For many small and medium-sized firms, a consultation with a “high-value” firm can be a nerve-wracking experience that takes them out of their element. In this episode of CPA Conversations, Loren Fogelman, price and profit coach for Business Success Solution, provides tips on the focal points to drive home when delving into the CPA sales process.
By: Bill Hayes, Pennsylvania CPA Journal Managing Editor
It's rare, if not unheard of, to find a CPA for whom sales is the favorite part of their job. That sales element becomes that much more important and nerve-wracking when you are dealing with high-value clients, the organizations for whom acquiring their business can make or break a small to medium-sized firm. For assistance in figuring out the focus points when consulting with high-value clients, today we are with Loren Fogelman, price and profit coach for Business Success Solution.
For context, how would you define a high-value client for the purposes of our discussion?
[Fogelman] I want to say in the beginning most accounting professionals, when they're opening up their firm, will take a wide range of clients that are coming to them. They're not very selective because they need clients and cashflow just to be able to get going, have that momentum. Then, as they continue to grow, they start to realize that not all clients are actually created equal. They're not equally profitable. They are going to start to see a wide range of clients from low value to, as you mentioned, high value. The qualities of a low-value client are that they might be price-sensitive. They are late for everything, whether it is responding to communications, paying an invoice, showing up for meetings. They also have high expectations, but they don't necessarily want to pay for those extras. Sometimes they treat you like an employee. Those are some of the qualities of a low-value client.
A high-value client is some of the opposites. They are going to value and respect your services and the suggestions that you're making for them. They are going to actually respond quickly when you're sending out communications, asking for additional details, or when you're sending out an invoice, they're paying very, very quickly and they are on time for those client meetings. The last thing is they respect your boundaries. If they are going to reach out to you even Friday at eight o'clock in the evening, they don't expect you to respond until you're back to work on Monday morning, maybe even Tuesday. There is definitely respect for boundaries as well. Most accounting firms have a mixture of both. At some point they get to a point in their career or a path where they don't want to tolerate those low-value clients anymore. That's when they might want to recalibrate and really look at some of the necessary steps to bring on more high-value clients and shed some of the low-value ones.
What would you say are the key steps for connecting with and engaging those high-value clients?
[Fogelman] This is right from the raise your rates formula, which I teach, whether it is in an interview or a conversation like you're having, and I teach my private clients as well: if you just follow these steps, you'll start to actually engage more high-value clients. The very first one is knowing the qualities of a high-value client versus your low-value client. What is it about them that you enjoy working with, they are a dream to work with? Is it that they're responsive, that they come to the meeting with questions, maybe they follow through? Maybe there's an educational component that they want to have because they want to understand their financials better. Think about what are some of the things that you love best about your clients and start to become aware of those qualities that your high-value clients share. That's the first step.
Step number two is being able to communicate your value because the things that will attract a high-value client, whether it's on your website, social media, going to network meetings and sharing about your services and what you do are going to be different than what would appeal to a price-sensitive or low-value client. So, really understanding how to communicate value to attract those high-value clients.
Step number three is packaging your services because when you actually bundle certain services together, it allows you to start separating your fees on time.
Number four is value pricing where you get to earn more for the same amount of work. No additional time spent working, but you're now pricing based on what the client values instead of what you value, which is usually time, cost, and possibly the forms that you're doing when you're doing your tax return.
Then step number five, and what we're talking about today is mastering the enrollment conversation, it's consultation mastery, and how to be able to have what I call value conversation as opposed to a sales conversation or even a sales pitch. I'm going to just mention those real quickly again: knowing who your high-value clients are, communicating your value, packaging your services, value pricing, and consultation mastery. Those are the things to be able to raise your rates and engage high-value clients.
As we said in the intro and we can reiterate here, most CPAs aren't born salesmen or saleswomen. What do you think the common mistakes are when they're first engaging with potential clients?
[Fogelman] The things that I see as common mistakes are you are probably talking too much during the initial consultation with a client where you're trying to sell them, have them see the benefits of working with you. You're focusing on the things that you care about versus finding out what's really important to them. That's the first thing is you're talking too much.
The other thing is that you might be going into a pitch. When you hear about their challenges that they're having, and you realize that you can solve those things for them, you actually start discussing the solution too soon. The reason I'm saying that is because when you are hearing all about their pains and frustrations, you might get excited, you know how to solve them. People cannot make a higher-level decision, which is deciding whether to work with you or not when they're in that pain point. When they're in that pain point, that's the lower-level thinking, more the reptilian part of their brain working now, where all they want to do is survive and get away from the dinosaur chasing them. That's true, even when we talk about accounting and financial needs. They're in that fight, flight, or freeze response. So, when you start talking about the next steps of moving forward together, they can't make their best decision at that point. You need to be able to pivot the conversation to potential before you start talking about working together.
