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What do you do to prequalify a lead (so the best ones sign up and the worst ones go away)?

traffic light wait signal

You just got a new lead. Maybe even a few of them. How do you respond?

  1. YAY! New lead! They look great – this kind of company, this kind of enquiry, more profits for me, all is well!!
  2. Nope. Ugh – don’t like this lead, don’t want it, go away.
  3. Not another one!! We actually have too many leads right now! What do I do with it?

You may be in one category and wish you were in another (“oooh, it would be so nice to have too many leads”), but the truth is these all point to an issue. One you can solve, and need to solve.

The “yay new lead” response indicates you might be getting too excited, too fast, and you need a process to slow you down. How many of us have taken on that amazing new client only to discover later they really weren’t that great, or were terrible?

The “nope ugh” response feels really safe (“I know they’ll be terrible so there’s no point”), but it doesn’t actually do you any good. You’re simply making the decision based on gut feel. You need a process to help you understand WHAT exactly isn’t right and WHY they wouldn’t be a fit. And sometimes (shocker) we’re wrong. Sometimes the person is simply asking questions and our defensiveness kicks in.

And the “not another one!” indicates that your prequalifying/waiting list process isn’t fully working or isn’t set up yet.

If you are still getting leads which are not the kind you want, or you sign up new clients and they leave within a few months (or you sack them), something is wrong with your qualifying process.

It’s primarily tempting to put the blame on the client. The person.

“Ugh, they’re so rude!” or “This client is such a PITA.”

And then you just want to get out. “Okay this isn’t working: NEXT!”

It’s possible you might be right. There are circumstances in which that person is not a fit for your firm, or where no matter what you do, they don’t listen.

But it’s more possible your systems are missing something.

The good people at GoProposal have created a great flow chart: “Are they REALLY a bad client, or are you making them bad?”. Make sure you check that chart before you blame the client.

The truth is, it hurts when a prospect says no, or doesn’t respond at all. Especially if we made great efforts and it seemed like you were getting on so well. So we often create reasons to help ourselves feel better. Things like:

  • “They don’t understand our value.” Okay…but why is that? What have their former experiences been? Maybe they’ve only worked with old school traditional accountants? Maybe they don’t know what’s possible? Maybe you haven’t explained it to them yet?
  • “They don’t trust my advice.” Okay, but we are only in the prospect phase. Do they know you? Why would they trust you yet? How much time can you give them and how can you slowly bring them along that journey? It’s a relationship, not a transaction.
  • “They’re not responding.” There are a million reasons why they might not have replied to your email, phone call, proposal, video, DM. Maybe they sent out multiple enquiries and then got overwhelmed with the replies. Maybe they thought their current accountant was rubbish and then suddenly got a really helpful email. Maybe their family is sick. Maybe they got the virus. Maybe they just lost (or gained) a big client. The reasons are endless and it’s not about you. Their reasons are theirs: and your prequalifying process is there to weed out (or in) those who are your very best clients, AND those who are ready. It’s okay if they aren’t ready – they just move to a waiting list.
  • “They’re just cheap.” It’s possible: there are some people who are just cheapskates. But that’s actually more rare. We all spend money on what we value. It’s likely they just don’t understand the value yet. Let’s talk about the money thing for a while.

It’s never about the money.

It is your responsibility to give them SOME idea of the level of investment they could be looking at. You don’t have to lay out all your prices on a pricing page (we’d even argue it’s best if you don’t), but you must address the pricing question because some people are literally thinking “I just want to know if we’re talking hundreds or thousands or hundreds of thousands”.

You can also write blogs and share videos and provide endless information that gives people a sense of the range they might be looking at. Saying “everything is bespoke” or “we always provide custom quotes” doesn’t mean anything to the prospective buyer. Your bespoke packages could start at £2k per month and they’re a startup. This is why ALL of your marketing needs to work together to draw in the right kind of people at the right kind of place in their business life.

However you do that is up to you, but for the sake of argument I’m going to presume you’ve done all that, and the person coming has made it through a certain level of information and you’ve given them a proposal and they find it too expensive.

It’s not about the money.

We can always find money (or save it up) for what we really value or need or want.

But the buyer’s expectations will completely change what money they spend, and when.

If you want your whole kitchen renovated you’re going to know there is a lot of money going out for it, and you plan accordingly.

But if you think you’re buying a microwave or a new cooker, and realise you need a whole new kitchen…that requires a serious mental adjustment and could take months or years.

