Carry on bumping?

Do you recognise the following quote?

“Here is Edward Bear, coming downstairs now, bump, bump, bump, on the back of his head, behind Christopher Robin. It is, as far as he knows, the only way of coming downstairs, but sometimes he feels that there really is another way, if only he could stop bumping for a moment and think of it.”

It’s from the opening lines of “Winnie-The-Pooh” (by A.A. Milne).

Can you think of anything that you continue to do the same way you have always done it even though a casual observer might have good cause to question that approach and to suggest there might be a better way?

If you run your own practice you may be quite happy with the rate of growth or the lack of it. You may get a raw thrill from going into your office each day and love both what you do and the way your business operates.

Alternatively,  if you are honest with yourself, you may recognise that you are effectively just bumping down the stairs, bump, bump, bump because that is the only way you know to do things.

One mistake I realised I was making recently, thanks to some very valuable feedback, was that I have made it seem that my mentoring programme is only available to people in larger firms. In fact I am happy to mentor sole-practitioners, those running their own smaller practices and also ambitious professionals who work in business or for institutions of one sort or another.  I need to revise my marketing literature to make this clearer. I can’t blame anyone else for my oversight. It was just me, bumping down the stairs. Mind you, my mentoring services are not cheap and I know that some smaller practitioners will not want to invest sufficiently in themselves to engage me.

What about you? Can you think of anything you do that you’re doing the way you’ve always done it even though it may not be the most effective or comfortable ways of doing things? Do you ever take time out, do you ever MAKE time to work ON your business rather than just keep bumping along working IN your business?

If any of this resonates it’s upto you to do something about it.

I’m always happy to have a conversation with ambitious professionals who sense there may be some value in developing a relationship and engaging me as their mentor. Such conversations are always without prejudice and will not always lead onto anything further. We have to like the idea of working with each other, for starters!

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The value of testimonials (part one)

I don’t remember when I first learned about the power of testimonials in the context of professional services. It was probably about twenty years ago – long before it became common place.

For many years I have encouraged accountants to collect testimonials and to use them for marketing purposes. I explain to the accountants how to obtain testimonials in a professional way and how to overcome common concerns if they need to collate some to start the ball rolling.

In my case I have a page of testimonials on my website. In each case I have included the full name of the person who gave the testimonial.I must admit though that I have not made the most of them as they are all in one place and not given a context. Thus it’s not clear which testimonials refer to which of my services or talks. Proof I’m not perfect (as if further proof were required!).  I am also very proud of the kind recommendations I have been accumulating on my Linkedin profile.

Why are testimonials so valuable in the context of professional services? Quite simply because they are the next best thing to a direct referral. Many professionals claim that they get much of their work through personal recommendations and I can believe that.They often claim that advertising is not really worthwhile.They may be right.

But there is, what I call, a disconnect here. When they advertise (and I include website material as part of the advertising mix) they are communicating with people who don’t know them. Equally these prospects may not know any existing clients.But those prospects could read testimonials from existing clients if these were easily available on the website and in other marketing materials.

Without testimonials the marketing messages are mere assertions.Testimonials can bring these assertions to life. They can act as the next best thing to a personal recommendation or referral. They need to be believable. They need to be relevant and they need to be authentic.

I’ll continue this theme in future blog posts.

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What does it take to become a trusted adviser? (part one)

One of the key skills required by all ambitious professionals is that of becoming a trusted adviser. It’s been said so often though that it’s almost become a cliché.

In my skills self audit guide I pose the question as to whether you have a good understanding of how to manage clients so as to encourage the right sort of referrals from them? Or do you:

  • Find that they have more confidence in another adviser than they seem to have in you?
  • Worry that you don’t really know enough about your clients’ positions, businesses, hopes and dreams?
  • Fear that you are wasting time when you try to build on your relationship with clients?
  • Fail to obtain repeated referrals to prospective clients from your existing clients?
  • Give all clients the same attention regardless of how they treat and pay you?

Tomorrow I will offer some more detailed thoughts as to what it takes to become a trusted adviser.

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Websites for professional firms (part one)

I recently posted an item here entitled: How to present your firm more effectively. I’ve since noted a related discussion on Dennis Howlett’s AccMan blog concerning the importance or otherwise of your firm’s website.

Dennis seems to be of the view that the quality of a firm’s website is almost irrelevant as what distinguishes one firm from another is the quality of the people. And to an extent I agree with him.

There is another angle here however. How do prospective clients and advocates distinguish one firm from another BEFORE they meet those distinctive individuals? It doesn’t matter how great the people are if no one is meeting or talking with them to ascertain if the relationship and service offering is right for the prospective client. And what is it, these days, that a prospect will do before deciding whether or not to contact a new adviser? They will check the relevant website. This is increasingly the case even if an incredible adviser is highly recommended by a very enthusiastic client.

Does your website contain the right messages for you/your firm targeted at your key audiences? Does it present the adviser or the firm in a good light and really distinguish them from the competition or does it contain the same old ‘sales’ messages as everyone else? Does your website enhance or damage your marketing efforts and the referrals that you get?

Of course there there are probably some firms, with great people, who are getting loads of referrals despite having ordinary, boring and potentially damaging websites. No one knows how many more referrals they could be converting if only their website was more effective. Possibly no one cares. Probably no one has the time, knowledge or inclination to brief the web designers to improve things. I’ll return to this topic in subsequent blog posts.

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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.

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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.

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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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