals of defining a target audience, understanding the issues relevant to that audience, communicating with that audience, tying your solutions to their needs and articulating the benefits of working with you to solve the issue may sound like and old-school approach. Don’t abandon the fundamentals in favor of a — approach. It’s only through applying these proven fundamentals from your marketing tool box that your new tools yield results.

Instead, figure out how to incorporate new tools into your marketing mix. How can you use social media to promote your events? How can you turn a conversation with a client about a challenge they are experiencing into an article you can post on LinkedIn or a blog? Then, make sure you have a plan in place to promote your content to your target market. This integrated approach will yield not only leads, but quality opportunities for your firm.