Being a Successful CSR in “The Great Recession”

image.jpg

Tim Howard’s CSR Charles Katz

This interview is a follow up to our feature of CPA Tim Howard as a success story. This interview is with Tim’s CSR, Charles Katz, who has been in the position for about 16 months now and he has a lot of sales wisdom to share.


Please tell me about your sales background and what led you into your current role as a CSR?

Charles Katz

Charles Katz

I majored in Accounting and Marketing in college. The vast majority of my sales training took place at Merrill Lynch. I did work in public and private accounting for a few years after college but moved to Merrill Lynch and received tremendous sales training for a six-month period of time before they took the handcuffs off and let me go to work. It was very effective sales training.

What was it that attracted you to this job?

I think it was the skill set that I had and the way the job was being advertised. It was having the opportunity to meet with people who were business owners to discuss their business and accounting needs. That seemed very attractive to me with the skill set that I have in developing relationships and having a strong foundation in being able to discuss a bit about the accounting world.

Interesting; it seems like a great fit with your background.

I think with any sales position - especially in this position as a NCI it’s very important to truly believe in what you’re presenting and selling. If you have a passion for it, I think that comes across when you’re speaking to a stranger about who and what you represent and the services you’re trying to provide them. CSR with a firm working with

What about the training you received from NCI at the start of your employment as a CSR? Can you tell me about how that helped you become acclimated to this position and the way you sell accounting services?

I would say without training, I wouldn’t exist in this position. I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel; I follow the training to a “T” and I follow the presentation.  I truly believe in being consistent and following the presentation. It works; you don’t have to ad-lib.  You have to be a good listener in responding to objections.  I think the training I got from NCI was invaluable.

We’ve talked a little bit about your training and your background, but could you go a little more in-depth about the success you’ve had as a CSR and what you attribute that to?

Sure. I work closely with the appointment setters here; I have a strong bond with them and I’ve tried to create a team environment where we’re all in it together. I’ve tried to help them understand the kind of appointments I’m looking for and I try to do a little bit of prequalifying of prospects. I would attribute my success primarily to consistency: doing enough of the right things every day, getting in front of people, trying to do some prospecting myself, and just being consistent on a day-to-day basis. The other thing I think is very important in this position is working your pending file, or your pipeline, however you refer to it. My closing ratio is 5% to 10% on a first visit. So if you go in knowing that, you will realize that you must continue to work your pending file and be politely persistent when you’re calling people back.

That makes a lot of sense. You have to follow up and you have to have a lot of perseverance in this position.

I try very hard to follow my prospect’s wishes. If they say, “call me back in a week,” I will. I try to let them know, too, that if they want me to call them, they need to give me a date and a time. If you do that, you’re building credibility with your client. If your client says to call in ten days at , try as hard as you can to call them that day and time and remind them that they asked you to call them back at that time. That’s how you build credibility. It’s very important to build that credibility and trust. 10 a.m.

How long have you been in the position as a CSR?

The first month that I went into production was in December 2010. It’s been about 16 months.

Do you know roughly how much business you’ve brought into the firm?

My boss here tells me that my billings are annualizing at about $150,000.

What is the largest monthly client that you can recall being able to secure through the marketing program?

First of all, the minimum fee that my firm here in FL, is willing to accept is $200 a month. I have brought in a couple clients where their monthly fees were in the $600-$800 range, not including any back-work or tax-return work.Jacksonville

Very nice.

It could be helpful to sales reps that a lot of what we do can help some small business owners to not need a part-time bookkeeper if you can take things off their hands.  Even at $600-800 a month, you’re saving that business owner significant money over having an employee and all the employee expenses, payroll taxes and benefits that go along with that.

That’s a good point. We recommend that our clients and CSRs look in the paper for people that are running ads looking for a part-time bookkeeper for the same reason.

Another thing regarding becoming successful in this position: I tell prospects during my presentation that the best compliment we can receive from a client is when they consider us to be their trusted business advisor. I let them know that acquiring their trust is not going to happen just because Charles Katz is going to spend 60 minutes with you in an initial visit.  When a client thinks of us as their trusted business advisor, we feel that’s the ultimate compliment we can receive.

Do you recall the largest amount of back-work you’ve been able to secure?

I’ve acquired some back-work in the $1,200 to $1,500 range.

What types of things do you tend to do when you’re securing that back- work? Any advice you can offer to another salesperson who is out there trying to collect those back-work amounts? Sometimes, as you said, they can run pretty high. How do you address those with a client?

