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The secret to closing more business without actually selling

How CPAs can use powerful questions to become highly effective salespeople

Kristy Gusick, Professional Services Marketing, LLC | November 2019 Footnote

Editor's note: Updated October 31, 2019

The thought of marketing yourself or your practice to a prospect or even an existing client can be daunting. This is especially true if you are an introvert. You want the business, and you know you can help. But how do you demonstrate you’re the right CPA for the job without being too “salesy?”

Here’s the good news: It’s not about what you say; it’s about the questions you ask.

In a meeting, the person who asks questions is the one in control. And the person who answers the questions feels heard and valued. Ideally, you should talk during only 20% of the meeting and listen during the remaining 80%. Asking the right questions — well-practiced, powerful questions — can go a long way toward achieving this balance and bringing more business in the door.

I first learned about asking questions as a sales tactic when I attended Terry Slattery’s sales bootcamp training in 2011. Although I’m an extrovert, I wasn’t comfortable “selling” because I felt like I was being too pushy. Since learning more about Terry’s process, I’ve found business development to be much easier. Here’s how it’s done. 

Start by asking permission to ask questions

Always start a meeting or conversation by asking permission to ask questions. Not only does it put you in control right away, but it also helps to build trust with your client or prospect. Consider opening with, “Would it be OK if we begin with some questions about you and your business to help us learn more about your needs?”

Use ‘broad sweeper’ questions

“Broad sweeper” questions are just that — questions that are general enough to give you a broad sweep of what’s going on with the recipient. These questions are a great way to kick off a conversation because they give the client or prospect the ability to tell you what’s going well with their business as well as the struggles they’re experiencing. A broad sweeper question can be something like, “What’s currently going on with you and your business?” This allows the client to direct the conversation toward what’s most important to them.

Or, you can simply start the conversation by asking your client or prospect to share two things: What’s going well with their business, and what they wished were different or better. By giving them a chance to share successes before pains, you’ll set the stage for a smooth conversational transition. 

Script out your ‘power questions’

Once you’ve kicked off the meeting with your broad sweeper question, it’s time to drill down into the issues facing your client by using more specific, insightful questions, or “power questions.” Power questions start with who, what, where, when and how — never why. (Important note: Beginning a question with “why” tends to immediately put the receiver on the defensive, so steer clear of using why whenever possible.) 

Scripting out your power questions can help you feel prepared and powerful, too. Begin by brainstorming three to five questions that relate to the value you bring as a CPA. To do this, you will need to put some time into thinking about the top three pains you are best at solving for your ideal clients. Then, write down those pain points and draft powerful questions around those pains. For instance, if you’re focusing your practice on tax advising and consulting for business owner clients, your power questions might be something like:
  • “What are some frustrations or challenges you’ve encountered with your current CPA or bookkeeper?”
  • “Who in your business is responsible for tax planning?”
  • “How important are timely and accurate financials to you?

Incorporate third-party examples

As you create your power questions, consider pairing them with third-party examples. Incorporating third-party examples into your power questions allows you to do two things: First, you’re able to show your prospect or client that other businesses struggle with the same issues they’re facing. Second, it shows you have experience working with similar businesses. Prior to your meeting, think about some of the biggest concerns or struggles your clients are dealing with, and use those third-party examples within your power questions.

Here’s how combining a power question with a third-party example might sound in a meeting with a prospect:

“I’m not sure if you’ve experienced this, but many of our business owner clients have been affected by the recent changes brought about by the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. How has your CPA been advising you to handle these changes?”

Listen first

When a client or prospect starts describing a problem they’re having, it can be tempting to immediately respond with your solution instead of letting them fully tell their story. Resist the urge to be a hero! A good rule of thumb is to ask three questions before you start talking about how you’d fix their situation. By sitting back and listening, you’ll get a better perspective on their pain, and you’ll gain credibility and trust by being a good listener.

Prioritize their responses

Once you’ve asked your prospect or client at least three questions and noted their answers, it’s important to pause and summarize what you’ve heard from them so far. Ask them if you’ve heard things correctly or if there’s anything they would like to add or change. Then, ask them to prioritize their concerns from most to least critical. This is an essential step to asking powerful questions because it gives insight into your prospect or client’s preferences. It also helps to develop credibility and goodwill by, again, demonstrating your ability to listen.

Don’t close business; ask closing questions

Consider closing the meeting with, you guessed it, more questions. Ask about the client’s decision-making process, their preferred form of communication, when you should follow up, etc. Asking these types of questions at the end of the meeting gives you a valuable tool in the sales process: a clearly outlined list of next steps.

Your new sales tactic: more asking, less selling

I can tell you from personal experience, as well as from the experiences I’ve had coaching CPAs: Selling is rarely a task that professionals enjoy. It can be easy to put off sales meetings, or to assume your client or prospect doesn’t need to be convinced of your qualifications. Don’t fall into this trap. Be genuinely curious about your clients’ and prospects’ businesses. Focus on asking insightful, relevant questions, and I promise they will be impressed with your expertise, your willingness to listen and your thoroughness. The selling will happen by itself.

Kristy Gusick is a partner at PSM Marketing. She has more than 20 years of experience helping accounting firms with business development, marketing, sales and coaching. You may reach her at kgusick@psm-marketing.com or 651-592-4662.

Practice makes perfect

Once you have your power questions and third-party examples written out, practice delivering them, even if it’s just to yourself in the mirror. Rehearsing out loud lets you hear yourself and polish your delivery. It’s your chance to pick up on little details and get a sense of how you’re coming across.

One example of a little detail to watch out for is the number of times you use filler words like “um” and “like.” Be sure to also pay close attention to how often you’re tempted to go off on tangents with your questions. Another thing to keep an ear out for is moments in which you stumble or sound unsure of yourself. 

Need more tips?

Visit www.slatterysales.com for more about Terry Slattery’s sales tactics, and visit www.psm-marketing.com for more from Kristy.


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