And maybe you buy a microwave and a new cooker you install yourself, and a new lighting fixture, and after all that realise it’s not quite solving the core problem and it’s time to rip the whole thing out and start over.

So, what IS it about?

Part of your pre qualifying process is in place to help you and the prospect figure out what the REAL problem is.

They may know what the real problem is; they may have no clue.

You may know what the real problem is and they don’t see it yet; or you may have no clue either.

People think they know what an accountant does. They think “I need taxes done” or “my business is outgrowing my current accountant”, or whatever it is that motivates them to get in touch with an accountant. But they don’t, really. And that’s okay.

But it’s not okay if you don’t help them with that. It’s your job to educate them about 1) how accounting works and what they need, and 2) how YOUR firm specifically works and what they might WANT in addition to what they need. We’ll talk about how to do this in the detailed process section below.

Just because someone queries a price doesn’t mean they’ve said no. We are far too prone to panic or jump to conclusions when a prospect says “wow, that’s really expensive”.

When you do that, you aren’t listening to what they’re really saying or asking: you’re leaping forward to a conversation you’ve made up in your head.

All they’re saying is…in their mind…knowing what they know at this moment…it feels like a lot of money. More, perhaps, than they were originally intending to spend.

When someone says, “That’s really expensive”, one of the best things you can say in reply is, “Yes it is”. And then ask more questions about what they are expecting this service to do for them and their business, what pain or trouble they need relieved, what outcome they’re hoping for. When the space opens up for it, you could share some of the experiences and success stories of people like them. This helps them make the connection between “that person got those results, and I’m in the place they were, so I could get those results too. That’s worth spending £x on.”

All these issues circle back to creating (and using) a prequalifying process based on the qualities and values of the person.

It’s the person (or people) you take on – rather than a company. The “company” doesn’t send you a rude email: the person does. The “company” doesn’t fudge with the furlough rules: a person does. One of the problems with many prequalifying processes is the focus entirely on the company – forgetting the human person or people you’ll be dealing with.

Here’s how to build a prequalifying process which will bring you the good people and the best clients.

Part 1: Figure out the qualities of the clients you want

  1. Pick a client you absolutely love & wish you could clone
  2. List out every quality they have with no category restrictions. Just write down things about them. Attitude, energy, location, family, the way they communicate, do they like win or gin, whatever.
  3. Repeat the process for your top 10 clients at least (or the top 10%).
  4. Leave the list for a while (at least 24-48 hours). This is to help you get a fresh perspective when you come back.
  5. Look for patterns from this list. What 2 or 3 things does EVERY single one of these clients have in common? Could be as simple as an industry, but it could also be they all like coffee. They all live in this particular area. They all have more than 3 children. They all enjoy walking or running.

Part 2: Make sure you are crystal clear on your values

Qualities of the client is only one part of the equation. You also need to know whether this person will fit with your company’s values or behaviours.

If you don’t have these documented yet, stop everything and do that first. Here are a few marketing tips on that:

Values: have them and live them

Choosing personal pillars and values

Why branding is one of the most important things for an accountant to understand

Presuming you’ve done that, move on to:

RED FLAGS: What qualities do you FOR SURE not want?
List out the things which are an instant red flag (either on their own, or in combination with several others).

Be very specific – “not valuing our advice” is something bad, but it takes ages to see that. You can’t ask someone if they value your advice when they don’t even know you yet. You can’t figure out if they push back on fees if you haven’t sent a proposal yet. And if you create a form that says “Will you value our advice?” they’ll probably just say yes, so they can get to the quote.

Think about the little, very tiny things which make that little bell go off in your mind. Or just ‘feel wrong’ in your gut. Put names and titles to these – because “it just doesn’t feel right” works okay if it’s just you, but it’s not scalable and doesn’t help your team make decisions without you.

You want people who value your work and are willing to pay for it, so a red flag could be “Multiple pushbacks on very tiny charges” or “insisting on a discount” or “sending long emails back and forth for weeks trying to reduce fees”. Those are specific and can be measured.

A good way to discover red flags is to look back at the last 5 or 10 clients you sacked, or who left and you were relieved. Make a list of everything they did which was really frustrating. Be specific. “Sent 52 whatsapp messages in one day” or “refused to set up a payment authorisation”.

Remember, we want to build a system around this: so it’s not just about the frustrating thing. It’s about where that came from. Look at each item and add notes about what the problem or result was. Literally write out a “this is not okay because” statement.

