The worst question an accountant can ask (2 of 2)

A couple of chaps presented some interesting findings in a post last week on the Harvard Business Review blog titled “The Worst Questions a Salesperson Can Ask” See below for an extract. For the full piece go to

Although the article specifically refers to salespeople, it is important to note that all professionals, including accountants, have to be skilled at “selling” their offering to current clients and prospective clients. Some great lessons can be learned from what these chaps write about.

To understand what makes this question so destructive, we need to first understand where it comes from. For years, most sales training has focused on a single core principle: the shortest path to sales success is a deep understanding of your customers’ needs. If we can understand what’s keeping customers up at night, we can build tight linkages between their problems and our solutions, thereby improving our chances of selling something.

As a result, companies have poured money into teaching their reps to ask better questions. But while it sounds great on paper, this approach suffers from two major problems. First, improving reps’ ability to diagnose needs on the fly proves colossally difficult — especially among average performers. Second, and more to the point, this approach is based on a deeply flawed assumption: customers actually know what they need in the first place.

But what if customers don’t know what they need? What if customers’ single greatest need, ironically, is to figure out exactly what they need? If this were true, the better sales technique might be to tell customers what they need.

In the past we described a type of sales rep we call a Challenger. These gifted, high-performing reps succeed by doing just this, revealing to customers problems — and solutions — that they don’t even see. This isn’t your standard solution-selling approach, focused on open-ended needs diagnosis. A sales conversation with a Challenger provides valuable insight to customers instead of extracting it.

What does this sound like in practice? In our book, we present several case studies, but one of our favorites is from W.W. Grainger, Inc., the distributor of maintenance, repair, and operations (MRO) supplies. In the past, Grainger reps led with facts and figures about their company — how old they are, how many items they stock, how many distribution centers they have, and so on, all leading to the inevitable “So, that’s who we are. Now tell me, what’s keeping you up at night?”

Today, a conversation with a Grainger rep is very different. It focuses almost exclusively on a series of proprietary insights Grainger has developed about its customers that prompt them to think very differently about how to manage their MRO spending — in ways that could potentially save them millions. Rather than trying to convince customers to go with Grainger as their supplier of choice for planned MRO purchasing (which inevitably leads to a price-focused discussion), Grainger reps start by showing them how much money they are likely wasting every year on unplanned purchases, which Grainger’s research shows can be up to 40% of the average company’s MRO spending.

No supplier wants to be in the business of free consulting — and Grainger is no different. The key is to teach in a way that leads customers to your unique benefits as opposed to leading with them. After reframing the way customers think about MRO spending, Grainger reps create an opportunity to talk about a set of capabilities they can offer to better manage that spend, ultimately leading to higher-level sales conversations and bigger deals.

These conversations aren’t happenstance. There’s a specific art to getting them right. We’ve found that insight-led sales conversations like Grainger’s follow a distinct choreography that’s markedly different from your standard sales pitch. Importantly, this isn’t something to leave to your individual reps to figure out. Marketing plays a critical role in identifying these teachable insights and equipping reps with the tools to deliver them to customers.

Done well, this sort of sales approach creates a powerfully differentiated interaction for customers because it leads with insight, not tiresome questions. And, as it turns out, that difference really matters.

In a survey of more than 5,000 business customers, we found that of all of the possible factors that could drive customer loyalty — including brand, product and service quality, and price-to-value ratio — by far the biggest driver is something most companies don’t even think about: the sales experience, accounting for 53% of the overall total.

Customer loyalty, it turns out, is more a function of how you sell than what you sell. Specifically, customers reward suppliers who “offer unique and valuable perspectives on the market” and “educate them on new issues and outcomes.”

See you next post!

James E

The worst question an accountant can ask (1 of 2)

If you’ve been a reader of this blog for any length of time then you’ll know that I have sweated over a book that I’ve been working on for several months titled “What do Accounting Clients Really Want?” which was published by Thomson Reuters back in August.