The last thing I want to say is that as soon as you hear an objection, you might start to wrap up the conversation and that's not really beneficial to you or to the person that you're speaking with, because you're just misinterpreting objection. You're seeing it as a no, a firm no. You're closing down a conversation, whereas from their point of view, the objection might really mean that they just don't have enough information to make a really good decision yet. They need to actually uncover some more details before they can tell you yes or no. Those are some of the things that happen when you're first figuring out how to have an enrolling conversation with a potential client.
Say you're a CPA that doesn't really enjoy the sales element, how do you get past that to still be able to bring in new prospects? Is it a mental thing?
[Fogelman] Well, I think that most things that we choose to do or not choose to do have to do with mindset. So, the short answer to that is yes, but the awareness part is first that most accounting professionals don't want to sell. Most of your clients don't want to be sold to. You actually have something in common. What I will say is the pitch part is going to be the most uncomfortable part of the conversation. That was true for me as well. That's why I actually did a lot of research, study, learning, working with high-level coaches myself on how to be able to figure out how to enroll new clients when I didn't like the sales part. From that, I came up with what I call a value conversation instead of a sales conversation. Basically with the value conversation, you're asking great questions. You're finding out a lot about them more than you typically would. They're really from that conversation recognizing the expertise and the value that you bring to them hiring you.
But the other thing I want you to realize is that that first meeting that you have with someone is you're both making a decision. They're making a decision as to whether they want to hire you, but you also get to make the decision as to whether you want to work with them or not. If this is someone who you get red flags about, you have this little gut feeling that maybe they're not going to be a great client, then pay attention to that. If they're not a great fit for you, then I would say just bless them and let them move on. If they are a great fit, then absolutely talk about the next steps of working more closely together.
What would you say is best to focus on during that initial conversation with a high-value client? Are there particular questions that should be asked in that first conversation?
[Fogelman] Yes. I want you to be able to have a higher-level conversation that is remarkable instead of one that is typical, that's similar to all the other accounting professionals that they might be talking with. A remarkable consultation, what I call that value conversation, is where you are actually looking at things and understanding their perspective. I call that stepping into their shoes. When you step into their shoes, you want to find out what are their current challenges that made them want to reach out to you because people don't reach out to you when it's the status quo or good enough. Something happened that made them decide to take action. Maybe they got a letter from the IRS or possibly they are behind several years on taxes and they need some tax resolution. Possibly they had an unexpected tax bill and they never, ever, ever want to be in that situation, or they're getting ready to grow their business and they need some insights regarding their financials in order to make the best decision possible. So, really understand what those challenges are.
Then, once you understand the challenges, you want to be able to educate them about the solutions that you offer that would help to resolve those challenges and let them move forward. By connecting your solutions with their challenges, then they're going to see the value of working with you. This really comes down to just asking great questions. When you ask great questions that really help to gain insight into their challenges, let them see your solutions, then typically toward the end of the conversation, they will naturally ask you, how does this work? When they're asking you, how does this work, then go ahead and talk about your services. You don't have to pitch them. You can just educate them about what those next steps would be.
The types of questions you want to ask is mainly three different types. The first category is how much. You want to find out how much time they've been wasting by tolerating this and not having that accurate information that they have. How much money has this been costing them? The how much questions can also go into something more future-focused, like how much can they make if they were able to get this resolved? How much time would they save? You want to ask questions about how much regarding time and money.
The next set of questions you want to ask is emotional cost. I know you're an accounting professional, you're not a therapist, but to recognize that when it comes to money, people have stuff around money usually. There is frustration. There are things that they've been tolerating. There are things that maybe they don't understand, and they have accounting shame. They have shame because they're not on top of the money in their business or personally. So, you want to help them get in touch with those frustrations, what they've been tolerating, because people will make a decision as to whether to work with you or not, first, based on emotion, and then they will justify it with logic. Therefore, you want to really let them know that you realize that there's some frustration, that they've been tolerating things, and you can help to remove those frustrations for them so that they can move forward and no longer feel stuff. We have the two categories, how much, which is time and money, emotional cost, which is toleration and frustration.
Then, the third one is what I call the work-life equation. The work-life equation is recognizing that when something's not going well in a personal life, it affects their professional life where maybe they're not focused. They're not as productive. They're not really getting things done to the degree that they know they're capable of. Or it could be when things aren't quite working smoothly in their job or professionally, then it comes home with them. That maybe after they're putting their kids to bed, they're going back and firing up their computer and doing some more client work. Or that there's a particular crisis at work and it needs their attention and they're not available to do some things that were planned at home. They might be working on the weekend and missing out on kids' activities or time with their spouse. Recognizing that there is a work-life equation and that things from work sometimes carry over into their personal life, where they're sacrificing personal time to be able to do more work-related things, or when things aren't working quite well at home, it affects their focus on their professional life as well.