Follow this structure:

  • They [did this thing]
  • It was frustrating to us because [we felt like this]
  • It meant that [this result happened]
  • This is not okay for us because [how it prevents you helping clients]
  • This is not okay for them because [how it makes their life more difficult]
  • Their actions set the tone for [other things to happen]

Here’s an example. Say you use GoCardLess for payment authorisation, and you require the client to sign before you start any work. The client kept putting it off and eventually said no, they didn’t want to, they preferred to just make bank payments as and when.

  • Client did not set up GoCardLess (even after multiple reminders)
  • It was frustrating to us because we thought they were such a great client, and we know they have lots of money, and it felt disrespectful
  • It meant that it took us a lot longer to get started, and it took hours of time from me and the team
  • This is not okay for us because it’s inefficient, and it casts doubt on whether they will do other things we ask
  • This is not okay for them because their work doesn’t get done on time, and they could have to pay penalties
  • Their actions set the tone for them to ignore other things we ask, for them to be in control of the relationship, and for us to take on more clients who are just like them.

There are still things you can do to help clients who refuse to follow your processes, but the point is you want to figure this stuff out in the pre-qualifying stage.

You don’t want to even GET to this point.

You want to be so clear, so up front with your expectations and processes and how you work, that nothing is a surprise to them or to you. If they query something, you point them to your lovely “how we work page” or your partnership success agreement or your terms & conditions, and all is well, and you both carry on. That’s how it’s meant to work. That’s how it can work.

Remember to think about the consequences – for THEM.

It’s so tempting to focus your prequalifying process on you. “We don’t want clients who won’t sign a GoCardLess because we want to be sure the money comes in first.” Okay that’s nice for you (and a wise plan for a profitable business) but that’s not why they’re doing it. They’re doing it because it means they never have to worry about whether their bill is paid, because their work will never be delayed, and because they don’t want surprise penalties or fees.

PINK FLAGS: A behaviour which is not worth instant rejection, but could go either way
Be alert for “pink flags”, which aren’t red as such, but could go either red or white depending on the other flags with it. If you have one pink flag and ten white flags, it might be okay. If you have six pink flags, they’re starting to make red.

If someone asks a few questions on various line items in the proposal, and you explain, and they say ok that makes sense, then all is well. It seemed like a pink flag but really it was just a question. But if the questions and emails never end, and there’s a lot of defensiveness, and then they ask for a discount…you’re in red flag territory.

For example: one of our “pink flags” is when people expect a fast or instant ROI from their marketing. The very best marketing works slowly over time, and builds, and requires a major investment at the beginning in the foundational areas. We’re very clear about this in all our marketing, and we repeat it constantly. We’ve crafted our entire business around it because it’s what works for accountants. So not only will we not work very well with an accountant who wants to skip all the long term stuff and get to the quick wins tomorrow….they also won’t get what they want. They’ll have false expectations and be disappointed.

We do appreciate it can take time to come round to this. From our perspective it’s completely okay for an accountant to express a WISH that they could get fast results tomorrow, as long as in discussions with us they realise that’s a false expectation. If they mention in their diagnostic they are tired of investing in marketing that doesn’t work, we get that. But if as we have further discussions they share they don’t think content marketing or video or social media is any good, and only referrals work anyway, and actually our agency isn’t that great because we ought to guarantee certain results, and this OTHER agency guaranteed them 10x return in the first three months…. Well… we’re in red flag territory.

Which is okay.

Red flags are okay.

Do not get angry or bitter or defensive at these red flags: they are a GIFT.

In Matthew McConaughey’s book “Greenlights” he talks about how when everything is going smooth and easy and good and positive, those are green lights. Or green light times. But then you have health issues or a client is really angry or you lose a client, and things are hard, and those are red lights.

He makes the excellent point that red lights always lead you back to green ones, in the end. Sometimes it takes a minute or two. Sometimes a decade or a lifetime. Sometimes the green lights come for your children or grandchildren because of the red light you went through.

But the truth is, every prospect is actually an amber (or yellow) light – and you don’t know yet if they’re red or green.

