During the wonderful spectacle that has unfolded at the London Olympics this month, time and again the medals have been decided by the tiniest of margins. The difference between silver and gold has come down to a touch, or one hundredth of a second. That minute margin can spell exhilaration or despair.
Whilst the Australian press has gone overboard with its constant carping about the lack of gold heading this way (and naturally, the outstanding performance of Team GB has provided magnificent ammunition!) they do have a point. Of course, there is nothing wrong with being number two in the world – quite an achievement.
But if you find yourself constantly being number two when it comes to winning a new client or just missing out on a new project with an existing client by a teeny margin (we’d love to do it, but…) then it’s time to take a good hard look in the mirror and look for ways to get an edge. As I have written about many times before, for accountants it is often the language you use that can give you that edge.
Take the simple example of a retail client, let’s call her Margaret, who approaches you to discuss a plan to open a new shop. The knee-jerk response, of course, would be to do the business plan, cash flow, get involved in raising finance, ensuring the structure is beneficial and so on. But if you jump straight to solutions, what might you miss? What if the discussion panned out like this:
Margaret: We have decided to open a new shop in Sydney.
You: That’s interesting. Tell me more. Why are you doing that?
Margaret: We’re just not making enough money here in Brisbane.
You: Why do you need more profit?
Margaret: The shop’s doing OK, but Jack and I have the kids’ school fees to think about in a few years’ time and we are concerned we won’t be able to cover them with our current level of profitability.
You: What else is concerning you?
Margaret: We haven’t been able to afford a proper holiday for four years and frankly it is causing some real tension between us.
You: Is there anything else you are worried about?
Margaret: No, they are the main issues on my mind.
You: When you opened the shop in Brisbane, where did you hope you would be by now in terms of profitability?
Margaret: I genuinely thought we would be making $250,000 a year. We are nowhere near that.
You: Why do you think that is?
Margaret: I really don’t know. We just can’t put our finger on it.
You: So can I ask, why do you think opening another shop in Sydney would solve the problems you are having in Brisbane?
Margaret: Do you know, we haven’t really asked ourselves that question. I guess Jack and I just assumed we need to increase sales and that is one way of doing it. Do you think there might be a better way?
You: Margaret, if it’s OK with you, here is what I propose we do. Let’s set some time aside and do some proper planning on this. I would like to work with you and Jack to help you understand the key drivers of revenue and profitability in your shop. It may be that there are some opportunities to increase revenue and profit in Brisbane by trying some different things. Right now, we don’t know. It may transpire that opening another shop turns out to be exactly the right thing to do but knowing the hard costs associated with that and the difficulties involved in managing multiple locations, I think it is worth at least considering an alternative approach. How does that sound to you?
There is nothing magical about this approach. No silver bullet. All you are doing is showing a genuine interest in your client and putting forward a suggestion that is in line with their interests. Every accountant in the world can do this. But few do because they jump to solutions. Bite your tongue, listen, breathe and ask why. You will be amazed at where that simple question takes you and your clients. And it might just give you the edge to bring home the gold medal more often than not.