The public accounting world is changing, and not just through technology. The skills one needs to excel at building a book of business – an important aspect needed to achieve the status of partner – have evolved. Amy Franko, founder and president of Impact Instruction Group and author of The Modern Seller: Sell More and Increase Your Impact in the New Sales Economy, joined us to discuss the definition of modern business development, the five skills CPAs need to become expert at selling, and how best to learn what it takes.
By: Bill Hayes, Pennsylvania CPA Journal Managing Editor
For a CPA, one of the skills you must have to obtain the rank of partner is building a book of business. However, the ways by which the previous generation of CPAs may have built that book have changed. It's key for today's would-be partner to be a modern business developer. But what does that entail and how does it differ from days gone by? Today, we're with Amy Franko, founder and president of Impact Instruction Group and author of the book The Modern Seller: Sell More and Increase Your Impact in the New Sales Economy.
In order to talk about modern business development, we have to have some context here. In your opinion, what is modern business development?
[Franko] As I was thinking about that in preparation for our conversation today, I have two things that I really think about when it comes to what does modern business development look like today. As I was researching for the book, The Modern Seller, one of the big moments, a-ha moments, I had was that there are some skills behind the skills that make us more effective and more efficient when it comes to developing a book of business. In the CPA profession, or other professional services arenas, one of the challenges is we are often tasked with developing business, and then also with client service and client delivery. There's that tension between the business development and the client delivery and how we balance that out.
So as I was thinking about the skills behind the skills, what makes us more effective, more efficient? So there are five of them. A modern business developer is agile, they are entrepreneurial, they're holistic, they are social, and they are an ambassador. When we can develop these five dimensions of modern business development, then we can really evolve on that path to partnership, which goes through a book of business. So those are some of the skills, or the dimensions, that we need to be building.
Then the second thing that I'll add is I'll give us a working definition of a modern business developer. I see a modern business developer as having three things. The first is that they are recognized by their clients and also, I would say, their prospects as someone who is a differentiator. They're recognized as that difference maker to their business. Secondly, a modern business developer, the value of your service, or the product, whatever it is, that you are working with a prospect or client on, the value of that is not fully recognized without you as part of the equation. You can't separate yourself. What you bring to the table helps make that product or service more valuable.
Then, the last thing I would say is that a modern business developer is also seen as a competitive advantage. If someone says, "I can't imagine doing business with anyone other than you, because you help make my business better." That's how you know that you're a modern business developer.
We're going to get into the five specific skills, but as I look at it, if something is modern, it means that at one point it was not modern, or we can call it classical. In what way has business development changed in recent years?
[Franko] I would say one of the biggest ways that it's changed in recent years is that we have moved from what I would call a transactional mode into a connected and consultative mode. And I believe it was Seth Godin that talked about this pretty recently. The idea that our economy used to be very, very transactional, the basis of our economy was products and things moving along a manufacturing line, and being delivered. That, of course, still exists today, but that has been combined with what he calls the connected economy. An economy based more on services, relationships, data. This has a point of comparison.
If the Forbes top 100, or top 500 company list, came out in the mid 1950s, when you looked at the top companies on that list, there are companies like GE, Exxon, etc., U.S. Steel. When you look at that same list today, some of those companies may still be on there, some of them not, but when you look at that list today, they are joined by companies like Google, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon. You can just see that shift from this transactional product-based economy to what is more based around relationships, data, services.
That's, I believe, a fundamental shift in our economy, and what that also drives is that we as business developers, we also have to be making that shift from maybe a more transactional type of mind-set, and set of tools, to something that is much more consultative, much more about moving a prospect's or client's business forward versus selling a product or service in a point in time.
Let's get into the five skills now: What do you mean when you say a modern business developer needs to be agile?
[Franko] Agility is something that has only really come under the radar in the last decade or two. It used to be something you talked about on the sports field. Now we're talking about it in the boardroom.
The Center for Creative Leadership has done research in this space, and they do a number of studies, but one of their research studies was looking at the top skills that organizations are hiring for. I would also expand that to be thinking about the top skills of a business developer. Twenty years ago, agility was nowhere on the radar. Technical expertise was actually the number one skill being hired for in the early to mid 90s. You fast-forward 25 years, by 2022, the top in the top-three skills needed to be hired for is agility, adaptability, versatility. So what is being looked for is entirely different. Technical expertise is assumed when you're walking in the door.