First of all, we let them know we don’t need all the money up front, at least in my firm we don’t. We will spread it out over the first few months. Secondly, I try to let them know that if we’re going to start doing their monthly work, the work needs to be up to date in order to move forward. The other thing I try to emphasize is that in doing our work for the prospect, we’re going to correct things; we’re going to legitimize their business. I try to let clients know that if we’re going to prepare financial statements for them on a monthly basis, it’s more than just a scoreboard that will let them know how they did last month. Good financial statements can be used as an effective management tool and there will be another set of eyes that are reviewing their business on a monthly basis. To get there, we have to have a starting point; that’s where the back-work comes in. There’s no easy way around it, I think it’s just being truthful and explaining that our fees are based on the amount of time we’re putting in and that the quote I’m giving for back-work is an estimate. I work for a firm that’s been in business for a long time, and if we find the amount of time we put in comes in less than what we’ve quoted them, then we’re not going to charge them for something we didn’t do.

That’s a good way to break it down for the client. It’s critical that they understand where that fee is coming from and how important it is to get current with the record so that the relationship can move forward. What’s been your most successful NCI closing technique?

I would say the one I use more than anything else is the action close. I’ve used all of them, but, in my presentation, I just pull out the agreement and start writing things down and filling in the contact information. As I’m completing this, I say, “Is this something you want to get started with today or is it something you’re just thinking about?” I try to make it very non-threatening; I’ve tried to make it so that as I’m completing the agreement, it’s just a natural progression in the presentation. I’ve learned about the owner and their business and why they agreed to our appointment. I’ve addressed their objections and the next natural step in the process is to complete our agreement form. I let them know there’s no contractual obligation and that they’re going to have something in writing so they know what our fees are.

When the situation is appropriate, I will use the results-assurance program. If I know I’m in a competitive situation where the prospect has said he will be speaking to another two firms before deciding, I’m looking for a way to separate myself from the crowd. I use that results-assurance program when I feel I really need to separate our service from the competition.

I really want to stress the importance of separating your company from the competition. There are many accountants that can produce a monthly P&L. I honestly believe the thing that separates us is in what I call the “touchy feely stuff.” It’s in tax planning, trying to let the prospect know that we’re going to be there for them so we can help them with their business and personal financial lives, and that we want to help them run and manage their business better. I think it’s important to separate yourself from the crowd and I find the intangibles go a long way towards doing that.

All these things add up to give a better feel to the firm. You’re offering something a lot of other firms don’t really put out there, the personal relationship and the high level of service.

I think the other thing that’s important is the unlimited consultation that is part of my presentation. For example, if while I’m quoting someone $200 or $250 a month I find they have no interest in the monthly accounting package, I suggest maybe they’d like to discuss something with our CPA for an hour a month at a billing rate of a few hundred dollars an hour. Then, I point out what they would be getting with the unlimited consultation for only $200 a month, when it would be $200 an hour to sit down and talk to our CPA, based on the hourly rate. 

That’s a good thing to point out. It really establishes the value they are getting and selling a service is all about building value. A good accounting package represents tremendous value.

Right, in addition I want to mention the tax-planning element of the service. A lot of people think they know what it is and they think it’s really complex. I try to break things down into their simplest parts. I tell everyone I speak to that tax planning, in the simplest terms, is our firm trying to help you keep as much of your money as possible, while paying the smallest amount to the government that is legally possible.

Both the unlimited consultation and the tax planning are both great selling points

Another thing I find helpful is if during the scheduling of an appointment, the prospect indicates they are not happy with their current accountant, I have instructed the appointment setters to ask what they are not happy about. If I have that information prior to going into an appointment, that is something I can address directly and inform the prospect that those issues can be resolved by working with us.

What questions do you make sure to ask on every appointment?

One thing I try to do more than anything else is to get them to do the talking. I do set the agenda at the opening of the meeting. I say, “what I like to do during these initial meetings is give a brief impression of who we are, but I want to spend the majority of our time learning about you and your business and then I want to ask you some specific questions about your business to learn even more.” So, one of the first things I say when I meet someone is, “please, tell me about your business.” People love to talk about their business. I try to ask open-ended questions so they can’t answer with just a “yes” or a “no”. I try to get them to do most of the talking and if I can accomplish that, they will reveal quite a bit. It’s about asking open-ended questions, being a very good listener and effectively responding to objections.

That really sums it up. The information revealed by asking those questions is very powerful and gives you the tools you need to ultimately make the sale.

Definitely I also make a point to ask prospects I talk to “what are the most important things to you about the accounting firm you decide to work with?” I want to know what they want out of an accounting relationship. Another way of asking that question is to simply ask why they agreed to the appointment in the first place. “What were the issues in your mind that led you to agree to this appointment with me?”

Yes, that’s one of the questions on NCI’s probing sheet. If they agreed to an appointment there is a reason for that and it’s up to you to find out what that reason is and use it to your advantage.