In the book, in between the chapters of the interviews with accounting firm clients are little vignettes called “a view from the other side” which are the responses of accountants I’ve have met and known over the years. They respond to one of four questions I pose them, one of which is, “What is the best question you have ever asked a client or prospect?”

I asked the above question of three senior accountants, two of which were partners and surprisingly two came up with the same answer: they would ask their client or prospect, “What keeps you awake at night?”

At the time I thought it was a fair enough question to ask since it had been used in sales and business development contexts for many, many years. However, in the last few days I read something that completely changed my mind on the whole subject.

During the last week, I read the blog of well-known and respected management journal that blew my socks off. They claim that the worst possible question a professional could possibly ask of a client or prospective client is I fact “What’s keeping you up at night?”

So who are these people that claim that such a simple question that has been asked countless thousands of times all around the world for the last few decades is not only so completely wrong and but can and will simultaneously prevents sales while also destroying customer loyalty?

Well they must know a thing or two since they were published by no less a journal than the Harvard Business Review. Tune into the next post to find out more!

All my best,

James E

Respect for Steve Jobs

Out of respect for the passing of Steve Jobs during the week. Here is a re-blog of a post I put up about 3 months ago. Steve Jobs certainly left his mark on the digital & business world!

I’m reading a great book at the moment called The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs by Carmine Gallo. I had never heard of this chap before – Carmine that is; every man and his dog has heard of Steve Jobs! The book is not authorised or written by Jobs in any way but it is a great read. Carmine has systematically unpacked the way Steve designs, builds and delivers his presentations. I’m finding it really useful.

Here is a little about the book. By the way …

Apple co-founder Steve Jobs is the world’s most astonishing presenter. He electrifies his audiences with incomparable style and showmanship. He doesn’t just convey information. Instead, he tells a story, paints a picture, and shares a vision. He offers his audience a transformative experience that is unique, inspiring and unforgettable.

Now you can learn the exact techniques that have made Jobs the most captivating communicator on the world stage. In The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs; How to be Insanely Great in Front of Any Audience, communications coach Carmine Gallo has mapped out a ready-to-use framework to help you plan, deliver and refine the best presentation of your life.

You will learn how to:

  • Create an inspiring brand story
  • Answer the one question that matters most
  • Paint a specific, memorable and consistent vision
  • Make numbers meaningful
  • Deliver unforgettable moments
  • Build visually engaging slides
  • Master stage presence
  • Rehearse effectively

So what this got to do with accountants and their clients? – Lots.

There is a great quote by the hugely famous management thinker & author Peter Drucker:

As soon as you move one step from the bottom, your effectiveness depends on your ability to reach others through the spoken and written word.

As accountants, your impact on current clients and winning business from prospective clients depends on your ability to communicate. You may not reach the dizzying heights of Steve Jobs, but I’m sure you, like all of us, can improve!

See you next post.


Help your clients check you out!

Recently I was meeting with the CEO of a well-known architectural firm in Sydney. This particular CEO really knows his stuff – he is on the ball, has a good head for the big picture & detail and when he needs the right advice from external professionals he seeks out only the very best he can afford. He is one of those client-types who take people on face value, but at the same time will check and validate an advisers skill set, experience and reputation within his own network which usually consists of friends, colleagues, other business owners and sometimes clients of the adviser he is wanting to bring on.

Most CEOs, CFOs and business owners are not like the CEO I met above either because they’re time poor or have other reasons for not doing what they need to do.  A lot of them take the default position and think we can’t go wrong if we hire a “Big Four firm” when they need external accounting help. However, that might not be the right fit for the need at hand.

All accountants from both the big end of end and the small end need to make it simple and straightforward for their clients and prospective clients to “check them out” How does one do this? Simple. Invite your prospective client and a current client to a conveniently located cafe, introduce them to each other, buy them each a coffee & cake and then leave. If you are a half decent accountant that has done the right thing by their client(s) the words your client shares with your prospect will be far more valuable and authentic than anything you can possibly say!

Keep well and see you next post.

