Great sales questions for professional advisers (part 3)

In the first posting in this series I explained the dangers of adopting any form of questioning approach that suggests the adviser is on auto-pilot.

In the second posting I identified some useful questions and promised to outline a specific questioning structure for professional advisers such as accountants, solicitors and surveyors.

Whatever questioning approach you adopt, you must feel comfortable using it however well it might have been proven to help achieve the desired aim. Of course it takes time and practice to feel comfortable with any new approach, let alone to master it.

One of the most enduring structured but unscripted approaches can be recalled using the SPIN acronym which is often credited to Neil Rackham, former president and founder of Huthwaite corporation The structure is explained in Neil’s 1988 book and focuses on an acronym: S.P.I.N which helps us to recall four elements of an effective questioning approach:

  • Situation Questions – to gather background information and understand the context of the sale.
  • Problem Questions – to explore the prospect’s dissatisfactions and concerns.
  • Implication Questions – that develop and link apparently isolated problems by examining their ‘knock-on’ effect on the areas of the prospect’s business.
  • Need-payoff Questions – that invite the prospect to consider the benefits of solving his or her problems and, having done so, to express an Explicit Need for a solution (“If I can show you a proven way to find a permanent solution to this adverse situation, would you be willing to hear my brief presentation?”).

A key feature of this approach, as implied by earlier posts in this series is that it encourages the prospect to define both their problem and their desire to find a solution. Hence, the ambitious professional comes across more as a ‘consultant’ rather than as a salesperson trying to make a sale.

Situation Questions
These are intended to elicit relevant background facts about the prospect. Bear in mind that situation questions will bore the prospect so the more background information you can collate (and recall) beforehand the better.

Example questions

  • Tell me about your company?
  • To what extent do you specialise in a particular area?
  • Tell me something about your customers (this is likely to generate a focus on the key ones)
  • How’s business?

Problem Questions
These are intended to identify the prospect’s difficulties or dissatisfactions.

Example questions

  • How much time do you spend on collating information for the taxman each year?
  • What do you find frustrating about the way your legal work is handled?
  • What are the disadvantages of the way you’re handling this [process] now?
  • What concerns do you have? 

Implication Questions
These should focus the prospect’s attention on the consequences or effects of their problems. The goal of using these questions is to persuade the customer to EXPLICITLY state a need that you can solve.

Example questions

  • How much money do you lose when you lose a customer?
  • How much does it cost you to get a new customer?
  • What’s the lifetime value of your customers and how much will you make when you double it?
  • Do you get a lot of legal issues in property management?
  • How much time do you waste dealing with dissatisfied customers?

Need-Payoff Questions
These address issues such as the value, usefulness, or utility that the prospect perceives in a solution. Only ask these questions AFTER the prospect has confessed to a need. If you ask these questions too early in the process your prospect will simply deny the existence of the need which you claim to solve.

Example questions

  • How would it help if your offices were connected to a centralised database?
  • Why is it important to get all your employees accounting for their work?
  • Would it be useful if your homeowners made most of their requests without bothering anyone?
  • Is there any other way that this could help you?
  • Do you see the value in knowing which vendors do the most work?

After the prospect has admitted to some explicit need – not something vague – you can then explain how your service solves the need.

The final stage of this approach is the way that you attempt to address all of a prospect’s stated concerns, and ask them if they have any more. Traditionally you would then finish by summarising the benefits of your service and proposing the next appropriate level of commitment.In the fourth and final part of this series I will suggest an alternative and more effective approach.

[I learned recently that the SPIN acronym was originally going to be SPIP. The originator contrived to make the last letter an N at the encouragement of his young son who pointed out that SPIP was a silly word!]

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Great sales questions for professional advisers (part 2)

In last week’s blog entry I explained the dangers of adopting any form of questioning approach that suggests the adviser is on auto-pilot. I promised to outline a useful questioning structure for professional advisers such as accountants, solicitors and surveyors.

As I noted in that first post in this series, it is rarely a good idea to come across as a salesman when you are trying to promote professional services.

Obviously the ‘best’ approach in any specific situation will depend upon how the meeting came about, how much has already been discussed and the background research undertaken beforehand.

The following general questions can form part of the ‘sales’ process but alone they are insufficient. I will explain further in the next posting in this series.

How can I help you? (or What shall we talk about?)
Contrast this approach with self-centred laptop presentations, history of the company, case studies, CVs of all the key consultants, etc.

What success have you had in dealing with this problem?
Rushing to identify problems and solutions may imply you have little respect for the progress a client has already made. By taking your time with this step, you can build real rapport and trust (as opposed to superficial body-language stuff) and therefore you are more like to hear the real problems later.

