Building and Selling Advisory Services
Christine Nietzke, Rainfall Consulting
If you’ve attended any accounting industry-related conference over the past few years, you’ve heard that firms must provide more advisory services to remain viable and to secure a long-term future. Despite receiving the message time and time again, many firms are not making the shift. The reason? Firms don’t know exactly what it looks like or how to sell it.
Compliance services are the bread and butter of any firm that has been in business for more than 25 years. Today, those firms that offer many of their services in compliance areas are not seeing the same levels of organic growth as the firms that have developed, and can effectively sell, advisory services. Compliance-heavy firms have to do more. Much more. Why? Because clients are finding alternative ways to accomplish the must-have accounting services they need to be compliant, and price shopping is not uncommon. If the relationships with the client’s team and the professionals in your firm aren’t strong, the likelihood the client will find another firm is high.
Advisory Takes Deep Knowledge and Passion
Professionals with a deep understanding and a genuine interest in an industry or service line are best suited to provide advisory services. This kind of knowledge takes time to gather. It must be combined with the ability to articulate, connect dots, spot patterns and draw on experience. Advisory services aren’t limited to tax planning when a company states they are paying too much in taxes. Advisory services run deeper into the business’ operations and goals. For example, when a key performance indicator isn’t being met, advise the business on ways to improve upon those numbers. Or recognize limitations of the company’s current technology solution, and help them identify, purchase and set up a new one, and then train them on how to use it.
The heart of advisory services comes from taking all of the data captured during compliance work and combining it with environmental research, competitive intelligence and experience. All of this comes together to tell a story which provides insights to the business owners they did not previously have. The insights provided come from working with a company, getting a true hands-on understanding of how they run the business, asking questions (at times like an investigative reporter) and always continuing to learn about this specific type of business. Like Rome, experts aren’t built in a day.
Likewise, they aren’t built behind a desk. Experts in advisory services are in their clients’ businesses. They are walking the shop floors, participating in planning meetings, and spending time to understand what is really causing the clients’ pain. The knowledge gained by physically being with the client to understand their operations and the demands they encounter each day simply cannot be replicated. Active participation, not just membership, in an industry association provides accountants and advisors with the latest industry news including trends, regulatory changes, and important influences.
Selling Advisory Takes a Different Approach
When the firm has professionals with all the right stuff to provide advisory services, whether their expertise is vertical (incredible depth of knowledge about an industry) or horizontal (how to apply or address a specific service solution across industries), the right sales strategy must be in place.
Expertise, by its very nature, gives access to the best opportunities. Having expertise is vital to advisory services, but finding the clients who want or need those services is different. Advisory services aren’t marketed or sold like compliance work, which means you must develop a new and different marketing strategy and sales process.
Firms with long-standing reputations will find that businesses contact them for compliance help. Marketing, reputation, community involvement and a client history helps keep the compliance work coming in. Advisory services don’t necessarily have this luxury since most advisory work is often a one-time project. These projects also don’t come looking for an advisor. The advisor has to look for them on an ongoing basis. Marketing can help fill the firm’s sales funnel with leads, but their process needs to be super-charged to keep the funnel full. More frequent outreach and contact is important with advisory services because the issues it solves are often time sensitive. Advisors and business developers need to be in the right place at the right time, sharing stories of insight. There must be ongoing, impactful marketing and meetings with qualified prospects to capture the work.
Sell with a Story
The goal in selling advisory services is to solve problems for business leaders. That requires those selling the service to develop the eye of a storyteller. You have to be able to ask yourself questions to find the story. Is this company’s trend consistent with others in the same industry? What is the most successful business in the industry doing that others are not? Why isn’t everyone talking about this industry trend?
Powerful sales presentations take the data provided by the firm’s experts and packaging it to explain the relevance to the prospect’s business and their concerns. Showing trends and forecasts gives credibility to the numbers, but you need to humanize the information by showing the impact on customers, employees, or the community. That’s what makes it memorable. The insight, which only the advisor can provide after pulling the data together, explains why it is important and how it will help. That’s the insight that puts the advisor in demand.
Consider presenting with graphics. They are exponentially more impactful than spreadsheets. Adult learners are generally visual learners. Showing the data pictorially and providing an executive overview is the most effective way to present information. Supporting data should be available for those who want to dig deeper. While several may ask for it, all will have an appreciation for the insight and condensed format.
Advisory Services Instrumental to Future Success
Advisory work places accountants in a key role within the client’s business. It is what firms need to prepare for, train for, and provide to be successful. Before you can begin providing advisory services, identify professionals in the firm to become experts – to build incredibly deep knowledge of their service or industry along with an extensive understanding of business management.
Selling advisory services is an ongoing effort to identify leads, which requires frequent outreach to develop a growing sales funnel, storytelling to demonstrate expertise and delivering insights the clients will pay for.
Firms have to learn to build and sell advisory work to ensure they have a story to tell about themselves for years to come.