Have you heard the term “ear to the ground” lately? I haven’t heard it used much in recent times. I believe that it is something that managing partners and others inside a public accounting firm need to practice, keeping their ear to the ground.
It means: To be or try to be well informed about current trends and opinions.
Partners, managers and supervisors, you have to practice keeping your ear to the ground relating to both employees and clients. It is important for CPAs to develop the ability to skillfully listen and it has been written about numerous times. Yet a majority of CPAs in public practice will openly tell you that they have never had any sort of listening training.
Often, you want to impress a subordinate or a client with the high-level of knowledge you have developed over the years you have worked in the accounting profession. So, you talk and talk and at times almost brag.
You want employees to realize that you are knowledgeable and experienced so that they can trust your comments and opinions. You want clients to realize all the wonderful things you can do for them and how you and your firm are highly-trained accountants and very experienced business advisors. So, you talk more than you listen.
Try to listen more intently and always keep your ear to the ground.
Sometimes we make marketing and selling more difficult than it really is. According to the long-time consulting guru, David Maister, marketing and selling are about having conversations.
Here is an excerpt from his book, Strategy and the Fat Smoker:
Marketing (and/or selling) begins to work when a conversation moves away from being a role-to-role exchange of capabilities, contracts, and costs and becomes a person-to-person interactive dialogue about ideas, beliefs, and perspectives. Only then can it build the chemistry, confidence, and commitment that lead to new revenues.
Imagine a dinner party conversation. What makes a good conversationalist in such a setting? He or she:
- Has a fresh point of view, but does not try to thrust it upon everyone else
- Speaks politely and respectfully
- Tells good stories to illustrate key points
- Is good at drawing other people’s views out and drawing them into the conversation
- Speaks intelligently on a variety of subjects, but is not afraid to admit areas of ignorance
- Avoids trotting out well-worn arguments or cliches.
- Listens with genuine interest
- Is light-hearted in style, but always respectful of others’ views
All of these conversational skills also apply to effective marketing and selling.
I read this recently via Harvey Mackay. Harvey Mackay is the author of the New York Times #1 bestsellers Swim With The Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive and Beware the Naked Man Who Offers You His Shirt. Both books are among the top 15 inspirational business books of all time, according to the New York Times.
I am inspired by Elbert Hubbard, a very successful soap salesperson who retired in 1894 at age 35. He lived by this credo:
“I believe in myself. I believe in the goods I sell. I believe in the firm for whom I work. I believe in my colleagues and helpers. I believe in American business methods. I believe in producers, creators, manufacturers, distributors, and in all industrial workers of the world who have a job and hold it down. I believe that truth is an asset. I believe in good cheer and good health, and I recognize the fact that the first requisite in success is not to achieve the dollar or to confer a benefit, but that the reward will come automatically and usually as a matter of course. I believe in sunshine, fresh air, spinach, applesauce, laughter, buttermilk, babies, and chiffon, always remembering that the greatest word in the English language is sufficiency. I believe that when I make a sale, I make a friend. And I believe that when I part with a person, I must do it in such a way that when they see me again, they will be glad and so will I. I believe in the hands that work, in the brains that think, and in the hearts that love.”
Summer flew by. Fall was so busy with extended returns. Now it is November.
Fall is prime time for your competitors to approach your valuable clients about switching accounting firms. Hopefully, you are also doing the same. Year-end is approaching and it is the time of year when clients are most likely to make the move to another firm.
How many times have you touched base with your best clients throughout summer and fall? Have you sent them articles relating to their industry? Have you helped educate them about the new tax bill? Have you scheduled their year-end tax planning appointment?
Now is the time to give them a call. Even better, drop by their place of business just to see how they are doing. Every conversation with a current client usually leads to opportunities to provide additional services.
I have occasionally heard the phrase, “I Led Three Lives.” I never realized where it originated so I Googled it. It was a TV series that aired during the 1950s about a spy.
The managing partner of a CPA firm lives three lives. Two lives in their professional life and, of course, their personal life.
