To say the past 12 months has been a rollercoaster ride for the accountancy profession would be, it’s fair to say, something of an understatement.
The Big Four suffered the most from a lack of corporate activity during the recent global downturn, a problem exacerbated by the reputational damage caused by Enron, WorldCom and other scandals.
By contrast, fee income for mid-tier firms has increased significantly as they embrace a real opportunity to move in on the Big Four’s core markets, as shown in last week’s Accountancy Age Top 50 league table.
The Big Four have traditionally held more than 90% of the UK plc audit market. Yet corporates are for the first time showing a growing willingness to look wider in the provision of specialist financial services, driven by growing pressure to restrict the non-audit services they buy from their auditors.
As one observer in Accountancy Age recently summed up the situation, ‘the whole market has shifted … shaking up the profession’s long-established pecking order’.
Despite signs of a rebound, the Big Four face a growing threat in their established markets and mid-tier firms have set themselves ambitious growth targets, with much of the battleground centring on the opportunity – and need – to sell non-audit services to non-audit clients. Both groups are under pressure to perform, with fundamental implications for how they manage their relationships with both clients and prospects.
Larger accountancy practices have recognised the days of clients beating a path to their door for expert advice are long gone. Technical expertise alone is no longer enough to keep the pipeline of new business flowing.
Today, many of the ‘products’ offered by firms have become commoditised and transactional. In response, partners have had to become part-time salesmen to meet tough individual revenue targets and differentiate what they offer through other aspects of service.
This has required a sea change in attitude, and a shift away from the traditional view that the role of partners is essentially one of client process management rather than overt selling.
This lack of sales focus has resulted in missed opportunities to expand business with existing clients. Unwillingness to involve colleagues from other divisions and the absence of a holistic approach to business development has ruled out cross-selling.
In fact, sales still doesn’t sit comfortably with most partners and managers.
They don’t like it, it’s not why they went into the profession – and more to the point, it’s not chargeable. Many see it in terms of practised deception and ‘tricks of the trade’.
And yet, this betrays a fundamental misconception of what selling is all about. The most effective salespeople are highly skilled, professional and ethical, with consultative skills more worthy of a barrister than a second-hand car salesperson.
Despite their reluctance, many of the accountant’s existing diagnostic, problem-solving skills are directly transferable to the consultancy-style sales approach appropriate to professional services.
To sell effectively is an active process.
Some practices believe they are selling, when in fact they are relying on passive marketing – mailing brochures and newsletters to clients and prospects in the hope they will want to do business with them.
At the very least, direct marketing should be followed up by direct personal contact, in a way that communicates the same messages in the same way as the marketing collateral to create a sales conversation.
Selling needs to be recognised as a focused, planned programme of activity designed to generate opportunities to open a dialogue with, and elicit a positive response from, existing and potential clients.
The lighthouse effect – shining on everyone to minimal effect – is no good. Instead, concentrate your effort on a limited number of clients and prospects where there is a real value proposition to be made.
One way to do this is to replace the once-a-year post-audit review with a series of regular quarterly (non-chargeable!) meetings. As well as forging a closer relationship, it allows the accountant to get a better understanding of the business, its needs, and where the practice may be able to provide support. To be truly effective, this should look beyond the accountant’s particular specialism to uncover opportunities to sell complementary services.
Sales is a complex beast. It is important to recognise that a number of different selling skills will be required, ranging from effective social influencing, consultative face-to-face skills, effective proposal writing, negotiation skills and strategic account management.
This is a million miles away from the old ‘feature dump’ style of selling – telling the client up front what the practice can offer.
Realistically, not everyone will feel comfortable in a client-facing selling role, no matter what training and support is provided. Practices must recognise, therefore, that there is a valuable contribution to be made by those supporting the main sales effort. Writing articles or presenting technical seminars, for example, can go a long way to promoting the skills of your firm and laying the groundwork for others to pick up.
To ‘sell’ is no longer a four-letter word – it’s the name of the game.
It’s time to take a leaf out of the Big Four’s book and recognise that a structured, proactive approach to business is the only way for firms to survive, let alone thrive, in today’s highly competitive and commercially aware marketplace.
REMOVING BLOCKS TO PROGRESS
There’s nothing underhand about the tactics of a good salesperson. But organisational issues must be addressed if you’re serious about moving to a practice-wide, business development culture.
– Clarify roles: Ensure that everyone understands their part in the sales process, has the relevant training and the old ‘silo’ mentality is driven out
– Develop a coherent sales structure: Make sure that all leads are followed up, especially where sales opportunities are generated by a separate business development team
– Provide the right incentives: In an environment historically dominated by utilisation percentages, develop a rewards and appraisal structure that reflects the longer-term goals of sales development and cross-selling
– Don’t confuse knowledge with skills: Developing sales skills requires significant time and investment. Treat it as you would technical updates
– Skills development is a process, not an event: Becoming skilled at selling requires a combination of training and reinforcement through coaching – practising new skills with objective feedback, measured against credible performance benchmarks.
- Peter Belsey, financial services sector head of consultancy, Huthwaite International
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