While many CPAs prefer to avoid the spotlight, they can’t always work in the background if they want to be successful. Networking and sales skills are essential to building a client base, increasing value as an employee (or partner), and developing as an individual.
How can CPAs build their networking and sales prowess? This article lays out best practices for CPAs to connect with other professionals, cultivate relationships, and reap more business.
Networking Best Practices
Many CPAs have misconceptions about the nature of networking. They view it as a task that should be tackled only when billable work isn’t pressing—and never during busy season. CPAs also are prone to seeing networking exclusively as meeting with accounting referral sources such as bankers and lawyers. A better approach is to see networking as a series of interactions with other professionals that build on one another—as depicted by the image below.
To be successful at networking, CPAs should develop a plan that considers each of the following groups:
Firm/Organization. Networking starts initially with your co-workers, especially those who see your performance frequently. If you perform well, your co-workers will know it. These individuals may be peers today but there’s a good chance they will become clients tomorrow. Ways to build relationships with co-workers include spending time outside the office—over lunch, for instance—getting to know them. Another good approach is to help new hires acclimate to your organization’s culture.
Clients. The next level of networking for CPAs involves clients. Ways to connect with clients include meeting a client for lunch every quarter or forwarding relevant articles to a client with a handwritten note. Keeping in contact with client personnel develops strong relationships that can pay off in the future—not just with the current clients but possibly with new business after client contacts move to new employers.
Industry. Due to the vast amount of knowledge required to competently perform services as a CPA, it is becoming increasingly difficult for any CPA to be an expert in all areas. Therefore, developing your expertise and then meeting peers in the industry can often lead to new clients when your skills are needed. Accordingly, CPAs in public accounting should dedicate some time to network with other CPAs at accounting profession events.
Others. This group includes the typical client referral sources: bankers, lawyers, wealth managers, insurance agents, payroll services representatives, and other centers of influence. These are definitely great sources for new client referrals and should be part of any networking plan, but a CPA’s networking activities should not be viewed as limited only to these professionals.
The best networkers understand that everyone is new when starting their careers and most people need help to make the right connections. So these networkers look for chances to make introductions and help others (that is, they pay it forward).
Sales Best Practices
Similar to networking, sales can be daunting to CPAs because it requires more than expertise in areas such as accounting or taxes. Sales efforts may ultimately end with meeting a prospective client, but they start with a referral source. Cultivate referral sources with your networking efforts through the following process (which applies to referral sources and prospective clients):
Know. Referral sources and prospective clients need to understand your expertise and what differentiates you from the competition. This may be accomplished through demonstrating industry expertise by becoming a subject matter expert and including recognition by industry groups in your LinkedIn profile (such as participating in committees and similar groups for state CPA societies or the AICPA).
Like. You need referral sources to like you because you are counting on them to risk their relationships by introducing you to prospective clients. You need prospective clients to like you because they aren’t going to commit their money and time to someone they don’t care for. Every rainmaker I’ve met in my career has had one common trait—people liked him or her. There are many ways you can make yourself likable. A good way to do that is by making yourself helpful—a process that starts with listening to what the clients need and then figuring out how you can help meet those needs.
Trust. To earn their referral or their business, you have to first earn their trust. Do this by telling the truth and keeping your word. It’s that simple.
Refer. Once a referral source knows, likes, and trusts you, it’s time to ask for the referral. Once the prospective client knows, likes, and trusts you, it’s time to ask for the business.
Pursuing sales for professional services requires personal interactions with others. While there are clients that base their decision solely on fees, most decision-makers consider much more when purchasing services from a CPA. Accordingly, the most important part of sales is listening because prospective clients will usually tell you about their top priorities and any concerns they’ve had with other CPAs’ services. They also may reveal information that can lead to additional services.
Note: Jeremy Dillard presented on networking and sales best practices at the AICPA EDGE Conference in New Orleans earlier this month. What networking and sales practices work best for you? Share them with us today!
Jeremy Dillard, CPA, is a partner with Rivera, Jamjian & Dillard LLP in Los Angeles. He is the 2013 winner of the AICPA’s Maximo Mukelabai Award, which honors a young CPA for community service and his or her commitment and contributions to the accounting profession.