When Clients Don’t Buy What a CPA Firm is Selling

When clients don’t buy what a CPA firm is selling, it’s unlikely that they don’t want what you’re selling. More likely it’s that they’re not buying how the service is being sold.

For example, a potential client is talking with several accounting firms about a significant assignment. One firm has expertise in that area and understands the client’s issues, and the meeting goes well. The firm bids competitively, recognizing the value of potential future work. The final presentation is a hit, but another firm gets the engagement.

The firm is surprised because the winning firm is not one that many in the business community would consider to be as competent. A week later, the firm asks the client for feedback. The client politely demurs, suggesting that the bid price may have been a bit out of line; maybe next time. The firm is puzzled, and concludes that things really are getting awfully competitive out there.

A month later, a partner of the firm accidentally (though legally) hears that the winning bid was 25% higher than the firm’s own bid. Some weeks later, the partner sees the would-have-been client at a golf course, and in that informal setting tells him of the new information, saying, “I can appreciate that perhaps you told me price was the issue to avoid a difficult conversation, but I would consider it a favor if you’d be truthful with me and help me understand what happened. It happens too often, and I don’t know why.”

The client assesses the CPA’s sincerity, and replies: “The truth is, there just wasn’t that sense of something—chemistry, trust, click, I don’t know what—that we had with the other firm. You had a fine track record and lots of good things to say. Your firm certainly has the credentials and clearly understands our business—but we just didn’t connect, we didn’t feel like you understand our company. You were eager to be helpful, but it was as if you were eager to be helpful for anyone—not just for us.”

The CPA firm partner asks, “What could we have done differently or better?” The client responds, “I don’t know. It’s just one of those things. You have to get your times at bat. But I think we’ll be seeing you again one of these days.” The partner leaves the golf course dumbfounded.

What the Problem Isn’t

David Maister, this author’s co-author on the book The Trusted Advisor, wrote in another book, Managing the Professional Services Firm (Free Press, 2004): “[T]he problem is never what the client said it was in the first meeting.” Accounting-firm clients, from CFOs to treasurers to comptrollers, have no trouble telling their CPA firm what they want.

Most professional services providers, such as lawyers, actuaries, and management consultants, are highly abstract, disciplined, analytical, structured, and unemotional. But accountants stand out within professional services on one dimension in particular: They are the most level-headed, “reasonable” professionals. Perhaps it has to do with the need to balance debits and credits, to cross-foot spreadsheets. It may involve the ubiquity of money: Not every issue is a legal, human resources, or information technology issue, but every issue must be financed or budgeted or has other financial impacts. Those qualities are the perfect characteristics for financial managers. Other managers in a company look to financial managers for permission to undertake initiatives; for guidance about what is reasonable; for parceling out resources and rewards; for evaluating whether things are going well; even for defining the very rules by which the rest of the company operates.

In general, such a person will strive to be clinical, removed, judicious, fair, analytical, detached, balanced, cautious, deductive, and will strive not to appear whimsical, passionate, partisan, emotional, confused, indecisive, erratic, or otherwise not in control.

How Financial Services Buyers Buy

Decisions like the one described above are typically made in two stages: screening and selection. The first stage is somewhat rational. Round up the usual suspects, throw in the chairman’s favorite, rate them objectively on criteria assessed by an assistant controller, then narrow down the field to three or so firms to be invited to submit bids and make presentations.

The CFO is likely to describe the selection process as being just as rational as the screening process, but the truth is otherwise. The personality traits of financial buyers show why such a person will want a process that is objective, data-based, defensible, analytical, and—above all—rational. The next-to-last thing the CFO wants is a wrong decision; the very last thing he wants is the appearance of a wrong decision.

This is how accounting firms end up being presented with questions like:

  • Tell us why we should hire you.
  • Tell us what is so different about your firm.
  • Tell us how you would go about this work.
  • Tell us about your credentials and references.
  • Tell us what you know about our industry and our business.

And a firm being interviewed will generally be told things like:

  • We want your best people on this.
  • We need a very good price on this.
  • Good value is very important to us.