When you hit what feels like a red light (or red flag) with a new prospect, use this as a gift. Stop putting the blame on them, and take responsibility for what you can do or learn:

  • What specific quality did they show which is not okay? Why is it not okay?
  • How did they show that quality? What exactly did they do? How often did they do it over a period of time? How long a period?
  • If I compare this person’s behaviours to our core values list, how do they measure up? Are there any changes we need to make to that list?
  • What did we not explain which would have made it much more helpful (or faster) for this prospect to understand how we work?
  • How do we explain (before they even meet with us) how we work here, compared to what they might be expecting or imagining?
  • Do we explain this visually and in multiple formats – ie diagram, web page, video, blog? Which formats are we missing?
  • Do we have instant weed-out questions? Do we have a process for asking those right at the beginning to save them and us time?
  • Do we have somewhere to send people who aren’t a fit? Do we need to consider this?
  • Do we have a specific, clear process for following up every enquiry?
  • Who took this enquiry and what did they do with it? Did they follow the process step by step, or did they skip any?
  • Is there anything in our automation which could have been missed by the prospect, preventing them from understanding?

Every prospect who turns out to be the kind of client you don’t want is a gift.

They’ve helped you. They’ve taught you something.

And maybe, just maybe you’ve taught them something too – but it’s okay if they choose not to learn from this experience. That’s their responsibility and you can’t do anything about it.

What questions could you ask which (taken together) will help you see the client pattern?

When it comes to asking questions, you don’t need to be so obvious as “do you have integrity” or “will you value our services”.

People who aren’t a fit for your firm will either answer it flippantly, or they’ll think they are being honest and don’t see their own qualities.

You need to ask questions which will tell YOU what kind of person this is. And you’ll do that by going back to those experiences (good and bad) you’ve had in the past.

Remember the “show, don’t tell” rule. How they act in the prospecting phase is how they’ll act as a client. (Enhanced and made more obvious, usually.)

This could be behaviours. If you want clients who respond to you quickly, what can you create in your process which will SHOW you they respond quickly?

This could be qualities. If you work best with people who give a lot of attention to detail, your questionnaire needs to be longer and more intensive. (If they move fast and break things, maybe a series of shorter ones.)

Asking a FEW questions (not many) is a good start, and a more comprehensive questionnaire after. Some firms have a short form with 4-5 questions which leads to the discovery call being set up (presuming they didn’t qualify themselves out straight away), and then another, longer questionnaire they fill in pre-call.

If they don’t fill in the longer questionnaire in time, despite multiple chasings, you’ve already got a pink flag, and it’s up to you how you deal with it. You could say “we haven’t gotten this questionnaire yet and we really need it to make sure we give you the best advice or attention in our call, so let’s rearrange for next week to give you more time. If you get it done by x time then we can still go ahead.” You’ve set the boundaries, made it clear how it benefits them, and held firm. If they push back, you know they’ll push back on other things, too.

Ask a few open ended questions about what’s most difficult right now and how that’s affecting them personally. The more you get them to write like a human, the more you can discover about what they’re really like.

What you’re looking for here is not just one flag, or a gut feel, or the fact your friend or brother recommended them.

You are looking for client patterns.

You want a client whose patterns fit your values, as far as you can tell with the information you have.

And this means a process. Here we go (at last)!

Your pre-qualifying process: what to include

There are several items your process MUST include, but here’s a comprehensive list of everything it could include.

  • Instant weed-out questions (if relevant – ie if you never work with sole traders or construction businesses or ecommerce)
    • Note: the best marketing does this for you. For example, we don’t ask “are you an accountant?” to people enquiring with PF, but we ask questions which a non-accounting firm would struggle with, or would have to say they’re not an accountant
    • HOW TO DO THIS: A short form, embedded into your website, on a very specific “start here” page (or similar). You can have a generic contact form, but if you want to prequalify better, you must have a specific form for enquiries.
  • Ways to identify specific qualities this person has (remember, you’re taking on a person as a client: not a company)
    • HOW TO DO THIS: There are multiple ways – you can pick one or all of these. Remember, the more ways you have to evaluate them, the faster and easier the decision becomes:
      • Questions in a short form
      • Questions in a longer questionnaire / diagnostic
      • Discovery call
      • Longer deep dive call
      • A submitted video
      • All of the above, in an order that works for you
    • Make your forms and calls and questionnaires structured to give enormous help and value TO THEM in making their decision. Most accountants are focused on turnover, number of employees, type of business – and those are okay things to ask about. But that doesn’t help you get clients who fit your values, and it doesn’t matter if they’re in the perfect turnover category if they have none of your values. Similarly, if they have all your values but their turnover is a bit low, they could become one of your most favourite clients ever.
  • A specific list of your core values, against which these behaviours can be matched
    • Ideally these will be shared visually and in multiple formats – ie a web page, an image, a manifesto, a PDF guide, a video from you and/or the team
    • Remember, make it easy FOR THEM to know what your values are and to see whether they’re a match

