Did you know that the sales process of many professional advisors is fatally flawed? Are you one of them? Think about your presentation. Think about how you explain your firm, your services, and your key differentiators.  Think about all of the things you say and how wonderfully you say them. Now think about what you aren’t doing while you are busy making your flawless presentation. Did you know that accounting firm business development might not be all about what you say and how you say it?

Recently, I watched two firms who were shocked to learn they missed out on client opportunities. In both cases, they just knew that their presentation was spot on. They nailed it. And they knew it. They highlighted all of the most important and relevant strengths of their firm. They talked about industry experience. They spoke of the depth of their resources. They talked about their other clients. They answered every conceivable question with a compelling answer. But they missed the only thing that mattered. They missed what was really troubling the client and they missed a great opportunity to build a new relationship and grow their firm.

When you’re talking, you aren’t listening

As the director of a marketing firm, you’ll never hear me understate the value of branding, materials, content, resources, etc. These are essential and in many cases represent the cost of admission to getting in the game with potential clients. Your firm has to first look like you are qualified to serve the client before you’ll even get an opportunity to win new work.

But experience has also shown me that when you are talking about all of the things that make your firm great, you are very likely missing an opportunity to listen, and to hear, what is really most important to your potential client. And listening doesn’t just mean taking a break from speaking so that you can think of your next brilliant differentiating comment. It means being engaged in what the client is saying. It means asking questions that dig deeper into what is really bothering them. It means hearing both what they say and what they don’t say. None of these things can be accomplished when you are moving through a PowerPoint presentation, flawlessly presenting the grandeur of your firm.

Shifting the paradigm

At a conference I recently attended, a presenter spoke about the value of “shocking” prospective clients during the sales process. While the visual seems strange, especially for CPAs who spend so much time trying to be sure clients are comfortable with their firm, the advice was solid. If you want to consistently stand out from a crowd of “sameness,” you need to shift the conversation. You need to find an avenue your competition isn’t going down. They are all competing—  on price, consistency of service team, commitment to the relationship, and depth of their bench — and hoping that the sum of their answers adds up to one more than the sum of yours.  Meanwhile, you can be totally reworking the equation, coloring outside the lines. You can leave them in the dust as they try to sneak out with a one run win in a game that you aren’t even playing anymore.

How can you change the game to your advantage? Stop talking. Stop presenting for a minute and listen to the client. Identify a need before they even know it exists. Don’t just answer the questions they are asking, but listen and look ahead to the next problem or opportunity. Present an idea. Make them think differently. Provoke their curiosity.

Changing the rules of the game

Here’s a real world example. A large manufacturer was recently looking to change advisors. They needed annual tax and audit work and a number of other services that were specified in the RFP which was sent to three local firms in a major southeastern city. A detailed RFP had a list of questions regarding how the firms would approach the engagement, the professional team that would serve them, fee structure, etc. Two firms answered the RFP perfectly. Two firms nailed the presentation. Two firms felt that when you added everything up, they were the best solution for the client. The third firm won the client. They shifted the conversation. Instead of just presenting, they stopped to listen. Instead of just answering questions, they let the client talk. And what happened when the client started talking? They identified a looming organizational family ownership problem that was never mentioned in the RFP. In fact, the client themselves had not yet fully considered the problem. Sure, they still completed the RFP, but that was just a formality. They won the work by listening, identifying a unknown problem and presenting a solution. They shocked the client. They shifted the paradigm, and they won.

Making listening your strategic advantage

So how do you start making the rules of the game? First, you need an opportunity to listen. If it’s a blind RFP process, do everything you can to get in front of the prospect before submitting a proposal. And when you do get in front of them, make listening to the client your first priority. If you have the chance to make a presentation, don’t, at least not in the traditional sense. Don’t stand up in front of a room and talk at them. Don’t talk about your international affiliations and pound your chest about the power of your regional offices. Engage the client. Involve them in a conversation. Ask questions. Listen to their answers. Take a break from the bullet points describing the greatness of your firm and find out what’s not in the RFP. Show them that you bring value by listening and understanding, not just by being the smartest person in the room. If you are anything like me, you’ll probably find that the more a client talks, and the more you listen, the more they’ll like you, and the more likely you’ll be to find a game changer that will “shock” them right into your client base.

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