Those are all rational questions and discussion points, from which one can draw comparatively different ratable and rankable answers, so they fit the analytical requirement for rational decision-making. More important, those questions are emotionally acceptable to the financial buying organization, people who want to see themselves and be seen by others as fitting the financial image.

The deeper truth will not be spoken aloud: The financial buyer really wants someone who makes him feel good about the decision. Someone he can trust, someone whose selection will allow him to sleep at night, someone he knows will go the extra mile, who can be depended upon to speak the truth, who knows the limits of his abilities and is not embarrassed to admit them when appropriate, someone who will behave appropriately in all circumstances, who knows how to finish his sentences, who treats his people the way the CFO treats his own staff, who “gets how things work here at XYZ”—and so on.

These are subjective qualities that defy objective rating or ranking and involve inferences and observations from interactions with the firm and its representatives, rather than responses to direct questions. In short, the financial buyer is trying to make an emotional decision that he can then comfortably rationalize.

What the Problem Is

Robert S. MacNamara, former U.S. Secretary of Defense, once said, speaking of politics, “Never answer the question you’re asked.” He may have been right in politics. In business, he’s only half right.

The selling accounting firm cannot avoid answering the question asked by the CFO—and the firm must also answer the questions that are unasked. Those questions cannot be answered directly, as in “You can really trust me to work well with your people” or variations thereof, because “Trust me” is about the least trustworthy thing one can say. Instead, the firm must demonstrate those qualities in how it sells itself.


Principle 1: Sell by doing, not by telling. The most effective client relationships are those that have been around for a while. The firm and the client have gotten to know each other and the client has come to trust the firm. Because the best selling is virtually indistinguishable from doing, the CPA firm should design the sales process as much as possible as if it had already won the job.

The firm should build into the sales presentation how it would work with the client upon getting the job: engaging directly with the client as much as possible; talking openly and collaboratively about design and staffing alternatives; suggesting key issues to be decided; generally behaving with comfort and ease; having a conversation, not making a sales pitch.

A CPA firm that builds selling-by-doing into its sales process will become more open, transparent, and collaborative, precisely the behaviors that let the client assess trust, compatibility, “fit,” “chemistry,” and other intangibles.

Most clients set up sales processes to be distant, formal, and structured, and that must be respected. But within bounds, a CPA firm can suggest to clients that the selection process be more action-oriented. It is, after all, in the client’s interest to get the kind of freewheeling insights and ideas that come from open exchange.

Principle 2: Client focus without the vulture. Here is an exercise. A CPA dissociates herself from the winning or losing of a job, picturing herself in the future beyond the decision and feeling utterly indifferent about whether she won or lost.

She holds that thought, then asks herself, “What does this client really need, not just from this project, but in a much bigger context?”—without being limited by the request or her own service offering.

She now has some sense of what the client needs, but is not vested in winning or losing the job. She then returns her attention to the job at hand, picturing herself calmly advising the client about what needs to be done, and how, and when, and with what approach and resources, moving the client forward in the larger direction of what needs to be done.

Those who can honestly speak the truth about what needs to be done, without attachment to winning and losing, will convey the biggest emotional truth to the client: They will convey that they care about the client. This—focusing on the client’s needs for the sake of the client—differs from the usual kind of client focus that is the focus of a vulture: Focus for the seller’s sake, not the client’s.

Of the factors driving trust—credibility, reliability, security—none ranks higher than this sense of the seller’s being able to put the client’s needs ahead of his own need to “get the deal.” And here the paradox of trust kicks in: Truly separating from the need to win enhances one’s chances of winning.

As with many apparently either/or questions, this one is best answered by defining our terms. Client feedback is indeed critical—but how you get it varies radically by what you are trying to find out.

Truth, Lies and Unicorns

This article was first published in Raintoday.com

What is lying?

On a conversational level, we take “lying” to mean speaking an untruth; overtly saying something that is not the case. Webster’s first definition is “to make an untrue statement with intent to deceive.” “To lie” is an active verb, with a connotation of intent.

But Webster’s second definition is far broader: “to create a false or misleading impression.” That definition includes lies of omission; it even extends beyond speech.