pink pig financials pig icons with descriptive values icons

  • Information about your firm:
    • Who you are (your brand, your style, your team, your approach)
    • Who you work with
    • How you work (your process, your way)
      • Ideally these will be visual explanations (in multiple formats), such as:
      • Diagram / flow chart / process
      • Web page
      • Video (s)
      • Emails
      • Blog posts / articles
      • FAQs
    • You may presume you have all of this on your website already, because you have an “About Us” page and pictures of all your team. I can almost guarantee you are missing at least one, if not most of the information above. Most accountants have website pages which haven’t been updated in months or years. Or you threw it together with no thought, just to get something up, and you didn’t create it with your best client in mind.
    • Go back to your About page, your How we work page, your Process page, your Who we work with page, and ask yourself “Does this make the message crystal clear within seconds?” If not, you need to fix it.

double page spread describing accountants onboarding process

  • Answers to frequently asked questions
    • You really must do this. It is a massive time waster not to, and even if you only have two clients, you already have a question you’ve answered once before. EVERY time you’re asked a question more than twice, put it on the list. If it’s been asked by every prospect or most prospects in the past few months, get an answer put together
    • You can answer these by blog post or video (or both). Some firms have a Resources or Help centre where they keep all their questions

list of frequently asked questions

  • Somewhere / someone to send people who aren’t a fit
    • This is optional, but a lovely gesture. This would particularly relate to people who keep coming to you no matter what you do with your marketing (ie sole traders or freelancers, even when you keep saying you don’t work with them). It means you care enough to help them even though there’s nothing in it for you.
  • A specific, clear process for following up every enquiry. Some of the questions to ask yourself are:
    • Who responds?
    • How quickly?
    • What do they say / send?
    • What do you require from them? (you must require something – the less you ask for at first, the harder it will be later when you ask for numbers and signatures and information and whatever else you need)
    • How long do they have to complete it?
    • What happens next? What do they do, what do you do, what do you send?
    • If you have a discovery call, how long is it? (most firms do an initial 15-20 min discovery call, with a specific script, held by someone who does all discovery calls)
    • What happens next? What do they do, what do you do, what do you send?
    • When do you present the proposal? How do you present it?
    • What happens next if they say yes/ maybe / no? (you want specific steps for each one of these)
    • If they need more time, how much time do you give them? Who follows up next and when?
    • What happens if you never hear anything back, no matter what you do?
  • Automation: some of your process will need to be automated – but not all of it. You want a mixture of machine & human, because:
    • Some things being automated saves you and your team time
    • Some things can’t be automated, and need the personal touch
    • It keeps a human (or multiple humans) connected to your system so it doesn’t become robotic
    • You need to know if it’s working, every single time

Waiting lists: when you have lots of really good leads

If you’ve done all of the above and ALL of your leads are good ones (as far as you can tell), and you’re still swamped, it’s waiting list time. (It’s likely also hiring time.)

Even within your waiting list, you’ll need more prequalifying. This is your opportunity to really get down to the nitty gritty. What can you ask them to do which will show their commitment, or show they’re ready? What small things could they buy while they’re waiting for monthly work or a larger project? Draw them along so they’re excited and motivated by the time you move them off the waiting list and onto the client list.

Kondo them: Does this client spark joy?

One of my favourite tweets recently is this one:

It’s not the only question to ask (in your house or with clients), but it’s a very important one.

We tend to think, well, clients aren’t really meant to spark joy. It’s work. This is business.

They’re meant to make us some money. They do their thing and we do ours, and we’re just accountants after all.

But if the last year has shown us anything, it’s that life is too short for clients who make your life miserable. Who drain joy instead of bringing it. Who make your business life (and thereby your personal life and every other element of life) miserable.

Your prequalifying process – and your proposal process, and follow up, and sign up, and onboarding, are all there to help you discover the answer to that question. Does this client spark joy? Will they? Are they going to be a drain on you and your team, or will you be glad they’re in your life?

That’s why you create great processes, particularly the prequalifying process. So you can determine – as early as physically possible – whether this client is going to be a joy or not. Every firm will define that differently, and there’s enough business for everybody. But you never, ever have to take on a client who drains all your joy: and the right process will make that decision for you.

We’ll be running a 4-week Prequalifying Breakthrough course as part of the PF Lab: so if you’re not in the Lab yet, join us today!