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Understanding Power And Politics Elevates Business Development

Published by Inside Public Accounting, May 2018.
Reprinted with permission.

Relationships precede revenue. While accountants prize their deep connections with clients, relying on them for referrals is no longer enough, says Gale Crosley, an IPA Most Recommended Consultant.

Crosley believes that building new business in this global, mature marketplace is complicated but manageable. Business development needs to extend beyond wringing more business out of existing clients and hoping they recommend your firm to one of their friends.

These old-school methods have worked well in the past, and relationships are still key. However, accounting professionals who have mastered the understanding of power and politics enjoy a strong advantage over those who haven’t. Crosley, in a recent interview with IPA, shared her thoughts on strategies she believes do more than build an individual book of business – they feed firm growth that is sustainable over the long term.

Here’s an example of how understanding intangible nuances of prospects boosts business development. Crosley related a story from her days at MCI, which sold long-distance phone service – a commodity. One of the potential new client executives, in a casual conversation, mentioned that he taught evenings at a local university. Crosley asked why, and his response – that he wanted to learn about (and teach) the latest, most cutting-edge technology – told Crosley that he wanted to position himself as a knowledgeable early adopter within his industry, company and to his boss.

MCI invited him to speak at its annual client conference, asked him to test new products and connected him with MCI developers to discuss what the company should be working on in the future. MCI also included the latest technology in its proposal. “He was in the know, and on stage, and we won the business because of that,“ Crosley says.

Approaching new business prospects takes more than getting to know them with the hope that they’ll come to trust you. It takes more than focusing on what services the firm offers and trying to get clients to buy them. It involves knowledge about deep, often personal, motivations and hidden agendas.

Accounting professionals should start with the potential client’s organizational chart. Learn who the real decision-makers are, how the players interact, the pains and risks they face – organizationally or otherwise. “There’s no way to get to the revenue opportunities until you solve that first.“ Sometimes, firms only learn later that they lost business when the ‘real’ decision-maker emerged with the ‘real’ reasons for their decision.

Take the example of two brothers who equally co-own a business but dislike each other. Perhaps they divide decisions to avoid constant arguments, including choosing professional services firms for their business. One brother recently chose the law firm; the other, therefore, felt entitled to select the accounting firm. Not knowing this before actively pursuing the client can waste time. Power dynamics, hidden agendas and a desire to be perceived in a certain way play a huge part in how business decisions are made.

Superstar rainmakers know how to ferret out this information almost instinctively, Crosley says. It doesn’t come naturally to everyone, so training is available. She also recommends reading Solution Selling: Creating Buyers in Difficult Selling Markets by Michael Bosworth, who describes it this way, “It changes the sales focus from the features of the product to situational use by the customer to solve previously unsolved problems.” These issues more often represent power and political problems.

Crosley emphasizes that firms can no longer rely on a few rainmakers but should instead leverage the strength of the entire firm to become a unified, empowered business development team. As with any new initiative, a strong leader is key to promoting and guiding this holistic approach.

Understanding the power dynamics and the risks and problems a new prospect or existing client faces can result in an alignment of interests, Crosley says, that helps both parties in a positive way. “This is the battleground right now.” IPA