It’s that second definition we’d like to explore. By that definition, business advisors (or for that matter, people) who don’t lie are like unicorns: not inconceivable, but pretty infrequent. In the same sense, Diogenes never found an honest man.

Yet we say trust is critical to client-advisor relationships. How do we reconcile these two “truths”?

How We Lie
Here are five common ways we lie to clients:

1. Saying an untruth. This means flat-out dishonesty. Even something seemingly innocuous like saying we’re fine when we’re not erodes trust. What if we’re clearly stressed?
2. Speaking truth by technicality. Using the subtleties of language to exonerate ourselves doesn’t work. Ask Bill Clinton.
3. Telling “harmless” fibs. Even something like calling in sick when you’re not quietly erodes trust.
4. Lying by omission. It is possible to mislead our clients with silence. Not raising the issue of scope creep, for instance, is a lie of omission. The client asks herself, “Well, why wasn’t this discussed sooner?”
5. Habitually exceeding expectations. Under-promising and over-delivering is a peculiar form of lying; it is saying one thing and doing another. Consistently exceeding expectations causes disbelief and skepticism over time.

The pervasiveness of at least four of the five types of lying demonstrates that we’d all generally rather tell small lies, or omit lots of information, than face one encounter with the truth.

Why is that?

Why We Lie
Let’s first explore the motives behind lying from a purely self-serving, utilitarian perspective. That is, evaluate the decision to lie or not via a simple equation comparing the costs and benefits of lying vs. truth-telling.
Let’s say the question at hand is whether or not to tell our client that we will likely exceed our delivery date, where saying nothing clearly constitutes a “false or misleading impression” (in other words, a lie).

On the Truth side of the scale there is the benefit of being perceived as a truth-teller, offset by the cost of experiencing our client’s disapproval for not getting the job done on time.

On the Lie side of the scale there are the benefits we perceive of maintaining a positive image (and therefore our client’s confidence), offset by two things: the cost of disapproval should the delay actually materialize, multiplied by the probability of getting away with the decision to lie —the cost of covering up.

The utilitarian advisor would simply weigh the two sides, and choose the optimum from his or her point of view.
And therein is the difficulty: we are not rational, calculating utilitarians. In particular, human beings in the real world systematically misestimate several of the factors in the calculus of self-interest, and therefore choose to lie in cases where an objective analysis would suggest that truth-telling would benefit us more.
Here’s how.

On the Truth side:

-We underestimate the value of truth-telling. Forthrightness and willingness to face facts are quickly perceived by others as virtues, often outweighing an uncomfortable message.

-We overestimate the cost of disapproval for telling the truth. Clients who face an uncomfortable reality usually see it as something to be dealt with and to move beyond.

One the Lie side:

-We overestimate the benefit of falsely maintaining a positive perception with our lie. When a client says, “we want your best people on this job,” do you answer, “All our people are the best,” or perhaps “certainly, we will do that”? Both responses avoid truths—namely that “best” is situational, and resources are finite. An off-handed guarantee may sound confident; in fact, it’s a time bomb. Speaking the truth creates a much deeper positive perception.

-We underestimate the cost of disapproval if the truth is revealed. We lie doubly because we focus on the immediate transaction, and rationalize that we aren’t really lying (we are being optimistic, maintaining a “can do” attitude). Except we are lying by avoiding or omitting the truth, and getting caught affects our reputation for the long term.

-We overestimate the probability of getting away with lying. We convince ourselves that somehow we’ll be saved from ever having to face the truth. How many times did you think you were fooling your parents as a child only to find out they knew what you were up to all along? In the heady days of 2000-2001, how many officers and directors backdated options because “everyone’s doing it?’

In short, lying seems to make sense in a psychological way and therefore masquerades as the rational choice. But even when analyzed from a purely self-serving perspective, truth-telling is under-rated.

Consider an experience Andrea had with a trusted colleague, Catheryn. Catheryn and the client learned that Andrea would be rolling off the project—before Andrea was told. When Andrea directly asked Catheryn if the client knew, Catheryn made the (seemingly) rational choice of telling an untruth: “Ummmmm … I’m not exactly sure what the client knows.” But she was tortured. More on Catheryn’s response later.