Another thing I make sure to do is, no matter where the conversation goes, I want to stay on track and steer it back around to the presentation. I use the presentation taught to me by NCI as my base and my foundation. The presentation structure works and I’m not trying to ad-lib or reinvent the wheel. It works so why change it?

Thank you. One question I’d like to ask, as we are still embroiled in “the great recession,” is how do you handle price objections? Are you seeing more of those than you are used to?

One thing I do is I always confirm an appointment before going out to see someone, because is very spread out. I will try to prequalify someone and let them know that we have a monthly package of accounting services that will really help them run and manage their business and our fees generally start at $200 a month. Is this something they may have some interest in? If someone then says to me, “no, I’ll tell you right now, I really can’t afford more than $50 a month,” I will politely respond that we may not be the best firm to help them. Jacksonville

If someone else says, “I’m willing to listen and I’d like to meet with you,” then I’m going to proceed full-steam ahead.  At the end of the presentation, when I’m putting the agreement together, if they talk about pricing, I will politely respond using the business they are in. For example, if they are a building contractor, I will say, “I’m sure you’d agree not all builders are created equal. The same goes for accounting firms and CPAs. Our fee structure is based on the amount of time we feel we are going to spend to do your work correctly and, of course, there is some profit built in, just like any business.

I try to emphasize that our fees are very fair and if they cannot afford them due to the recession, I understand that. I’ve had people say to me, “I can’t afford this now but I like what you’ve had to say and things are really picking up, so call me again in three to six months and we can revisit this.” I will then schedule a specific day and time for me to follow up with them based on their timeline and I will follow up on that day and time. This will help you close business because it shows the prospect you are organized and you do what you say you are going to do when you say you’re going to do it.

In regard to pricing, I think it is a really good idea to put things in terms that the prospect can relate to. It also makes a big difference if you are honest and up front with your prospects regarding pricing. Do you have any advice for our other CSRs in the field running this program?

I know it’s hard to say to be patient because we all have bills and we all have to eat and be able to put gas in our vehicles. You need to be in this for the long hall; this is not necessarily instant gratification, in my opinion. I think we all have to recognize we’re in a very difficult economy. I think self-prospecting is very important. One thing I’ve picked up on is, anytime you see a new restaurant has opened up, you should drop by, because immediately any restaurant that opens is going to have payroll issues and they’re going to have to manage sales tax. So there is a real, immediate need there for our type of service in the restaurant industry.

What is your business relationship like with your boss, Tim Howard? Can you offer any advice to other accountants running this program and working with CSR to help them manage this program?

I think I have a strong relationship with Tim Howard. I think it is very important that we do not overpromise and underperform. What that means with the accounting firm is that if we are bringing in work, we have to get started on it and do things on a timely basis. I’ve talked to Tim about the importance of having whoever ends up handling the processing of an account that I’ve brought in to continue that trusting relationship that I’ve laid the foundation for. It’s important to deliver on your promises in a timely fashion and to continue to develop that young relationship, because you never get a second chance to make a first impression.

That is excellent advice. What about the appointment setter side of the program? That tends to be a problem area for some firms; can you offer any advice about managing the appointment setters?

I’ve been fortunate when it comes to appointment setters. In the time I’ve been here, we have had the same two appointment setters. It is critical to make the appointment setters realize that they are vitally important to you, the sales rep. It’s also important to communicate with them and to make them feel that they are a part of the team; that we’re all in this together. I communicate and stay in touch with my appointment setters. As soon as they book an appointment, I want to be contacted. Also if someone will not agree to meet with me after talking to the appointment setter but they are agreeable to a phone appointment with me, then I tell them to go ahead and schedule a phone appointment so they can speak with me directly. When times are difficult, as they are now, I will work by phone appointment when needed. I think it’s important to build a trusting relationship with your appointment setters and be a team leader for them. Make sure you let them know that you are available to them when they are having issues or concerns. They get frustrated, too, when they aren’t booking appointments. Encouragement is important and if their numbers drop off a bit, and you know they are doing the job properly, you have to keep them motivated.  Let them know that slow days are going to happen and you have to keep at it. I let my appointment setters know that they are vital to me; I say, “without you and your efforts, I don’t eat.”

I think the importance of the appointment setter role often gets overlooked and this is a mistake. I want to sincerely thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to speak with me; you’ve given a lot of great insight into the mind and actions of a successful CSR.

My pleasure.  Thank you for featuring me.


Chris Clark is the oldest son of New Clients Inc. founder and CEO Bruce Clark. He has worked as a Senior Account Executive at NCI for the past four years. During that time he has presented at the Practice Development Seminar on Internet and E-mail marketing and he also plays the prospective client during the seminar role play sessions. Chris also edits and contributes to the NCI newsletter, New Client News.