James E

Is social media a waste of time for accountants? (3 of 3)

Here are the remaining 4 big things the Fast Company article referred to.

4. You don’t need to eat the whole social business elephant in one bite

When asked, “How do you eat an elephant?” the sage pygmy replied, “One bite at a time.” And so it is with social business initiatives. IBM itself tried a number of different approaches internally: First by using a wiki to draft its social computing guidelines, and more recently by offering a “Social Computing Demystified” course to help more IBMers become digital citizens. These smaller building blocks helped pave the way for bigger initiatives like the expertise locator that now taps into nearly 3,000 IBMers from around the world.

5. A social business can be a good business, too

The same tools and processes that go into creating a social business can also be put to use for social good. To test this notion and in honor of its 100th anniversary, IBM asked every employee “to take a full day and dedicate it to skills-based service.” Calling it the Centennial Celebration of Service, thousands of IBMers shared their expertise and then their experiences on “Now you have in this social business program the permissioning and guidance matched with content so IBMers can get started and experiment [with social business],” said McCarty.

6. Enough already with the useless email chains

Most companies rely on email as the primary means to share information among employees, despite the havoc it often creates. “Email is a very limited tool and does a lot of things to silo work efforts,” McCarty noted. Calling it “completely antisocial,” McCarty believes that a social business needs to employ more collaborative digital work tools (well beyond email) that are asynchronous, enabling a geographically disperse team to do great work together.

7. It’s okay to fail as long as you do it quickly

Since not every social business initiative will take hold, it is important to try lots of approaches and move on when one doesn’t work. IBM describes this as “agile development.” “You can’t spend 10 months planning it and then launching it–the idea is to learn quickly and if we need to, fail quickly,” McCarty said. As case in point, McCarty claims the first iteration of their expertise locator went from concept to a test on in four weeks with new iterations following in monthly succession sprints as short as two weeks. McCarty firmly believes this particular social business program, although still in its infancy, has infinite possibilities.

The objective of the last 3 posts were simply to say this … – social media is NOT  a waste of time for accountants. In the same way as the internet, mobile phones, web sites & fax machines are not a waste of time!

Keep well,

James E

Is social media a waste of time for accountants? (2 of 3)

The Accounting profession, naturally, is a part of and of course serves the business community. So it is expected that the profession considers and reflects on the thinking, attitudes, trends & practices of the business community.

With the above in mind, here are some thoughts I picked up from an article that appeared in Fast Company last month (see where the autho interviewed Ethan McCarty, Senior Manager of Digital and Social Strategy at IBM, spent the better part of an hour with me explaining the ins and outs while providing specific examples of how IBM is testing various social business approaches both internally and externally.

There are 7 big things that business need to keep in mind regarding social media.

1. Social media will be dwarfed by social business

While social media has helped many companies become more customer-centric, it is treated primarily as a modestly effective marketing tool. McCarty explained, “Social media is about media and people, which is one dimension of the overall world of business. With social business you start to look at the way people are interacting in digital experiences and apply the insights derived to a wide variety of different business processes.”

2. People do business with people, not companies

One of the notions behind becoming a social business is that your employees should be front and center in your digital activities. “Since IBM no longer sells consumer products, the brand experience for IBM is an experience with an IBMer,” an experience that is increasingly happening online, McCarty said. To support this idea, IBM recently started adding IBM “experts” to various web pages–an action that in A/B testing dramatically improved page performance and revealed increased confidence and trust in IBM in focus groups.

3. Your employees need to be digital citizens, too

Becoming a social business means recognizing the need for your employees to become “digital citizens” and providing the training for them to manage their digital reputations. Accordingly, IBM not only trains its experts extensively, it is now building out “personal dashboards” to help them see the impact of their various interactions. “Good conversation creates good outcomes and that brings value to the organization and to the individual,” McCarty said.

Tune into the next post to read the remaining 4 big things.

All my best,

James E

Is social media a waste of time for accountants? (1 of 3)

I’ve lost count how many times I’ve been asked this question by clients & friends.