Early in Charlie’s career, a senior consultant suggested to Charlie on the way into a client meeting that there was no need to let on to the client that Charlie had been with the firm for only a few months. Of course, the question arose in the first few minutes with the client. More on Charlie’s response later.

The interesting question is, why are even the most trustworthy, well-intentioned people – Catheryn, Charlie’s senior manager, and all of us — predisposed to act in ways that seem rational but are not actually in their (our) self-interest?

Lying is Rooted in Fear
Simply put, we act in ways that are not ultimately in our own self-interest because we act out of fear. Specifically, we underestimate long term benefit and over-estimate short term fear.

Not just rational fear of consequences, but the echoing, reverberating fear in our brains when we allow ourselves to have nothing better to do than to cogitate on how bad things might be. In its milder forms, this is simply neurosis. In more virulent forms, it approaches low-grade terror.

This tendency is pretty common. Freud even argued (Civilization and Its Discontents) that it was the predictable price of living in a complex, interdependent society.

More prosaically, this fear lies at the heart of most television situation comedies. Think nearly all I Love Lucy episodes; think most Seinfeld episodes (and all of those involving the character George). The characters just can’t quite deal with the truth—so they tell a little fib, let a little misperception go by uncorrected, and hopefully figure the odds of getting caught are pretty low. Of course they’re not, and Lucy/George/everyman get caught up in an ever-expanding hilarious web of lies, ending in the dramatic exposure. Comedy is tragedy writ small, funny because we all recognize the truth in it.

Whatever the cause, we know well that people lie. Cognitive therapy focuses on getting people to rationally see the true probabilities of harm in situations instead of the fear that we obsess about. Spiritual approaches talk about acceptance, or the turning over of the will where we have no control.

Simply put, our lower-level brain systems are wired to over-estimate the downside of risk, and downplay the upside. In evolutionary terms, this makes perfect sense. The downside of getting eaten by a saber-tooth tiger gets weighted very heavily despite the low probability of its happening.

Today’s civilized versions of the saber-toothed tiger are confrontations, harm to our reputation, losing face, being disrespected, looking bad. These we fear, for they devalue our social worth, and therefore some important sense of self-worth. Therefore, lying becomes a matter of survival in the business world—or, so we think.

Why Lying Costs Us—Big Time
Lying doesn’t just affect relationships. It shoots holes in P&Ls, bonus plans, and compensation structure. It destroys profitability. Here’s how.

Lying is the most corrosive anti-trust action we can take. Most obviously, when we are found to have lied, our credibility is damaged. People stop trusting what we say. That quickly spreads to not believing what we have said in the past. And that in turn destroys credibility in who we say we are.

But it doesn’t stop there. Lying undercuts not only what we say, but the perception that we are reliable. If we lie to the client about something, we may lie again—in particular, about promises we make. Hence we are seen as unreliable.

If we are seen as non-credible and unreliable, then our clients are unlikely to trust us with certain critical information or perspectives. They will not share their confidences, their secrets or their opinions. We are unsafe.
But worst of all, being seen as non-credible, unreliable and un-safe, our very motives are brought into question. If we would lie to a client, it must have been for our benefit, not the client’s. So thinks the client, and he quickly becomes suspicious of the motives behind all our actions. We don’t really care, the client thinks, and perhaps never did; else why would we be lying?

This kind of mistrust leads quickly to the P&L. It reduces confidence, cuts repeat business rates, increases RFPs, reduces our access to key information, introduces legal agreements where none existed, drives multiple vendor relationships, and increases elapsed time through processes.

Loyalty economics are compelling. It costs four to seven times as much to generate a dollar of income from a new client as it does from an existing client. But that’s just repeat business. Trust produces the deepest, most sincere loyalty.

Add trust into the repeat business picture and the benefits multiply. Secure in our honesty, clients reveal more to us and listen to what we say. They take our phone calls. They are likely to call us first when a new challenge or opportunity arises. They more often sole-source business to us. They listen to us, partner with us, and are transparent in return. The economic benefits of deep trust and cooperation are massive.

