Are you an ‘Accidental Sales Person’?

Few ambitious professionals have ever chosen a career in sales. And yet, regardless of your professional discipline you will, almost by definition, have to be able to generate income. Inevitably that income will come from clients and you will have some, possibly a large, responsibility for helping to generate those ‘sales’.

My friend, Richard White, describes those of us who are in this position as “Accidental sales people”. We didn’t choose to work in sales but it is still an integral part of what we do. Richard’s view is that we will be more successful if we adopt a ‘soft-selling’ style rather than attempt to emulate the salespeople whom we hate. You know – those pushy people who try to persuade people to buy things they don’t want.

We need to ensure that our sales techniques are appropriate and that our prospective clients do not feel we are pressurising them to engage us for services they do not want. For this reason traditional sales training techniques are unlikely to be very effective when trying to help ambitious professionals enhance the results of their networking and client development activities.

I have long admired Richard’s ‘soft-selling’ techniques as they are very similar to solution based selling and consultative selling – being the approaches that I learned some years ago and incorporate into my mentoring programme. In essence the key point is to work with rather than against human nature. Rather than attempt to push your services, soft-selling demands that you first understand the primary motivations of your clients and prospective clients. Then, and only then, you should be able to make your services seem so compelling that they attract your clients to want to engage you.

The skills you need to develop are less a hard nosed approach to selling and more an understanding of human nature and a degree of patience.


Do you earn less than you want to from your smaller clients?

What’s your answer to that question?

What about this one? Do you want more GOOD clients?

And this one? Do you want less frustration from your smaller clients?

Most ambitious professionals would answer ‘yes’ to all 3 questions.

That then leads onto the key question, which is: “So what are you going to do about it?”

The simple fact is that nothing changes just because we wish it to. If we want different outcomes for our business activities we need to do things differently.

I’ve long referred to the following quote in my practice management training courses.

“If you carry on doing what you’ve always done, you’ll carry on making what you’ve always made”

The managing partner of a 14 partner law firm recently told me that he’d tried everything possible to get a couple of key staff to change their behaviours.

They worked hard and were conscientious and loyal. So he didn’t want to let them go. We ran though a number of things he could consider but he claimed he’d tried them all and that none had made an difference. Based on when he was telling me I concluded that there were only two other alternatives:

To accept things were not going to change or to engage an external catalyst to help bring about the changes he sought.

How often do you wish things would change? What are you doing differently to help that change become a reality?


How intelligent are ambitious professionals?

I was reading a report recently, from Kaisen, about characteristics of partners in professional advisory firms. The report concludes by noting that:

“what distinguishes partners from non-partners are ’emotional intelligence’ factors such as sensitivity to clients’ feelings and psychological needs, and the ability to trust people to ‘pick up’ on what motivates them as individuals.”

For my part though I tend to feel that there is a little too much generalisation in such statements. I know of plenty of partners who do not exhibit the qualities described above. Many of them are also deemed to be successful. Equally there are plenty of aspiring partners and ambitious professionals who DO exhibit those qualities but who will struggle to make partner in an environment that does not value them.

Most academics seem to agree that whilst IQ is one measure of intelligence there are many others that are worth considering – including Emotional Intelligence. Karl Albrecht considers there to be 6 types:

Abstract Intelligence – symbolic reasoning
Social Intelligence – dealing with people
Practical Intelligence – getting things done
Emotional Intelligence – self awareness and management
Aesthetic Intelligence – sense of form, design, music, art and literature
Kinesthetic Intelligence – whole body skills like sports, dance, music, or flying a jet

Conventional wisdom would probably suggest that ‘abstract intelligence’ is the one that is most frequently observed in high achieving professional people.

If you are an ambitious professional how intelligent do you need to be to succeed in your present environment?


Like this post? You can now obtain my ebook containing loads more insights, short-cuts, tips and advice aimed specifically at accountants who want to STANDOUT and become more successful. You can buy the book or download a summary for free here>>>



What happens when the ‘rainmakers’ retire?

Most accountancy firms have at least one ‘rainmaker’ who combines all of the ‘finding’ skills I have addressed in other blogs.

Wouldn’t it be great if the rainmaker could act as a mentor of younger ambitious accountants in the firm?

In practice this doesn’t happen very often. On the contrary it seems that very few rainmakers are also good mentors and this is borne out by research referenced in Ford Harding’s book “Creating Rainmakers” where he offers a number of quotes including:

  • “He didn’t mentor much. I never went to a sales meeting with him”
  • “He wasn’t much of a mentor. In his mind, he probably had better things to do than to mentor people”
  • “Mentoring isn’t a terribly strong interest of his.He is available to answer questions, but he doesn’t take the initiative to shepherd people along.”
  • “He wasn’t interested in sharing his style and technique with others. He moved fast and was more of a loner. It was hard to follow what he did.”