By way of setting some context,  lets look at where social media is currently “at” in the world today:

  1. One in every nine people on Earth is on Facebook ( This number is calculated by dividing the planets 6.94 billion people by Facebook’s 750 million users)
  2. People spend 700 billion minutes per month on Facebook
  3. Each Facebook user spends on average 15 hours and 33 minutes a month on the site
  4. More than 250 million people access Facebook through their mobile devices
  5. More than 2.5 million websites have integrated with Facebook
  6. 30 billion pieces of content is shared on Facebook each month
  7. 300,000 users helped translate Facebook into 70 languages
  8. People on Facebook install 20 million “Apps” every day
  9. YouTube has 490 million unique users who visit every month (as of February 2011)
  10. YouTube generates 92 billion page views per month (These YouTube stats don’t include videos viewed on phones and embedded in websites)
  11. Users on YouTube spend a total of 2.9 billion hours per month (326,294 years)
  12. Wikipedia hosts 17 million articles
  13. Wikipedia authors total over 91,000 contributors
  14. People upload 3,000 images to Flickr (the photo sharing social media site) every minute
  15. Flickr hosts over 5 billion images
  16. 190 million average  Tweets per day occur on Twitter (May 2011)
  17. Twitter is handling 1.6 billion queries per day
  18. Twitter is adding nearly 500,000 users a day
  19. Google+ has more than 25 million users
  20. Google+ was the fastest social network to reach 10 million users at 16 days (Twitter took 780 days and Facebook 852 days)


Lets get local now. Here are some interesting growth statistics in Australia of the more popular social networks (source:

January 2011 (UAV – unique Australian visitors)

Facebook – 9.8 million users in Australia.
Youtube – 6.7 million UAVs
Twitter – 1 million UAVs
LinkedIn – 760,000 UAVs

Compare the above to the same statistics in August:

Facebook – 10.5 million users in Australia.
Youtube – 10 million UAVs
LinkedIn – 2 million UAVs
Twitter – 1.8 million UAVs

In just 7 months the big social networking sites have grown in Australia by:

Facebook – 7.1 %
Youtube – 49%
Twitter – 80%
LinkedIn –  163%

These are big, big numbers. The point of showing you these stats is simply to say that social media is not a fad – it is here to stay. Of course, you might be thinking to yourself that the above is all well and good but the majority of the traffic going via social media is personal and trivial. For the most part you’re right, but there are some interesting business facts that you just can’t ignore!

Tune into the next post and see how people are using social media for business.

All my best,

James E

A story about the ATO and an old man

A few days ago, a partner friend of mine in Brisbane emailed me the following joke. It is one of the funniest jokes I have heard or read about the ATO. Please forgive the language, but I just couldn’t help myself!

Grandad & the Australian Taxation Office.

The ATO decides to audit Grandad and summons him to their office.

The auditor was not surprised when Grandad showed-up with his lawyer.

The auditor said, ‘Well, sir, you have an extravagant lifestyle, and no full-time employment, which you explain by saying that you win money gambling. I’m not sure the ATO finds that believable.’

I’m a great gambler, and I can prove it,’ says Grandad. ‘How about a demonstration?’

The auditor thinks for a moment and said, ‘Okay. Go ahead.’

Grandad says, ‘I’ll bet you a thousand dollars that I can bite my own eye.’

The auditor thinks a moment and says, ‘It’s a bet.’

Grandpa removes his glass eye and bites it. The auditor’s jaw drops.

Grandpa says, ‘Now, I’ll bet you two thousand dollars that I can bite my other eye.’

Now the auditor can tell Grandad isn’t blind, so he takes the bet.

Grandad removes his dentures and bites his good eye.

The stunned auditor now realizes he has wagered and lost three grand, with Grandad’s lawyer as a witness. He starts to get nervous.

‘Want to go double or nothing ?’ Grandad asks ‘I’ll bet you six thousand dollars that I can stand on one side of your desk, and pee into that wastebasket on the other side, and never get a drop anywhere in between.’