How to Tell the Truth
What’s a poor business advisor to do to reduce fears and therefore decrease the survival-based tendency to lie? Sometimes the answer is very simple, even if it feels hard to do. The answer is to coldly assess the long-term cost of lying to you personally. In Charlie’s case, despite considerable felt pressure from the senior consultant, he figured the cost to his own reputation exceeded the pressure he would get from his senior. He was almost certainly right.

In cases where our emotions obscure our clear thinking, there is a lot to be learned from various approaches to therapy, more physically-based approaches like exercise, and in mental-state approaches like meditation. They all work. But they are also perceived by some to be out of the mainstream path of business. So we have a mainstream suggestion.

Name It and Claim It is a socially acceptable way to be honest, even when handling tough situations. It starts with a caveat and ends with telling it like it is.

Caveats are forewarnings that compensate for what we are about to say. An example might be, “I wish I had better news …” Acknowledging the sometimes harsh truths that follow, we rob them of their power.
Another style of caveat is to speak with humor: “You’re gonna love me for this …” By using humor, we lighten a tense situation.

After the caveat, the next part is simple: Tell it like it is. Say, for instance, “This job is going to take longer and cost more.” It’s easy.

Remember Charlie’s story, where a senior consultant suggested to Charlie on the way into a client meeting that there was no need for the client to know that Charlie had been with the firm for only a few months? Predictably, within the first two minutes of meeting, the client asked Charlie, “So, how long have you been with the firm?” Charlie gulped and said, “Oh, not too long.” Like a heat-seeking missile (or so it felt), the client replied, “Really, how long?’ Charlie gulped again, and honestly answered, “Two months.” The senior consultant glared, but the truth was out there. The conversation went on, and the “issue,” deemed earlier as requiring spin control, was quickly forgotten.

Name It and Claim It functions as a meta-tool: by speaking the thing we fear most, we disarm its power. It is a form of emotional risk management. By incurring a small amount of discomfort, we reliably defuse much larger amounts of discomfort later.

Back to the Andrea and Catheryn story. Catheryn, faced with whether or not to confess an uncomfortable truth to Andrea, initially made the rational choice of telling an untruth: “Ummmmm … I’m not exactly sure what the client knows.” Having lied to Andrea, Catheryn called back five minutes later and boldly named it and claimed it—“This is really awkward, but I have to tell you I lied to you.” She then briefly explained why and apologized (“I was like a deer in headlights and I made the wrong choice; I’m sorry.”) The irony? The trust Andrea now feels for Catheryn – trust that was pretty high before this incident — is now exponentially greater; not despite having told a lie, but because she called herself out on having told one.

By telling the truth, we solve problems and simultaneously build trust. The result: our client (or colleague) opens up to us. He takes our advice, seeks us out, and listens carefully to what we say. Isn’t that what we’re really being paid for?

The Real Value of Truth-Telling
Honesty helps relationships. It builds trust and profitability. But the ultimate value of openness is the plane of professionalism where it lets us operate.

When we speak the truth, clients see that we have no hidden agenda. We are seen as worthy of collaboration. Our motives are clear and transparent. It encourages clients to share.

Truth-telling sets us free from fear. And it is precisely this condition that makes us of maximum use to our clients.

Don’t Let Lead Screening Hurt Your Marketing

This article was first published in Raintoday.com

Take a look at how your firm manages its sales process. Odds are it’s heavily built around the concept of sales efficiency. Sounds like a good thing. But the focus on sales efficiency may be hurting your marketing. Here’s how.

Sales Efficiency

Whether you use dedicated business development professionals or rely on deliverers to do the selling, they have limited time available. Sales management processes and systems are very much designed to measure this time, and to help allocate it in ways that are most likely to yield sales — i.e., to be the most efficient.

At least, that’s the theory. But what problem are we trying to solve? Does your firm tend to over-invest, or to under-invest in business development opportunities?

Here’s what I’ve seen — check it against your experience.

We tend to over-invest on a few major potential accounts, treating them as exceptions to the sales management process — “special” opportunities to “take the firm to another level,” or “break into a whole new market.”

