CPA Growth Trends, Marketing

Business Development: Selling on the Verge of a Downturn

Written by: Art Kuesel

Robust pipelines, high fee quotes, escalating minimums, stringent qualification questions and new client waiting lists. This has been the definition of new business development at many CPA firms for about the last year. For many firms, it reflects an about-face from what they knew and experienced throughout their entire careers.

But, just as quickly as this paradigm shift arrived, it could shift back.

If the economy shifts and experiences a recession, it may change the game. Firms may find themselves competing for business once again. Bottom line, not unlike the adjustments undertaken in the last year, a recession may offer an opportunity to adjust your sales approach again.

Let’s make one thing clear though, your talent pipeline will likely remain constricted for the time being. So, even if a recession softens the employment market for accountants, it’s unlikely to make a meaningful dent in the talent shortage. That means you still need to apply that skeptical eye that you’ve learned to use so that you can properly determine if the company or individual is well-matched to your capabilities and pricing structure.

Here’s what may happen as a result of a recession and how it changes business development:

  • A slowing of the pace of larger firms shedding clients. This may put a dent in the quality and quantity of opportunities ending up in your pipeline.
  • An increase in the number of businesses looking for a better experience from their firm. Whether a result of the talent shortage affecting service levels or businesses seeking more advice from their accounting firm, you may see enhanced demands from prospects.
  • A stabilization of fee quotes. Make no mistake, higher prices are here to stay. But you may not see the frequent escalation of prices and upward adjustments that have been part of your world in the past year.

How would any of these factors affect your sales process? It shows up in these three areas:

  1. Pre-qualification questions. In general, keep your guard up as it will only save you time in the future. Seek to assess service needs, fee expectations and the experienced desired. If you sense someone is talking to you to get a lower fee and/or gain leverage with their current firm, resist the temptation to bid! Make sure every opportunity you have in your pipeline is a bona-fide opportunity.
  2. Discovery questions. When a company is distressed, ownership and the financial team think differently. Don’t treat the recession as an elephant in the room. Ask specific questions such as how do you expect this recession to affect your business in the short, medium and long term? How does it change your goals? What are the key data points that you are watching closely? How do your expectations from your CPA firm change in these times? Furthermore, consider how you will adjust your marketing efforts to make sure that you are addressing topics that matter to business owners in a recession.
  3. Are relationships more or less important amid financial instability? They are more important. In the last year you may have become accustomed to putting forth less effort in this area with rapid fee quotes and less relationship development. You may have to “bring back the charm” to gain trust and confidence and win work.

Does any of this amount to wholesale change? Not really, it speaks more to minor (but important) course corrections to respond to changes in the environment. Growth was a hard fought battle for many years and will likely return to that spot eventually. Make sure that your approach and process takes into account the current conditions affecting your prospective clients.

The bottom line is this – no company ever went belly-up because they couldn’t afford their accounting fees! But I am sure more than one went belly-up because they weren’t watching the numbers as close as they should have.

When trouble is on the horizon, consider positioning yourself as a financial watchdog ready to sound the alarm at any sign of trouble. That may resonate quite well with a prospective client who just happens to be apprehensive about the future.


About the Author:

Photo of Art KueselArt Kuesel is the President of Kuesel Consulting and a twenty-year veteran of the public accounting profession. He is a practical and results-oriented professional services marketing leader who delivers more than just marketing and business development coaching and advisory services. He delivers an insider’s perspective gained from working as a marketing director for two leading CPA firms, and also the global perspective from working with dozens of local, regional and national firms annually on the complex marketing and sales challenges they face. All told, his experience spans nearly 15 years in professional services marketing and sales. And, Art has been recognized by his peers as one of public accounting’s top 100 most influential people.

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