Those are the three types of questions you want to ask is about how much, emotional cost, and the work-life equation.
One of the trickiest, most uncomfortable parts of any consultation is the close, where you look to officially lock down the business. Are there ways to make that segment of the conversation easier for CPAs?
[Fogelman] There are absolutely ways. One of the things that you could do is I have a free resource that helps to guide you through this value conversation. That's at businesssuccesssolution.com/script. This resource is going to give you the questions to be asking in order for this to be a smoother conversation. They can go ahead and just follow each question one by one. At the end, the client ought to be asking you, how does this work? It'll remove some of the objections and feeling like you have to sell.
The reason that I came up with this script is because very early on, as I mentioned, I didn't really understand sales and I didn't like the sales part or the close either. I was meeting with a potential client and we had a great connection. I asked all the right questions in the beginning, and then it came time to do this close. I could just feel something switching inside of me. I didn't know what it was. I couldn't stop it because I didn't have enough experience with the sales part yet. The other person must have recognized it too. Maybe my tone of voice changed. I could have broken eye contact. There might have been something in my body language. He asked me after I started going into this close part, the pitch, why I wanted to work with him. I explained to him that I was new in my business, I was of integrity, that I knew I could help, but I could actually use the cashflow too, and I thought that I would enjoy working with him.
I kind of stumbled through that. That's when he said, "Let me think about it." That was like the kiss of death at that moment. We closed down the conversation. He left. I felt like I needed to go home and take a shower. It just felt so out of integrity for me. I knew I killed my own sale and I didn't know how to stop it. That's when I found that I was going to figure this out, because I never, ever wanted to be in that situation again. From that insight and the training that I received because of that conversation, I realized that what happened when we got to the close is I broke our connection by starting to focus on me and how I would benefit from working with him. Like I said, I was new in my business. I could use the cash flow. It would be fun to take on a new client who really needed what I had to offer.
So I started to think about me and how I would benefit instead of continuing to really put that person first as a trusted advisor and focus on their needs instead of my needs. Once I realized that, I learned how to never do that again, and it was a painful, expensive lesson, but I'm really appreciative that I got that early on to recognize that taking the place of a trusted advisor right from the beginning, all the way through to the end, you want to focus on what's in the best interest of the client instead of what's in your best interest. By doing that, you're going to have a higher-level conversation. They're going to really recognize that you're bringing something to the table that's different than most other accounting professionals that they're speaking with.
That is what I would say is the trick: understanding that you want to come from that advisory position, focusing on what's in their best interest instead of yours, from the very get go, all the way to the end.
One of the most critical parts of the consultation is addressing possible objections on the part of the client. How do you prepare for that and ensure that you're best able to address their concerns, whether it be during the consultation or immediately after?
[Fogelman] I agree that the objections are where it starts to get uncomfortable and difficult, even though it's critical that you stay present and that you're able to really be there for them and be curious. The way to set it up is to realize that, as an accounting professional, one of the things that you realize is the stories tell a number. You can look at the numbers in someone's taxes, in their accounting, in their books, and you are able to see patterns and gain insights that most people can't realize. You're uniquely qualified to interpret that.
I want you to bring that same curiosity to objections. The objections tell a story too. Just like the numbers, stay curious. Because of that, something you might want to do to prepare ahead of time is to figure out what are the top five objections that you tend to get when you're in a value conversation with a potential client. Some of them might be about money. It might be about time. It might be that they're overwhelmed and they think that this is going to be a long, drawn out, painful process. There might be some other common objections that you get. Maybe they need to talk to a partner, but come out with those top five objections and list them.
Then, once you list them, then go ahead and write a response of how you would like to answer them. This is where you're starting to prepare. Then, an advanced move is going ahead and practicing it out loud, whether it is in front of a mirror or it is with your furry best friend that you have. It might be with a business partner or your spouse or something like that, but practice these outside because when you practice those sound bites out loud, they're going to sound a little bit differently than just what you scripted out.
Those are some of the things to really think about is write out your top five objections, write out how you would like to respond to them, and then practice that sound bite to get better. That way, when someone actually asks it, it's going to sound natural – your response – you're not going to get thrown off guard as opposed to something where you're closing down the conversation, or you're sounding kind of formal and scripted.
Are there resources CPAs can check out to make themselves better at signing up new clients without being too salesy?
[Fogelman] Yes. If you are interested in having a valued conversation with a potential new client, which is something that I teach all my clients how to do because none of them enjoy the sales part, then I have a free resource where you can actually ask the exact questions which you're going to go ahead and highlight your value and focus on your expertise as opposed to you being seen as a technician. You can get that free resource at businesssuccesssolution.com/script.