The auditor, twice burned, is cautious now, but he looks carefully and decides there’s no way this old guy could possibly manage that stunt, so he agrees again.

Grandad stands beside the desk and unzips his pants, but although he strains mightily, he can’t make the stream reach the wastebasket on the other side, so he pretty much urinates all over the auditor’s desk.

The auditor leaps with joy, realizing that he has just turned a major loss into a huge win.

But Grandad’s own lawyer moans and puts his head in his hands.

 ‘Are you okay?’ the auditor asks.

 ‘Not really,’ says the lawyer. ‘This morning, when Grandad told me he’d been summoned for an audit, he bet me $25,000 that he could come in here and p#$$ all over your desk and that you’d be happy about it!’

Don’t Mess with Old People!


Think like a waiter/waitress

This is the 3rd and final installment of Thomas Friedman’s “ways to think.”

To recap … the first way was to think like an immigrant; the second way was to think like an artisan and the third way is to think like a waiter or waitress. Weird huh?

Thomas relays the story of him and a friend having breakfast in a local restaurant at which they were regular patrons. The waitress took their order of eggs, pancakes and fruit-salad and came back a while later and served the dishes. As she was serving the food she winked at Thomas’s friend and said with a smile, “I gave you extra fruit … enjoy” Needless to say she got her a higher than average tip that morning!

The lesson here is that the waitress couldn’t exert a lot of control/influence over her job; but what she could control she used to her advantage. In the above example she controlled the fruit-salad ladle and used this degree of control to make a good impression on her customer. Perhaps the ladle was the only thing she could control in her routine and repetitive task. If that was the case she used this degree of control and used it well.

As an accountant in professional practice, you have far more control & influence than a waitress or a waiter. So it follows to ask the obvious question, “What are you doing to impress your clients or prospects?” or put another way, “How are you using your degree of control?”

  • Are you phoning them up out of the blue for no reason to ask how they are?
  • Are you giving them the research report you found on the web that you think will help their business?
  • Are you arranging to go and see them to have a coffee and chat with no agenda?
  • Are you giving them that extra bit of service (i.e. extra fruit) without charging for it?

There are of course 100’s more questions one can pose. However, what’s important to point out here is that of all the above questions, start with the words “Are you … ?”

So it’s all about you!

To sum up this 3 part series of “Think like” I encourage you to think like:

  • An immigrant
  • An artisan
  • A waitress or waiter.

If you do change your thinking along the above lines, I dare say your business & personal life will never be the same 🙂

Keep smiling and bye for now,

James E


Think like an artisan

As outlined in the last post, Thomas Friedman, encouraged his readers and listeners to adopt 3 ways in thinking about their work and professional life. The first way was to think like an immigrant, the second way which we explore in this post is to think like an artisan.

First a definition – what is an artisan? According to the ubiquitous Wikipedia:

An artisan (from Italian: artigiano) is a skilled manual worker who makes items that may be functional or strictly decorative, including furniture, clothing, jewellery, household items, and tools.

To unpack this definition further, an artisan was/is someone who took/takes great care in producing items of a high quality that commanded a premium price. Think of Faberge, Doulton, or Tiffany. Usually these items, carry the brand or markings of the person or persons responsible for the design or production of the piece. It is with a sense of pride that the person has their name or initials somewhere on the product so the buyer or anyone picking the item up knows with just a glance whose work it is. Naturally the artisan in question would only put their name to something that was indicative of their skill, care and attention to quality. If the item was in anyway flawed or second-rate it would never bear their name.

So too the accounting professional should think like an artisan when it comes to their “product” – be it a report, working paper, advice or anything else that bears their name. If the product is not of the highest quality possible and meets the demands of the discerning purchaser (i.e. the client) then it should not have the name of the artisan accountant any where near it. Life is too short for shoddy work or the false economy of a “short cut”

In the next post, we’ll finish up with the 3rd way for an accountant and others to think.

See you next time,

James E