Read any article about the sales process for accounting firms and you will get differing views on how many sales meetings you should have, the purpose of these sales meetings and when you should quote for a client. In this article, Heather Townsend aims to demystify the sales process for accountants; from ‘the ideal’ sales process for accountancy firms to what is the right sales process for your accounting firm.
The sales process for accounting firms: Your clients determine the right sales process for your firm
On a recent holiday, I visited two establishments that sold food. One was a drive-through McDonalds at a motorway service station (don’t judge me!), and the other was a bistro serving sit down made to order meals. As you can imagine, the sales process was very different for both. That’s because the customer in a drive-through motorway service station is looking for something very different from a sit-down restaurant with waitress service.
It will be the same when it comes to the sales process for your accountancy firm. Yours will differ from others depending on the requirements of your clients and the type of service your firm provides.
However, as the owner of a small accountancy firm, you are often told that there's an optimal sales process for your accounting firm. Do something different, you are told, or risk leaving business on the table or not getting the client to spend over £200 a month with your firm. (Ahem, we may have written something like this in the past…)
The reality for your small accountancy firm is that your sales process is going to be different to other firms that serve different types of clients or offer different services. For example, we tend to advocate a sales process for accountants that has a pre-qualification step or meeting, followed by a fact-finding and quoting session. About a year ago one of our members queried this approach. She found they often had potential clients ringing up who were keen to sign up there and then, and would have gone elsewhere if they had been forced into 2 sales meetings. This was a salient reminder for us that the sales process for accountants differs greatly if you are selling £200 person tax returns vs a £1000 per month virtual finance director (CFO) services.
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What elements should be included in the sales process for your accountancy firm?
All accountancy firms, regardless of service or size, tend to have the following elements in their sales process. These elements may be condensed into one meeting or stretched out over a longer period of time and each step could take place across multiple meetings over a period of months. A word of warning, skip one of the elements and your small accountancy firm is likely to find that something will go wrong during the sales process.
The 4 elements are:
Editor's note: read these 2 articles - 11 resources you need to create a successful sales process and What systems and processes should small accountancy firms have to manage their sales and marketing? - to create a solid sales process for your firm!
Element 1: Qualification
The qualification stage of the sales process for accountancy firms is where you determine whether this is the type of client or business you want to actively progress. This step often takes the form of some or all of these elements:
- Clear statements on your website about who your accountancy firm works with as clients.
- A pricing page or services page where a prospective client will be able to answer the question they have in their head ‘how much does this accountancy charge?’
- A potential new client questionnaire where prospective clients answer some short questions to help you and them see whether you are a good match
- A ‘discovery’ call or qualification meeting as advocated in James Ashford’s book ‘Selling to serve’. This conversation is typically between 15 - 60 mins and is used to help you decide whether you want to progress this lead.
Regardless of how your firm does the qualification step, it will typically check a prospect against the DUFF criteria (if effective). DUFF stands for:
Is the decision-maker, and all the decision-makers, included as part of the conversation. For example, in a small owner-managed business, the husband or wife or spouse of the owner will often influence their decision about which accountant they will engage.
How quickly do they want a new accountant? Are they doing the retail equivalent of ‘just browsing’ or are they really keen to change accountants quickly?
Can they afford your accountancy firm’s services? If you are open on your firm’s website about the fees your firm is likely to charge a prospective client, you are less likely to have enquiries from prospects who can’t afford your firm’s services.
There is a school of thought which pervades (like a bad smell) through the accountancy profession. This school of thought is that if you are open about your prices on your website, you will scare away good prospects from your firm.
This school of thought is now, in my opinion, outdated. Why? Because this viewpoint believes that your sales skills will be good enough to convert any prospect into a client which is, frankly, balderdash. After all, someone turning over less than £100k a year, with no aspirations to grow or any pressing needs, is very unlikely to sign up to an accountancy firm that will charge them a minimum of £700 a month in fees. The reality is that if you don’t put an indication of your fee level on your website what will happen is the following:
- You will attract price-sensitive clients or the prospects who ring up and just want to know how much you will charge them for a set of accounts.
- You'll waste a large amount of your time talking to prospects who are not a good match for your accounting firm.
- You will miss out on good leads who go elsewhere because they don’t know whether their budget for accountancy services matches your firm’s fee structure.
Putting it really simply, if you want to optimise the sales process for your accounting firm, it will include talking about fees on your firm’s website and also in the qualification step.
Fit is where there is a good fit between your firm and your prospect. For example, do they want to use your firm’s recommended bookkeeping software, e.g. Xero, Quickbooks, FreeAgent, Sage, Zoho Books etc? Do their requirements match what your firm delivers well for clients? Do you like them?
Struggling with new enquiries? Download our free mini-training session recording on How to handle a new client enquiry.
How long should the qualification meeting be?