What happens when such rainmakers retire?

How many younger and prospective partners are able to take their place? Is it fair to assume that ambitious accountants will somehow have picked-up enough to ensure a continual flow of new work?

All too often we assume that only technical skills can be learned. Soft skills, such as those required to find and win new work depend only on instinct.This can’t be taught or learned.

I’m sorry but I don’t buy that. For example, I wasn’t born a good networker or a good speaker (although I did get around quickly at Nursery school and was in school plays in primary school). I learned these skills just as I learned about auditing, tax and professional ethics.

Okay. Of course there’s a difference but I cannot accept that anyone is incapable of improving their non-technical skills.

If there are no suitably qualified mentors with sufficient time, knowledge and commitment inside the firm, perhaps the answer is to look outside.


Great questions (part one)

Many ambitious professionals welcome the opportunity to expand their thinking and to benefit from identifying new ideas all by themselves.  You will also find that you can STAND OUT from your peers in a positive way by reflecting on key questions and then answering them honestly.

Here are some great questions I’ve benefited from in the past:

  •  What’s stopping you?
  • Where would you like to be in [5] years time AND what achievements would you want to look back on?
  • How important is this going to be in a year’s time?
  • What’s keeping you awake at night?
  • What would it take, specifically, to move forwards?

Is the glass half full, half empty or…?

When you see a glass of wine do you consider it to be half full or half empty? (or are you a typical accountant and point out that the glass is twice as big as it needs to be?)

Ambitious accountants who are good ‘finders’ will tend to see the positive side of life.

They may not always have been optimists but they are likely to apply their knowledge, skills and experience to maximise the likelihood of achieving their preferred outcomes when networking, speaking in public, pitching for work and ‘closing the sale’.

Some people believe that optimism is a deep-seated personality trait. But is this true actually?

Psychologists have gathered compelling evidence that optimism is a skill that people can learn. At one extreme this might involve behavioural cognitive therapy (BCT) to replace negative thought patterns with constructive ones. This approach has been particularly successful in helping people fight depression which is closely linked to pessimism – the opposite of optimism. Effectively therefore it is teaching people to be more optimistic. But of course you don’t have to be ‘on the edge’ to learn how to be more optimistic. You do however need to be open to the idea. Such an attitude of mind will also help reduce the prospect of you coming across as boring.

Like this post? You can now obtain my ebook containing loads more insights, short-cuts, tips and advice aimed specifically at accountants who want to STANDOUT and become more successful. You can buy the book or download a summary for free here>>>


Why gamble with your most ambitious staff?

A friend of mine, Stephen Harvard Davis is recognised as the UK’s leading authority on job transition and retaining top talent, He is the author of “Why do 40% of Executives Fail?”

The following observations were inspired by an item on Stephen’s blog in which he addressed the retention issues relevant to top executives in the corporate sector. Whilst some of Stephen’s points apply equally to ambitious accountants, I believe that there are also a number of crucial differences.

Replacing ambitious accountants can be costly and can easily involve as much as twice the salary in hard cash terms. Yet recent studies from the USA suggest that the opportunity costs when top talent leaving a company can be as much as twenty-four times the salary (Based on a salary of £62,000).

Most accountancy firms try to retain ambitious accountants by throwing money at the situation. Every single time I have witnessed this over the years the extra money only buys time; firms looking to poach the best partners and prospective partners will always pay more for potential because they have budgeted for the cost of the recruitment exercise and they are determined it should be successful.

I believe that there are four key steps to retaining your best ambitious accountants:

Step one is to recognise that top talent can be found at all levels within an accountancy firm. It’s not, and never has been, confined to the partner group. Once identified, however, top talent needs to be nurtured, developed and encouraged otherwise it walks. Partners (and managers in the larger firms) therefore, should be rewarded for identifying top talent, developing and nurturing it.

Step two is to understand the reasons for top talent leaving. This means learning what individuals want from their current and prospective role in the firm. Many firms view this as difficult because of the complexity of analysing human relationships. It also makes developing a one size fits all package of benefits difficult.

The result is that many accountancy firms ignore the real reasons for talent loss and blame attractive salaries and benefits on offer from competitor firms. Yet the fact is that top talent tends to be hungry for knowledge and experience and to seek out the firms that can offer them this.

Certain top talent can be therefore be categorised in three ways:

  1. “Knowledge nomads” moving from one firm to another seeking information that adds to their abilities;
  2. “Prospectors”, those that are looking for better career expectations; and
  3. “Relationship Migrants” who seek out a particular type of more senior experienced partner as a teacher and mentor.

Step three is to evidence the firm’s commitment to the individuals concerned in a way that motivates each of them. Top talent tends to be attracted by retention drivers such as, mentoring, coaching, training programmes and also by being able to contribute to the firm’s vision, direction and future. However paying lip-service to this communication will only create resentment. The engagement must be real and motivate the individuals concerned.

