What NCI Looks for in a Stellar Sales Performer: An Insider’s Perspective

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The following is an interview I conducted with Pete Borelli who has been a Senior Account Executive with NCI for about 16 years.  He is a recruiter and trainer on our Plan 2 programs and during the interview we discuss what makes a good salesperson. Pete consistently gets high marks from our clients and is a priceless member of our team. His insight into hiring and training salespeople for accounting firms is second-to-none.

Pete, tell me briefly about your background in selling accounting service and how you eventually came to work for NCI.

In a prior life I was a Human Resource guy and had worked for a couple different businesses in Syracuse, NY and here in Rochester, which is my home. I went into sales in 1982, selling for a company that accountants are very familiar with, Commerce Clearing House (CCH) a tax and business law publisher. I was with CCH for about 12 years. I then moved on to Paychex. I worked with them for a couple years selling payroll, they are a great company but it was the wrong place at the wrong time.  In late 1999 I was recruited by NCI to be a CSR for a local CPA firm in Rochester and that began my association with New Clients, and selling accounting services. I worked with that firm for about a year and then the possibility of coming on board as a Senior Account Executive with NCI came up. That was a tough decision with all the travel involved, but I decided to do it and really never looked back. I’ve been involved with it now for about 16 years, although I took a hiatus for a couple years, going back to work with another accounting firm because there were some family health issues here. I eventually went back to being a Senior Account Executive and in July it will be two years that I’ve been back.

Can you just give a little overview of what it is that you do here?

As a Senior Account Executive, primarily what I primarily do is implement the Client Acquisition Programs (Plan 2) out in the field. The onsite process encompasses two separate weeks.  A recruiting week, where we go out and put the staff together for the accounting firm which includes the outside sales person (or CSR) and the appointment setters. In that first week we also train the appointment setters. Then there’s a week in between, where the appointment setters start their job and set appointments for the third week and beyond. I return that third week to field train the Client Service Representative where we go on the appointments that the appointment setters have arranged. So the second onsite week is devoted mostly to field-training but there certainly is a classroom element to that as well. Over the first day and a half, I do one-on-one classroom training where the CSR and I discuss in considerable detail how the presentation is done. I also impart a lot of product knowledge throughout the week.

Speaking of the hiring and training of the CSR, what are some things that you look for in a person that would qualify them to sell accounting services to small and medium sized businesses?

First and foremost, in order to do this job effectively, I think that anybody needs to have some experience. I don’t think that somebody directly out of college or someone looking to make a career change to go into sales for the first time, can do this well. So at least two to three years of sales experience and preferably business to business sales experience, is required. I also prefer that business to business sales experience to be in selling some sort of intangible service (like accounting or insurance) as opposed to them selling a physical product. White collar, retail, Brooks Brothers type of selling where that person isn't out there pounding the pavement probably is not a good fit for CSR position. We also look for somebody who is well spoken and they need the ability to work with a great diversity of businesses and business owners because that’s what they will encounter in the position. So I think that’s important to be able to speak to people at various different levels of business ownership.

What are one or two things that you’ve noticed in doing this for so long that helped to separate a mediocre CSR from a great one?

I think it’s their dedication and their commitment to doing what’s necessary to make the program successful. I always like to point out something my colleague Todd Steinberg says “Only 20% of the CSR position is actually making presentations across the table from a business owner.” The other 80% of the time it’s following up on pending deals in the pipe-line, it’s prospecting for new business opportunities in various ways, it’s networking and it’s overseeing and managing the appointment setters. There are a number of ways that prospecting can be done in this program, whether it’s good old fashioned walk in cold-calls, or setting their own appointments over the phone. I especially like to see CSR’s developing networking opportunities. Activity is really the answer, activity is what separates a mediocre CSR from a really good CSR. A good CSR always make sure that their business day counts and that they keep their day productive.

That makes a lot of sense, and what do you look for in appointment setters? What’s that part of the process like?

Let’s face it, finding successful, long term appointment setters can be a real challenge. With the appointment setters and the CSRs as well, I would look for a somewhat stable work history.  If someone interviewing for the position has been hopping jobs every two or three months, that’s a real negative for me. That doesn’t give you an indication that they’re going to be at the accounting firm very long, especially in a challenging position like appointment setting. So of course you look for experience, you hope that they’ve done some kind of dialing before and have been able to experience all the rejection that comes along with it. I like to see that they are well spoken.  During the interview we have the applicants read the script out loud to see how they sound. I like to see that they deliver the script in a way that’s non mechanical but at the same time faithful to what is scripted, that they don’t improvise in any dramatic way but still have their personality show through. 

 What are some of the tools that you utilize to help you make a decision on the CSR position?