Their two professional lives are comprised of the outside-the-firm life and the inside-the-firm life.
The managing partner is the face and voice of the firm. The MP represents the firm in the business community and in the civic/charitable community. The MP speaks on behalf of the firm in media relations and as part of the Chamber of Commerce or other business related organizations. The MP often serves on several outside Boards of Directors and may even be active, on behalf of the firm, on social media.
Of course, all partners in the firm should also be leading two lives at the firm – inside and outside, just like the MP/CEO, but maybe not quite as high-profile.
I often observe that while some client service partners fill a prominent role inside the firm, they rarely venture outside to be visible in the business community or on social media. Yes, they do interact with clients but rarely generate new business themselves.
It is a partner’s responsibility to generate new business. If this is something you are not comfortable with, make it a goal for 2018 to be more involved in the business community. Take it a step at a time. Maybe you can begin by accompanying a rainmaker to an event or join with your other partners and their spouses to support a local charitable event or banquet.
Don’t forget that third life – your personal life with friends and family. Too many partners work too many hours. I have often heard a partner confess, “Work is my life.” When partners show workaholic tendencies it discourages younger accountants from ever wanting to be a partner in your firm and often they leave to join a competitor.
In these times of focusing intently on the people we employ, never forget that you wouldn’t need your staff members if you didn’t have clients.
I believe that many clients are at risk right now at the majority of CPA firms across the nation. Why? It is very simple, because so many partners are beginning to retire and these more senior partners have not wholeheartedly bought-in to a formalized client transition process.
The concept of finding and retaining applies to both employees and clients. You must find, hire and retain top talent. You must find, obtain and keep great clients.
Some of the same activities to accomplish these “musts” apply to both.
Recruiting and retaining, or as Tom Hood puts it, attracting and developing, the most talented young professionals begins by being visible to them. Consider how visible the large national firms are on college campuses. You can’t be that visible on as many campuses but you can certainly establish relationships with professors and participate in activities in the business school of the universities in your market.
You must have established a great culture that helps you build your brand. If you truly are a great place to work, that reputation will spread.
Attracting the best clients begins by being visible to them. Being visible in your business community and being active in charitable and civic organizations is still a major factor in attracting great clients. You build the relationship first, then you pursue the business. You and your firm must also be active and visible in social media. Your website is key. A prospective client will look at your website and assess your credibility before they ever have a serious talk with you about their business.
You must have established a great culture that attracts highly technical CPAs that can serve the needs of sophisticated business owners. You must build a brand that convinces clients and prospective clients that…. “we pay them a lot but they are definitely worth it.”
In the world of public accounting, when we say the word “marketing” different professionals and different generations can view it in many different ways.
To some partners it means keeping their current clients happy. Others will argue that a constant flow of new clients keeps the firm healthy and growing. And, still others will say that marketing means being visible and active in the local business community.
All of these viewpoints are accurate. I learned much about marketing from the writings of David Maister (retired consultant guru to professional service firms). Maister said that professional firms must execute a FULL PACKAGE of practice development steps covering five main categories of activity:
Broadcasting. It includes all the activities that generate leads and opportunities with new clients.Think of webinars, articles, blogs, social media, newsletters and speaking.
Courting. When you do get a lead, it turns into courting. You are no longer addressing a group, your are addressing a specific prospect. When a client hires you, the client is entering into a relationship, so your activities are better described as courtship.
Super-Pleasing. The easiest marketing is super-pleasing your current clients. Word of mouth is very powerful and a client will only talk about you if the client is truly delighted and eager to work with the individuals inside your firm.
Nurturing. Sometimes when we are focused on pursuing NEW business we might forget about current clients. For relationships to remain strong, they must be nurtured (just like a marriage).
Listening. To round out your marketing (or practice growth, as they call it now) activities, you must listen to the market and continually gather market intelligence. The better you understand how your clients think, the better you are able to serve them. Don’t guess or assume what your clients want, ask them and LISTEN.