If there was one thing you could change, what would it be?
Take your time and allow them to think before answering. If the client comes up with a list, coach them gently to get to the root problem. Too often, we get so excited by the potential extent of the work, we gloss over this. This is where we help them clarify where the real root of the pain lies. If they do the analysis themselves, there is a much greater probability that they will accept the eventual solution which they have played a part in developing.

If between us we solved this, what difference would that make?
This is where they come up with lots of benefits, and you write them all down – in their language. Feel free to repeat the question in several ways. Ask for the benefit of the benefit. Keep going until they cannot think of anything more. These are the reasons they will buy. (You might also choose to ask them what would happen if the problem was not solved. This is useful if you suspect you might have to help them overcome later indecision – the greatest scourge of professional life!)

If I could help you with that, would you be interested?
Either they are or they aren’t. There is little point in spending time on a solution where there is no genuine interest in your service even though the prospect likes you as a person.

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Great sales questions for professional advisers (part 1)

In my last blog entry I explained the difference between the traditional and a more client focussed approach to presenting you and your firm’s services. I promised to offer some effective questions that would help ambitious professionals to identify their prospects’ needs before they move into ‘sales’ mode.

Despite the title of this item however I should first stress that it is rarely a good idea to come across as a salesman when you are trying to promote professional services. The best advisers know that they must first encourage prospects to like and trust them. This involves building rapport and only when this is apparent should the adviser attempt to make it easy for prospective clients to ‘buy’ from them. Very few prospects will engage an adviser that they don’t like and trust.

We can often elicit these feelings by asking questions that, by their very nature (and assuming our reactions to the replies are genuine) will encourage prospects to choose to ‘buy’ from us. We are unlikely however to secure a ‘sale’ if we adopt a typical salesman’s patter and questioning style. We must be prepared to adapt and to reflect the prospects’ fears and concerns in our questions.This proves that we are listening and that we understand their position. If an adviser seems to be on auto-pilot at any stage the prospect is unlikely to be impressed.

So, following on from the previous item we need to move away from pre-scripted sales questions and PowerPoint slides. What is required is a more insight-based discussion of the issues that are relevant to the prospect. The focus has to be on them and their situation. The adviser must encourage the prospect to explain, to amplify and clarify. If the adviser assumes he/she understands or leaps to conclusions the prospect may become less engaged and less likely to ‘buy’. Remember that to ASSUME makes an ASS of U and ME.

So the critical questions are those that get the conversation rolling and those that focus the conversation. I will outline a useful questioning structure for professional advisers such as accountants, solicitors and surveyors in part 2 of this item next week.

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How can you stand out from the rest of the pack?

I have just watched an old video clip of the professional services firm guru, David Maister, in which he highlights the six most scarce resources in most professional service firms:

  • Energy
  • Excitement
  • Enthusiasm
  • Determination
  • Passion
  • Ambition

David also points out that his research has proved that the top achieving firms are those that energise, excite and enthuse their people to perform at a higher level than their competitors.

Those who’ve worked with me will know that the listed resources are all qualities that I possess in abundance. I have no doubt that they helped me reach the top of my career more so than any technical skills or knowledge that I developed over the years.

Would your colleagues and clients use all or indeed any of these words to describe you or your firm? If there’s a mismatch as between how others see you and how you want to be seen you will need to do something to close the perception gap. If you do nothing then nothing will change.

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>>>

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What makes an effective business card for ambitious accountants?

Over the years I have collected thousands of business cards. Most of them are almost indistinguishable from each other, even though the people handing them to me operate in a variety of professions. Some people underestimate the value of an effective business card. It should be an effective marketing tool, a way to be remembered, to be contacted and to help you stand out from all of the other accountants that your contacts and clients meet.

Other than those accountants who run their own practice/business most accountants don’t get to choose the look or style of their business card. Equally many accontants who do make decisions about such things may lack the resources to find out what approach is most effective.

Take a random batch of. say, 64 business cards you have collected from other accountants and arrange them in an 8×8 square on your desk. Which ones stand out? I’ll bet it’s none of the plain black print on white card ones; Do you want yours to stand out? If not, why not? If yes, ‘how much’? It can be counter-productive to have a card that makes people want to avoid you. But would you like them to show your card to others – because it’s different/better?