Then, as if performing penance by way of the sales management process, we atone for the sin of over-investment by enforcing systematic under-investment in all other leads. You know the lines: “that lead has been on the radar screen too long, when are you going to face reality?” or “You can’t afford to spend all that time on small beer,” or “we need to have Joe facing off on bigger opportunities.”

So we end up with a two-tier sales management process: one for the favored leads, another for all else. We binge on the first, and purge or atone on the second. The likely result is that both tiers are sub-optimal.

But that’s just sales. Chronic under-investment in the vast majority of accounts also hurts marketing. Here’s how.

Marketing by Selling

For complex-sale firms — particularly professional services — the most powerful form of marketing actually isn’t called marketing at all — it’s a byproduct of the sales and business development process.

In a consumer goods business, branding — a rather pure marketing function — has a big impact on the buying decision. In complex-sales businesses, especially professional services, not so. Branding will get you on the short list, but it will usually not get you selected. That is done through selling.

Yet selling also bleeds back into marketing. Branding is not just about ads and positioning statements. Branding for firms like UBS, Skadden, or Deloitte is heavily influenced by accumulated personal experiences that clients have with those firms.

Many professional services firms are fond of saying, “It’s a people business,” “our assets go up and down the elevator every day.” That’s not even the half of it.

For those businesses, strategic differentiation itself is very much a function of interpersonal interactions. The firm’s image is transparently who the firm’s people are.

That means that when you are in business development mode with new clients, you are also creating the brand. You are creating differentiation in the marketplace. You are doing marketing.

Systematic under-investment in the vast majority of leads means we are choking off marketing opportunities. In the pursuit of sales efficiency, we hurt marketing effectiveness.

But even that’s not all. It also means we are branding ourselves — as being not particularly trustworthy, having our own interests at heart.

So we have a three-level negative arising from the way we screen and qualify leads. First, we exclude the marketing value of selling. Second, we under-invest in the majority of leads. Third, because we are driven by sales efficiency, we undercut a message of trust.

The way we manage selling can suck value out of marketing.

What’s to be Done?

The answer lies in changing our attitude toward sales, from a narrow and inward-looking focus on sales efficiency, to a broader and client-looking focus on marketing effectiveness.

When a lead looks lukewarm, the usual reaction is to qualify the lead and cut back on the investment to match the likely low return. Often this results in just calling back, saying “just wanted to let you know of our continued interest” but not offering any value. These responses are all based on the needs of the seller — not on the needs of the buyer.

Instead, business developers need to focus on the potential client. What does this person need? Where can they best get it? If your firm is not the best answer for this potential client — then who is? Should they talk to a competitor? To a different kind of supplier? Do it themselves? Re-conceive the issue?

Instead of cutting investment, sellers need to become quick consultants: give the client some fast value-adding advice about how they can best pursue their needs.

For example:

“You know, in the brief discussions we’ve had, I’m not sure we’re right for you. You should talk to several other firms too, in particular ABC and XYZ. I see two issues you need to explore with them. ABC may offer you more expertise on both issues, and XYZ may give you a lower price-point approach than we can. Why don’t you talk to them, and then get back to me and let’s talk about what’s best for you.”

Note: this conversation cuts your sales investment going forward. But more importantly, it does some important marketing.

It creates a powerful branding impression of your firm in a specific person — a potential client, who almost certainly knows other potential clients — one who is in a position to talk about you to others.

The marketing message it delivers is:

“We are a firm that helps clients — existing and potential. We focus on you and your needs — not just our sales budget. We care enough to offer you objective advice rather than to hustle you. We believe that if we behave in this helpful way toward you, we will eventually benefit as well. This is how we do business. This is who we are.”

Now, that’s branding! And that’s marketing. And the opportunity to do it exists every day, with every lead. Don’t let your inability to measure it get in the way of your practicing it — you know in your bones it works.

It doesn’t take much extra investment. Sometimes, it even takes less investment then the continued nagging and whining that go with the usual approach to lead screening and qualification.

Don’t let a narrowly defined sales management process choke off the potential of marketing, brand creation and client value that exists every time you practice Trust-based Selling®.

This article appears on http://www.raintoday.com