April 25, 2017

Is Your CPA Firm Planning for Conversations with Prospective Clients?

The Rainmakers at your firm are not the only ones talking to clients, so you need to plan accordingly.


This article is written for members of mid-sized to large CPA firms who have aspirations to improve their ability to grow organically.

Some Things Don’t Change

I have been in the CPA world ever since I graduated from Bentley college in 1994.

Back in the days when I was practicing as a CPA, as well as today, as I talk to folks who work for and are in leadership roles at CPA firms, there are a few common themes that seem to stand the test of time.

  • Firms want to grow organically
  • Some members of the firm are good at bringing in new business
  • Some members don’t know how to bring in new business
  • Some members don’t want to bring in new business, because they just want to do the actual work
  • Marketing isn’t getting the job done on it’s own
  • Training Rainmakers to make more rain doesn’t work very well as it isn’t delivering the results we need

I think you would agree that these are fairly common themes at your firm today. So how are you attemtping to solve these problems?

Old-School Solutions

Back when I was working as a CPA, the solution to the problems getting in the way of organic growth typically emanated from three places:

  • Incentivize with some form of financial bonus for people who could bring in clients.
  • Put the folks bringing in clients on the fast track to Partner.
  • Train people by sending them off to some overpriced, and time consuming sales training academy.

Seems to be that the same “solutions” are being implemented today. The results now are as dismal as they were then.

  • People who don’t know how to sell, or hate selling, don’t care about incentives to sell. So, incentives won’t make them sell.
  • The natural “Rainmakers” of your firm don’t need the incentives because they just do what they do. Unfortunately, there are not enough of them to get the results you need.
  • Attempting to train folks who are not inclined to bring in new work for the firm generally doesn’t produce results, because in reality, people forget what they are taught, and, much of what is being taught is outdated anyway.

In the end, what you have is an inability to reach your organic growth goals.

So, What Can You Do?

Organic growth matters, and it matters a lot. 

The challenges you face are faced by many firms, and are important one to overcome. But how do you overcome them? 

Marketing, even when it is first rate, isn’t enough to get the job done.

The reason is that at some point, in one form or another, before any prospective client will become an actual client, they have to engage in a conversation with someone at your firm.

I believe, after all my years in professional sales, that the one thing that is broken, that is easily fixed, and is not being covered properly by any sales training program, is to put systems in place to ensure that you are having the right conversations, with the right people at the right time.

Conversation Protocol and Process

I am intimately familiar with two sides of what appears to be a debate that will never end.

One is the side of the CPA who, because you are extremely competent, super smart and an expert at what you do, you think that having a “sales” conversation is simply a matter of dazzling the prospect with your brilliance.

The other side of the debate is from the perspective of the actual business development professionals who are constantly fighting what appears to be an uphill fight to get CPA’s to focus more on the clients needs than on dazzling them with intelligence.

After all my years in sales I tend to support the business development professionals side of the argument, mainly because I know, and can prove, prospective clients care much less about you than they do about themselves.

The challenge is, in order to really grow, you are going to have to ensure that the conversations your people have with prospective clients are executed flawlessly. If the CPA and the Business Development people are at odds, you can rest assured that there is great risk in your firm as a hole not selling effectively.

What you need is to establish protocols, systems and processes that help define what is the selling part of the conversation and what is the service side of the conversation.

And the only way to do this is to document and plan for the different conversation types you need to have before someone will become a client.

Conversation Types

First, and to capitalize on the Zig Ziglar quote, if you rely solely on Rainmakers to grow your firm, you will fail to grow. This is true for two reasons.

  • Rainmakers can’t carry the full load
  • Not every conversation leading to a new client is a rainmaking conversation

You know as well as I do that clients don’t switch to your firm after one conversation or a round of golf. It takes time. It also takes many touches by many different types of people.

I remember one deal I worked for over 2 years while selling software. The deal required me to introduce over 70 resources into the cycle, experts who the prospect need to meet. Some of those experts needed to meet with the prospect more than once. Each and every time a conversation was scheduled, I put a plan in place to execute it properly.

Depending on the service you are selling, you could be required to get the approval of one person, or a team of people.

You could be required to demonstrate trustworthiness along a timeline, where the prospective client needs to take their time before they are ready to become a client.

You could be required to be “Jonny on the Spot” with a conversation that takes advantage of a prospective clients desire to sign up now.

Some conversations are serendipitous.

Some can be anticipated.

All can be planned for.

Conversation Plans

Your people will be engaging with current clients and prospective clients on a regular basis, in many different venues potentially in many different countries.

Some conversations will be light and relationship oriented. Others will be proof of expertise, where the prospective client discovers that it is safe to trust your firm to get the job done.

Asking the Right Kinds of Questions

I am not going to go into the details of asking the right kinds of questions in this article. However I will say, after reading as many sales books as I have read, I can think of only a few that get it right. I have yet to see any training groups who provide “Rainmaker” type training to CPA firms get this right.

What is at stake?

Plenty is at stake. If you ask the wrong questions at the wrong time in front of the wrong people, you have absolutely no chance of winning the business. 

Two things that I think, based on all my experience, are wrong with sales type conversations:

  • People are asking the wrong questions
  • People don’t know what to do with the answers even if they ask the right questions

This question asking thing is not something to be trivialized, dismissed or ignored. Questions are the key to sales success. People have to know how to ask the right questions, in the right sequence and of the right people. Then, they have to know what to do with the answers they get.

This takes some time to learn, but really, you don’t need to have your people learn it as much as you have to set up some systems to help them navigate the conversations as they occur.

Part of this process is designing an effective sales content strategy.

Sales Content Strategy

Content marketing is all the rage. Your marketing department is probably all over you to have a blog, or create an eBook or a white paper, or do some research that will provide insights to your clients.

All of this is great. None of it enables your people to “sell” better.

What you and every other company who is in the B2B space needs is an actual Sales Content Strategy.

To keep things simple, sales is a different function than marketing. As a result, sales has different needs as a reflection of being at the bottom of the sales funnel. These needs are largely derived from what the buyer needs. The buyers needs inform what I have come to call, use cases.

Really, your sales content strategy is created based on what your sales people need in order to move a buyer from the top of the funnel to client.

People Maps

Years ago, I sold for a company you might remember. It was called Peoplesoft and was bought by Oracle back in 2004.

Anyway, my job was to run sales cycles. As part of that job I had to become intimately familiar with three groups of people:

  • The people at the prospect who would influence the decision to buy
  • The people at Peoplesoft who would assist me in winning the business
  • The people outside of either the prospect or Peoplesoft who could help me execute the sales cycle.

To win, I had to know who these people were, what mattered to them most and what I need to do to motivate them to move in the direction I need them to move.


I don’t think I am telling you anything you don’t already know. What I do believe is new to you is that all these conversations can be planned for, and as a result executed with a much higher degree of success.

What you have to ask yourself is, how important is it that your firm grow? If it is important, then you have to wonder, are your people really executing the most important conversations in such a way that improves your ability to win more than your fare share of business.

If you don’t know what the answer is, perhaps it is time to take a step back and consider that much of your organic growth is happening by chance.

Wouldn’t it be important enough to grow organically on purpose? 

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