If you are in a position to influence such things here are seven top tips for the design of business cards. Some you may think are obvious. Others less so but all are a reflection of business cards I have seen;

1 – Think about what they are for and where/when they will be used. In many cases they will be received by other professionals, bankers and hundreds of people who will have only the card as a means to remember you. Will it be sufficient to enable them to recall who you were out of the hundreds of other people they have met? My card has a photo (head shot) of me on it – as I appreciate that people might not otherwise remember who Mark Lee is;

2 – Ensure the typeface/font size of the print is readable. There is no point squeezing loads of infomation onto your business card if no one is going to be able to read it;

3 – Ensure your card is of a professional weight. That’s a minimum of 335 gms. Many are 400 gms. You know how awful it is to get a ‘wet fish’ handshake? It’s the same with flimsy business cards. Your credibility is immediately lessened;

4 – Distinguish your personal contact details from the main business details of your practice. Don’t mix them up as this only serves to confuse. Your personal contact details will include your direct dial and mobile numbers as well as your email address. Some people deliberately exclude their direct dial or mobile numbers from the face of the card and add them on manually when giving the card to ‘special’ contacts. What you say in such situations will be crucial;

5 – If you are going to use both sides of the card do ensure that you leave room for the recipient of your card to make some notes on it somewhere. And ensure that any lamination doesn’t preclude such a sensible follow up activity. I know I’m not the only person to always note the date that I met the person and where we were. If there’s room I’ll also often add a note of what we talked about or any follow up actions I have promised.

6 – Your card should reflect your image. Few accountants will be comfortable with the same style of card as would an artist or graphic designer. Some larger firms have introduced ‘modern’ cards that the older members are evidently apologetic about or embarrassed to pass out when they meet people. If ‘modern’ isn’t your style then don’t try to pretend it is. Not everyone wants a ‘modern’ accountant. But they all want someone they can trust and who isn’t trying to be someone or something they are not;

7 – If you want to stand out from the crowd ensure that your business card contains sufficient information about what you or your firm does. Are you ‘just’ “Chartered Accountants’? Do you want people to remember what you do or what qualification you have?

Do you have any other valuable ideas or suggestions? Please add them by of comments to this blog.

Yes – I have taken my own advice although I’m not in practice as an accountant. My business card reinforces my online branding. It’s a bookmark (!) and contains my photo and has the same colouring as the banner at the top of this blog. There is also room for notes. If you’d like to see one just send me an email and provide your postal address. Mark(@)BookMarkLee.(co.uk) – remove the brackets which are just there to stop spam.

Like this post? You can now obtain my 10,000 word ebook containing loads more marketing insights, short-cuts, tips and advice aimed specifically at accountants. You can buy the book or download a summary for free here>>>

 

 

 

 

 

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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?
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What sort of person makes a good ‘finder’?

‘Finders’ generate leads for new business from new sources.They go out and create opportunities to talk with prospective clients about problems they can solve.They don’t wait for the phone to ring; they go out and find business.

If their firm is of a certain size they may be required to generate work not just for themselves but also for members of a team.

In some firms quiet, thoughtful, softly-spoken people may be successful finders. I have also known finders in professional firms who reminded me of slick used-car salesmen. The majority of course will fall somewhere along the spectrum between these two extremes.

What is crucial however is the willingness to listen carefully, synthesise what you hear and provide valuable responses.

Plenty of ambitious professionals are successful finders even though they don’t have the gift of the gab.Plenty more may have struggled historically with finding new work before they learned some of the secrets of effective networking. Other key skills that can contribute to being better at finding work include – speaking in public, pitching for work and closing the sale.

In summary:

All ambitious professionals can be good ‘finders’ if they take the time to hone four key skills – in so far as these are relevant to their position, their roles and their firm.

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Don’t make assumptions that upset your clients

An article in the Guardian today includes reference to research conducted by Which? magazine which shows that a third of people think they receive poor service from their solicitor. A quarter of those surveyed think their solicitor doesn’t listen to their opinion, and a third don’t feel they are told enough about how much they will be charged.

These statistics must be a cause for concern especially when taken together with those of the Law Society which are also quoted in the article – over 17,000 complaints about solicitors in 2005, equivalent to one for every six solicitors practising in England and Wales. This represents a 14% increase from 2002.

It would be wrong to dwell on the specifics of the statistics or to pretend that solicitors are a special case.

Simply stated all ambitious professionals need to be able to differentiate themselves from the competition. One way to do this is to take note of reports such as the one referred to above and to reflect on what typical clients complain about. You then need to ensure that your clients don’t have cause to make such complaints about you.

I would stress however that all of the complaints attributed to the Which? research are communication issues. The solicitors in question may have thought that they gave great service (in the circumstances), that they did listen to their client’s opinion and that they provided as much information as the client wanted about the way they would be charged.

Do you check whether or not your client has understood what you have said? Really? Or do you just ask “is that ok?” without actually checking? Are you sure that your clients have confidence in your ability to provide them with the service they need?

Ambitious professionals cannot afford to assume things about what their clients think or feel. Remember that to assume you know what someone else thinks or means makes an ass out of u and me.

The main focus of the Guardian article is to provide guidance as to how the public can complain about the service/advice they have received from their solicitor. The Guardian article is written by Alan Wilson, who is a senior law lecturer at the University of East London and also a barrister who specialises in consumer law.

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