It’s up to your style and preferences. For example, if you are naturally talkative you may find that a 15 min meeting feels too short (as if you are putting your prospective clients through a sausage machine). If your firm sells VCFO or virtual finance director services, then you may need 60 mins to assess whether your firm and their business are a good fit.
If you decide to get your receptionist or another member of the team to do this qualification meeting then 15 mins may be long enough for them to go through the prepared (and normally standard) set of questions.
When should you move your prospect to the Fact-finding stage?
To move from the qualification stage to the next stage, Fact-Finding, 2 things have to happen:
- Your firm wants to have them as a client. Remember your success as the owner of a small accounting firm (particularly if you want to grow your practice) will be defined by what you say no to than what you say yes to.
- The prospect gives you a small commitment to move to the next stage. This could be another meeting if you do a separate qualification and fact-finding stage. Or it could be that they are willing to tell you more about their requirements if they are a small tax-return only client.
Element 2: Fact-finding
The fact-finding stage of the sales process for accounting firms is where you gain a deep understanding of the prospect’s personal and/or business requirements. How deep, of course, depends on the type of clients you normally work with and your firm’s business model. For example, a prospect who is employed but needs a personal tax return will need much less of a fact-find than a business owner with a turnover of £1m and 20 staff members.
It can be very tempting to skimp on this part of the sales process. Particularly, if the prospect turns up with a ready-made list of exactly what they want to buy from your firm. The rule of thumb at this stage is if you want better results from your sales meeting you need to spend longer in this stage. The larger your average client fee, the longer you will spend in this stage.
However, if your firm’s clients are at the smaller fee end of the market, you may find spending too long on this stage or forcing clients to have more meetings may lose you good prospects. If your firm has invested in good content marketing you may find that a prospect turns up ready sold and just wants to get started with your accounting firm.
As you would expect, the fact-finding part of the sales process for accountants is all about discovery and exchanging information. Our members who do this stage efficiently tend to make use of prospect questionnaires. They also request for information to be sent across before the fact-finding meeting.
The information requested normally includes things like:
- The most recent set of management accounts/reports and year-end accounts
- Number of employees
- Business plans including marketing plans
- Website address
- Business name as it appears on companies house
If your firm is winning new clients who are likely to pay between £100 and £600 per month for your firm’s services, and you get the client to send information over before the fact-finding meeting, you may be able to combine the fact-finding and proposal meeting in the same meeting.
To move to the next stage, quoting, two things need to happen:
- Your firm still wants them as a client
- The prospect gives you a small commitment to move to the next stage. This could be that they start talking about ‘what are our next steps to move forward?’
Element 3: Quoting
The quoting stage of the sales process for accounting firms is where you agree on the service fees. This can be as simple as totting up their requirements on a spreadsheet to get a cost. Or asking for another meeting to formally go through their requirements and cost. It may include a formal pitch to the decision-makers in your potential client’s organisation.
As previously mentioned in this article, there is no one size fits all. If you sell virtual finance services, the quoting stage may take multiple meetings to find out the exact needs and cost. Indeed, our members who sell these types of services often spend 3 months sorting out the inherited mess. And then re-quote when they know exactly what the client really needs.
If this stage goes well, then the Closing stage can often be a mere formality.
You will find that investing in software like GoProposal or Practice Ignition will help you get a proposal out to the client within hours. In fact, the most effective sales process for accountancy firms will include creating and sending a proposal to prospects within hours of the meeting finishing. Leave the proposal for more than 24 hours and you risk inertia setting in and the prospect not signing up!
Prospects often ask for a proposal in order to bring a sales meeting to a close. If you haven’t seen any form of buying signals from the prospect or a good understanding of their requirements, be concerned if they seem to move very quickly to ask for a proposal from your firm. Asking the prospect to commit to a meeting to talk through and adjust the proposal is a good way of:
- Checking the prospect is serious about working with your accounting firm
- Making sure you have understood their requirements
- Promptly getting the engagement letter signed if you have a proposal ready to go on GoProposal or Practice Ignition.
Element 4: Closing
In the closing part of the sales process, your client agrees to your firm’s fees and signs their engagement letter. If you are selling Virtual Finance Director or Outsourced Finance Department services, this stage could take a while.
Reasons for this include:
- Sign off being needed by multiple departments and directors.
- Multiple back and forths to get the right mix of services, time spent, budget available and fees.
The closing part of the sales process for accountancy firms could include some or all of the following activities:
- Sending them a proposal to sign via GoProposal or Practice Ignition.
- Meetings to discuss and agree on the elements of the proposal.
- Negotiations on your proposed fees.
Improve and streamline your sales process
There is no one-size-fits-all sales process for accountants. Only you (and your clients) can determine what process is right for your firm.
If you use these 4 elements, you can create a sales funnel that attracts the right clients. AND one that converts them to loyal clients too.
Need more help with your sales process in accounting? Download our many resources, such as our sales process for accountants flow chart and/or our free mini-training session recording on How to handle a new client enquiry.