 One of the things that we always do in the midst of CSR recruiting is to conduct an internet-based sales test.  I don’t consider it the end all be all, I don’t think there’s any psychometric test that’s going to be a 100% accurate predictor of success.  None the less, it gives us an indication. So we look at that and we certainly give it some weight. We always do reference checking and while someone wouldn’t give you a bad reference, you can sometimes pick up on a less then stellar reaction from certain references over the phone.  We do a criminal background check as well.

Talk a little bit more about that sales personality profile, what it tells you and how it plays into the decision making process.

What it attempts to measure is whether the candidate would display the personality characteristics that would determine success in the CSR position. So it speaks to behaviors like; prospecting ability, closing ability, sociability and attention to detail.  It looks to measure a set of behaviors that would lend themselves to success in the CSR position. Closing and prospecting are two areas of particular importance so anybody who didn’t score well in those areas I think I would have concerns with.  That said, there are people who didn’t score so well on the test but ended up being the selected candidate and have done very well, and the reverse is true too. A lot of it comes down to work ethic in the end.

Switching gears a bit, you are the only trainer that we have that can install the Client Acquisition Payroll Program.  Could you tell me a little bit about that program, give me an over view of it?

Well, Bruce wanted to start up a Client Acquisition Program for payroll because In light of many accountants recognizing that payroll is a good source of revenue, what Bruce wanted to do is a program specifically geared toward the ability to secure payroll clients. 

You have some unique experience in the arena of selling payroll, having worked for Paychex in the past. What are some of the advantages of an accounting firm offering payroll services to their clients?

There is tremendous opportunity for accountants to grow their firm and build their revenues by offering payroll preparation.  Many times small business owners, even though they are small, they don’t want to get involved in payroll at all.  So they’ll outsource it to some kind of a payroll provider such as Paychex or ADP.  With new developments in software and the internet however, accountants who for many years avoided payroll because of time constraints and a perceived lack of profitability are now looking to offer that service. It’s a bit of a different animal from accounting clients. Payroll tends to be thought of as a commodity, so there’s more price sensitivity towards it.  At the same time service is an important element to it and I think accountants can provide a greater breadth of service than the payroll companies can. Particularly in terms of developing more of a personal relationship with that payroll client than they’re going to get at one of the national or regional payroll companies. Payroll preparation can be extremely profitable and even if a client comes into the firm strictly as a payroll client there’s the ability for the firm to be able to cultivate that client over the years and provide additional services.

It’s fundamentally about the ability to have a one-stop shop. Here you have all your accounting and tax services under one roof, doesn’t that make sense? Where as an accountant may be doing that business’s books months by month and if they’re using an outsourced payroll provider, the accountant has to get that information from the payroll company and they have to obtain that month by month in order to do the financial statements. You can see how seamless that is if the firm is doing the payroll. The client has one source for any questions or concerns they may have. Think about this, if I pose a question to a payroll company such as “How often should I pay myself?” “How much should I pay myself/how much should I withhold in taxes?” they’re going to tell me “Well you need to speak with your accountant.” Now if I’m working with an accountant, here I’ve got one source to address those questions

What are some qualities that you’ve noticed that help an accountant to be successful with our marketing programs?

That’s a very good question Chris. In a word I would say they just need to be involved. What I mean by that is they need to meet with the CSR every week, they need to monitor results, and they need to offer whatever support the CSR might need. Many times, new CSRs especially may find themselves with appointments that for whatever reason are sort of outside the box of the typical mom and pop business, whether it be a multi-entity situation or something that’s going to be a whole lot more complex than what is typical. The accountant may want to accompany the CSR on those types of appointments. So it’s involvement, support, but most importantly they need to deliver on what the CSR promises. Now the CSR should never over promise, but the accountant needs to be responsive to the clients and get work done on time. As long as the client is holding up their end of the bargain and getting records in, in a reasonable time frame. If the client has a question and makes a phone call, if that phone call can’t be taken right away then it needs to be returned within a very reasonable period of time. Many times accountants in the program will pick up clients for the simple reason that the accountant doesn’t return phone calls for three, four or five days.

Thanks for the all insightful information, Pete. Is there anything else you wanted to add?

Only that I know that I speak for my colleagues, who do this as well out in the field, when I say that we’re all dedicated to whatever program we’re assigned to. We’re absolutely dedicated to doing whatever’s necessary, whatever we can do, to ensure they’re a success. We’re always available for support, when anyone contracts with NCI, it’s not only about getting the marketing team in place and doing the training, it’s also about the ongoing support. Never in my sixteen years have we been in a position to be of more support than we are now. I’m thinking in terms of our online webinars, in terms of our personal support with our clients, just in terms of all the support that exists at NCI to ensure the success of a program. So when people make an investment with our company, that’s a big part of the return that they get on that investment.