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Virtual selling: How does business development change for accounting firms during the pandemic?

Thomson Reuters Institute  Insights, Thought Leadership & Engagement

· 5 minute read

Thomson Reuters Institute  Insights, Thought Leadership & Engagement

· 5 minute read

Art Kuesel has an 80/20 rule for accounting firms that are striving to grow during a time when  they can’t use traditional face-to-face sales activities due to COVID-19 restrictions.

“Eighty percent of the process for new business development doesn’t change in a virtual environment,” says Kuesel, a business development advisor for professional services firms and president of Kuesel Consulting. “But 20% has changed — and if you weren’t good at business development before you’re going to look at that 20% that changed and say, ‘This isn’t possible.’”

Kuesel says that something that remains unchanged are the steps needed to carry the sales process forward, including the need to:

  • reach and engage buyers;
  • develop trust and rapport;
  • uncover their needs, wants, challenges, and fears;
  • demonstrate the value of the proposed solution and differentiate it from competitors’ offerings; and
  • close the deal.

What has changed is the “how” — the tactical approach to achieving each of these objectives, he explains. “We’re not meeting people in the same way that we used to,” Kuesel adds. “We’re not going to be networking, we’re not going to be out with referral sources, we’re not attending seminars or events to meet business owners.”

It has to be done remotely, through video, or via online communications, he says, adding that “those who struggle with any channel other than just one-to-one personal communication are going to have trouble with this new world of virtual business development.”

Business development during the pandemic

To help accounting firms struggling with this transition, Kuesel offers the following guidance:

Consider the upside

Kuesel says that the hardest part of his job is to convince an introvert that it’s safe to meet new people and that such meetings could have long-lasting positive effects on their career. “So, these days I point out that they’re not going to be standing in front of a group of strangers anymore,” he adds. “Now, you’re just sitting in front of the computer, and that’s positive for the typical introvert.”

Rethink differentiation

Firms that advance the sales process by establishing a strong connection with prospective clients need a new way to set themselves apart. “When the differentiator of ‘relationship’ isn’t part of the package — because we haven’t been able to build a relationship yet — then some firms are going to struggle,” Kuesel explains. “We can’t differentiate on relationship, we can’t differentiate on service quality, we can’t differentiate on our people — because they haven’t met our people.”

business development
Art Kuesel

These firms need a new way to develop rapport and build trust. “Our new currency is our knowledge and expertise,” he says. “We have to rely on that more heavily than we have in the past.” One key way to do that is through virtual programming that can convince an audience that we know what we’re talking about, he says, adding that this effort might include using webinars, podcasts, and other digital formats to share specialized knowledge and actionable insights.

Reconnect & build goodwill

“It’s now time to circle back to all of your existing, valued contacts and ask them how they’re doing,” Kuesel says. “Talk to referral sources, such as attorneys and bankers whom you’ve cultivated over the years and ask them what’s going on in their world.” Also, if your industry or trade group hasn’t been active, then connect with your fellow members just to check in. “Reconnecting with people and staying connected is generally enough to keep people busy with new business development,” he notes. “You’re going to re-ignite relationships; you’re going to rediscover needs, wants, pains, and fears; and you’re going to extend goodwill and set yourself apart.”

Re-assess customer needs

Covid-19 has changed everything, including the business and financial challenges facing accounting firms’ clients. “Talk to your 10 biggest clients and find out what’s on their minds, find out what pains they’re having,” Kuesel advises. “You might find that eight out of 10 clients are concerned with their banking relationship or their line of credit or something like that.” Then, you could enlist the help of a referral source who’s a banker, or maybe host a webinar that discusses what banks are focused on right now and what businesses can do to maintain their banking relationships.

For example, if you’ve got a large client base of real estate, manufacturing, or construction companies and you find out that most of them share similar concerns, challenges, and problems, then you have an opportunity to create a forum where those business owners get together and talk about their challenges, Kuesel says. “Maybe you host a forum once a month where they can air their grievances, talk about supply chain issues, talk about customers renegotiating, talk about this, that, and the other.” Even if you don’t make a dime on the forum, since you’re probably not going to charge clients for that, you’ll create goodwill, he adds. “You’re going to help clients connect with others who have similar problems, and invariably there’s going to be a problem that you can solve.”

As this effort develops, you use that population of people who trust you and see you as a valuable resource to develop and incubate these services, he says, and then you can take that to market in a broader way.

Make business development a priority

“Today, we’re all consumed with survival,” Kuesel notes, adding that most people are consumed with care and concern for family and friends, or their own financial and health concerns. “There’s not a lot of room left on the plate to care for your client and care for your contacts.”

Yet, successful accounting firms do find a way to get that on the plate, he says. And now those firms have re-adjusted to the new normal, and they are getting back to business development — starting with the people they already know. “For firms that are staring at a flat revenue curve and thinking about getting back into the flow of business development — my advice is don’t wait,” Kuesel adds. “It’s only going to get harder to turn the spigot back on the longer it’s been off.”

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