To put this in the context of this profession and modern business development, someone who is agile, they are quick on their feet, they are able to process lots of data and what they're able to do is distill that data into original ideas, original insights, that help their prospects and clients make their business better. That is actually a deciding factor when clients are looking to do business with us. Do we provide original insights, ideas that help them make their businesses better? Then, I would say the other hallmark of agility is the ability to handle change very confidently, and the ability to pivot quickly.
What way does it help for a modern business developer to be entrepreneurial?
[Franko] Someone who is entrepreneurial – a business developer who's entrepreneurial – they don't just see themselves as an employee of their firm. They see themselves as the founder, the CEO, sometimes the chief bootstrapper of their book of business. They look at their book of business, or maybe the prospects, or clients that they're working with, they look at those like a business. That's a very different way of thinking. When you think about your book of business as a business, you are looking at your top line, you're looking at your bottom line. You're looking at your biggest opportunities. You're assessing risk. You are thinking like an owner and thinking about how you can exponentially grow that book.
You are looking far out into the future. One of the top skills of someone who is entrepreneurial is the ability to look out into the future and create a vision, then be able to back that vision into specific steps that are needed to accomplish it.
One of the things you recommend for a person looking to build that book of business is to have a holistic view. What does that entail?
[Franko] I look at holistic in a couple of different ways. I would say there are two big ways to be thinking holistically. The first is the individual. In any given day, you and I have a finite amount of time, energy, motivation, and discipline. Those are resources that get depleted throughout the day. Someone who is holistic, they recognize that those are four of their most valuable resources and the decisions that they make with those resources directly impact their book of business, directly impact their ability to be successful.
As an example, I'll use myself. When I was writing the book, that was a long-term goal. I really needed to think about those four resources. Time, energy, motivation, discipline. Knowing how I operate, I had to make some choices about where in my day I dedicated time to that important activity, which was writing the book. For me, I did that in the morning, so that I got that off of my plate, I was able to move forward with the rest of my day. Business development is no different. When you're looking at your most important activities, where are they falling in your day, and have you chosen to prioritize them?
It's a choice. Have you chosen to prioritize them using your most valuable resources? We're an important part of the equation when it comes to creating a successful book of business. Then the other side of that is looking at the way that your prospects and clients are operating. What are their most important pressing challenges? How do they like to buy the services that we provide? Aligning how they like to buy and how they like to operate with our business development process.
Are we thinking about the client relationship holistically bringing together all of our partners, internal and external, to serve that client? And are we lined up well with the way that they operate so that we can be of the best service to them and we can grow that relationship?
When you say that a modern business developer must be social, that has a few different connotations. Are we talking about networking? Are we talking about social media type concerns? Is it a combination of those? What does that exactly mean?
[Franko] One of the most interesting pieces of feedback that I received on that section of the book is the modern seller being social. A lot of people have that same question that you have, and what they were surprised about, they were expecting a section all about social media. But what they were surprised about was I touch only very lightly on social media. This is more about the fundamentals of building strategic relationships. Yes, social media is absolutely a component of it, but I like to think of social media and social platforms as one tool that we have available to us to build strategic relationships.
My view of social is all around social capital. Social capital is never going to have a line item on a P&L that I'm aware of, but business developers and firms that get this, they know that strategic relationships really have an impact on their business development results, and also to their bottom-line success as a firm. So what that means is, they're very intentional about the types of relationships that they're building because they know that they need to be looking at this in a way that relationships create success of the firm.
I like to define social capital as the collective value of our relationships. So you and I each have a network, and if we have a strategic relationship, we're sharing our networks. We are sharing ideas. We're sharing resources. When you and I share those things, the collective value that we're able to create is exponential, versus you and I just separating our networks and not having that strategic relationship.
How important is it for someone who's working on this to serve as an ambassador?