Step four is to provide constant feedback and stimulation. There is little point in hoping to retain one or more ambitious accountants if the partners merely pay lip service to their development process. Again external mentoring has a role to play here but partners cannot abrogate their own responsibility for finding out what motivates their star people and contributing to the process.


When you need more than just technical skills

Whilst exam training focuses on developing technical skills most firms need managers and partners who also have a broad mix of business skills. As promotion is likely to depend upon such skills there are essentially only four options available to your firm. They will either:

  • pray, hope or make a wish that you magically develop all the necessary skills so they can justify promoting you;
  • send you on a range of generic personal skills courses and pray, hope or make a wish(!) that you pick up and practice sufficient tips to make the time and effort worthwhile;
  • arrange for you to receive personal, tailored mentoring that overcomes the problems inherent in the “courses” approach; or
  • recruit someone else who already has proven business skills across the board.

Some firms combine the last two options and arrange mentoring as an additional benefit to attract potential recruits. In such cases the mentor is usually an independent third party; this evidences the firm’s commitment to the new candidate and will be a positive supplement to the firm’s conventional induction process.

Mentoring by an internal senior partner with sufficient time, talent and commitment – or by a trusted third-party – can be equally motivating for managers, senior managers and even junior partners where traditional ‘hopes’ and courses have not enabled them to yet achieve their potential or to be as profitable as the other partners would prefer.


Finders, Minders and Binders

In a previous blog I referred to the classical categorisation of professionals:

  • Finders – who go out and find the new work
  • Minders – who look after the relationship with the clients
  • Grinders – who do the work
  • Binders – who keep the team working well together

It seems to me that most CPD is focused on enhancing one’s technical knowledge and skills ie: it helps us to become better ‘Grinders’. Beyond this there are some ‘soft skills’ courses but these are rarely tailored to the needs of individuals. This means that the effectiveness of such courses is variable.

The mentoring programme I have developed covers the Finding, Minding and Binding aspects of professional life. My research suggests that the key business skills that fall under these three headings can be summarised as follows:


  • Networking – meeting new people and generating work through those you meet;
  • Speaking in public – being confident and clear whether talking to small or large gatherings;
  • Pitching – asking for work or responding to invitations to tender;
  • Closing – gaining new work on acceptable terms;


  • Becoming a trusted adviser – understanding how to manage clients so as to encourage the right sort of referrals;
  • Handling tough clients – managing difficult relationships profitably;
  • Commercial billing – recognising the need to evidence value from the client’s perspective and appreciating the commercial value of our time;
  • Developing clients – identifying opportunities to encourage clients to instruct the firm re additional profitable services;


  • Managing teams – building trust, confidence and leadership potential;
  • Motivating staff – understanding common differences in behaviours, preferences and motivators;
  • Delegating – recognising the key elements of effective delegation and what can be delegated to increase efficiency;
  • Self/time management – avoiding common traps and keeping an effective work/life balance.

Where appropriate I am also able to lead group development sessions on each of the above topics.


Mentoring or coaching ambitious accountants

Accountancy magazine (July 2006) ran an article “Coaching: the new religion”  written by Wilf Altman.  In it he suggested that ‘leading firms of  accountants are surprisingly coy about coaching.’

In my experience however all of the largest firms run partner development programs and most of these include a form of coaching or mentoring.  I agree with Wilf that there is no single definition of ‘coaching’ in the context of “the new religion”.  Many accountants have heard of life coaching, business coaching or success coaching.  We have probably also heard of mentoring – typically where a suitably senior person shares their experience and their wider knowledge of the profession to speed up the development of a less experienced person.

What the process is called however is less important than whether prospective partners and rising stars are motivated to enhance their skills. Most firms tend to rely on senior partners to act as coaches or a mentors.  In practice such partners rarely have the training, talent or time to be reliably effective in such roles.  The candidates cannot complain for fear of damaging their potential for progression and upsetting the senior partner.  The firms imply that the best candidates would take that chance but few people have the confidence that requires.

Increasingly therefore ambitious firms are engaging experienced credible mentors from outside the firm.  Mentors such as myself are not subject to conflicting time constraints or political manoeuvrings within the firm.   We are there for the candidates when required and can provide a tailored programme that includes coaching in those, generally non-technical, skills that the candidate needs to develop further.

Most firms that are not large enough to run their own internal partner development programmes are increasingly looking to find cost effective alternatives.  They want to ensure that their rising stars stay and develop the key business skills they require to be effective and profitable as partners.  Some firms may describe this as ‘coaching’. Others will see this as mentoring – which is possibly more relevant for all but the really experienced partners.  Offering new recruits the (tax-free) benefit of a credible mentor can also assist the recruitment process during the ongoing ‘war for talent’.

This entry was also submitted as a letter for Accountancy magazine and has now been published as such on p23 of the September issue.