[Franko] I'll start that off by talking a little bit about what I like to call the new client economy. Our prospects and clients, they're kind of operating in this swirl, if you will, of different business dynamics, technology, which is obviously affecting the profession greatly, even cultural change. All of that is coming together to change the ways that they are going to market, the way that they're working with their own clients. Those changes have a downhill effect on us in the profession, because our prospects and clients, their expectations of us have changed, which is why we need to become these modern business developers.
What this new client economy has also done, it has also changed our view of satisfaction. You think about client satisfaction surveys. What used to be, someone rated you a four or five, especially if they rated you a five, you know, you had arrived, you had made it. This was a highly satisfied client. And you were not at risk of losing that client. That has changed. Satisfaction is really more than table stakes. The expectations of what we need to be delivering to our clients have changed. Interestingly enough, some of the research that's out there, and especially on professional services, not just the CPA profession, but professional services in general, anywhere from – even a client sees themselves as satisfied – anywhere from 52% to 72% of them would still entertain switching providers. Even if they say that they are highly satisfied. Now, on one hand, that can scare all of us, because we're thinking about our own clients and saying – and this is a good exercise to go through – "Where might I have a satisfied client, but maybe they're not loyal enough, and they might be willing to switch?" That's absolutely one way to look at it. The other way to look at it is an opportunity. Where might a prospect that I'm working with today, where might they be satisfied with another provider and they might be willing to switch to us because we're doing things differently?
I say all that through the lens of our role is to move a client from satisfied to loyal. And in order to do that, we have to take on the role of ambassador. We have to look for what those true differentiators are, versus just table stakes, and be able to deliver on the differentiators. Because if we're just delivering on table stakes, the chances are really good that even a satisfied client may be willing to switch at some point.
I'm going to take care of the first one here for you when I ask what would you say is the best way for CPAs to learn these skills? Obviously, they need to read the book The Modern Seller. But are there also ways through courses, through practice on the job? Does it have to come natural to people? How can they get these skills?
[Franko] Let me tackle that last one first about whether or not it has to come naturally. Let's do a little bit of myth-busting here. There are some people that might be naturally wired for some of these dimensions, absolutely. But I truly believe that these are skills to be built. If it is not something that comes naturally to you, that's okay. I look at these as all skills to be built and skills to master, so that means we have to be continually practicing them. Even being natural at something isn't enough to master it. So I'll put that one to rest, that these are not things that have to come naturally, they're skills to be built.
Certainly the book is one place for someone to start to know what those skills are and have some practical ways to apply them. But in terms of other ways that you would look at building these, I would say taking the elements of the book and putting them into practice. Practice is absolutely one of those things. We cannot master something without practicing it, and practicing it consistently. That means every week we are doing something to build our business development skills, and on the job absolutely. The only way that we really learn, in addition to practice, is by doing it in real life.
When we do these things in real life with a prospect or with a client, we get feedback on what we've done well, where we have opportunities to improve. The byproduct of that is that it also helps to, it wires our brain and starts to build those pathways in our brain to move toward mastery, and it also helps us to build confidence. It's one thing to read a book or take a course; the only way that we become masters at it is to practice it and do it.
I wonder if you ever get feedback on what people see as the most difficult skill for them to master. I have to feel like social could be tough for people, but do you ever get any thoughts back from people on that sort of thing?
[Franko] That's a great question. Sometimes it's dependent on the profession. Social is absolutely one of those things that can be a challenge for many reasons. One of the things I hear is, "I don't have time to build relationships." Or, "I don't have time to put in the networking,” or what have you. I can appreciate that. I think about my own … I'll use myself as an example. I have almost 3,000 connections on LinkedIn, but I certainly don't have 3,000 relationships. When it comes to social, if we can land on what our most significant business development goal is, that gives us a track to run on the types of relationships that we need to be building.
I would say that probably the one that catches people's attention the most is the ambassador dimension. It's this idea of we really need to move the needle from satisfaction to loyalty, and how do I make sure that all the efforts that I put into building the client base that I have today, how do I expand that? Cross-servicing, cross-selling is something that I have many conversations about in the profession and in professional services. And that ambassador factor plays a big role in our ability to cross-service, and cross-sell, and expand an existing relationship.