Putting the magic back into client relationships, with James Ashford

  • Stuart McLeod discusses the relational aspect of bookkeeping with GoProposal’s James Ashford on an episode of the Accounting Leaders Podcast

  • Sending a proposal and engagement letter days after an initial consult is an antiquated approach and could hurt sales. Instead, you should offer clients the ability to sign up for your services during that first meeting.

  • James knows that accounting is about more than bookkeeping and has made it his life’s work to repair the relationships accountants have with clients. “[We’re] not just interested in helping the accountant to make more money and get what they deserve, but in helping them to serve their clients to a higher level.”

What do bookkeeping and magic have to do with each other? A lot in James Ashford’s case.

James founded pricing and proposal tool GoProposal to put profitability at the forefront of accounting. But despite working in the industry, James isn't a CPA by trade. 

James recently joined Stuart McLeod as a guest on Accounting Leaders Podcast, where he shared his unconventional career path and why he’s so passionate about systems that solve paperwork problems accountants are all-too-familiar with. 

He credits his experiences as a close-up magician for helping to pave the way for GoProposal's success. He laughs with Stuart as he recounts his magician days, "[People] hate magicians. They don't believe in magic... and I had five minutes to convince them that magic was real. That was my sales gig over and over again."

Magic may have helped James understand the importance of winning people over quickly, but it was his experience running a now defunct marketing firm that brought him to an important realization: financials matter. Without proper forecasting, businesses will fail. 

By taking the guesswork out of pricing, accounting firms are free to do what they do best—serve clients. 

On his entrepreneurial journey, James met Paul Barnes, his future business partner. Paul was an accountant who had figured out the secret sauce to fair and profitable pricing, but he couldn't close deals quickly. So James mixed his marketing and magic skills with Paul's methodologies. Together they formed GoProposal.

We never started out to make software. We started out to make a difference.
James Ashford, GoProposal

Even in the age of Tinder, courtship is still king

For James, accounting is all about relationship cultivation.

People live in a ‘swipe left, swipe right’ world, but to my mind, relationships need to build up… there's a journey that you have to go through. There's a courtship process. You have to build trust to get them to the point where they want to buy from you.
James Ashford, GoProposal

While soft skills aren't often part of a CPA’s formal training, they’re essential to running a successful accounting business. James believes that most accountants are logical people with a perfectionist streak. He warns that while accountants can keep perfect books, a company will never be perfect. He reminds accountants that you need an emotional approach to sell effectively. Sales aren't always driven by logic. 

Systematically asking every potential client to purchase your services isn't going to work. Instead, nurturing is the way to go. 

Recommended reading:  5 tips for achieving the mindset required to sell and succeed

Commit to the long play (or how to 6X your competitors)

James has always looked to Joe Girard for inspiration. Known as one of the most successful car salesmen in American history, Joe sold six times more cars than his competitors. 

His strategy? He played the long game. 

James shares the insight he’s drawn from Joe’s story on the podcast: Joe wasn’t focused on selling the car sitting on his lot. Instead, he was interested in removing the worry of purchasing vehicles. He wanted to become the guy you turn to whenever someone in your life needed to buy a car. 

“So many businesses think so short term. Get the deal. Move on.” warns James. But that’s a short-sighted strategy.

Understand your value 

The problem with focusing solely on the immediate deal, on the car that’s parked in your lot, is that your business becomes transactional by nature. But accounting isn’t a transactional business; it’s a relational one. 

“You can mess up a transactional service and you may never see the person again. But with accounting, it’s so close. It’s so heartfelt. You’re effectively dealing with the lifeblood of a business. If that goes wrong, that business is going to die.” 

When accountants understand the value they bring to their clients, they are better-positioned to make the sale and close the deal. 

Converting leads is all about speed

The process of making the sale and closing the deal is often easier said than done.

James recalls his first encounter with Paul. He was looking to hire a bookkeeper for his marketing firm and scheduled an initial consultation together. He was sold on Paul’s expertise in that very first sit-down, even though he didn’t completely understand what exactly he was buying. Regardless, James was ready to sign on the dotted line.

But that wasn’t the best practice process for onboarding clients. Instead of committing in the moment, Paul wrapped up the meeting and promised James that a proposal and engagement letter would shortly follow. 

And by the time James received the proposal, he had talked himself out of purchasing Paul’s services. 

Although, this time, the all-too-common tale of a lost sale has a happy ending. On the podcast, Jame describes how he and Paul eventually partnered to form GoProposal. 

GoProposal appeals to the logic of accounting. Paul’s nuanced methodology for pricing became the foundation of GoProposal’s systems. What once lived in an Excel spreadsheet is now integrated into GoProposal’s software, enabling users to quickly and efficiently draw up pricing and proposals. 

Risk management and the complexity of accounting

Stuart and James discuss another big problem that often arises in the engagement letter process: risk management. 

James has seen far too many financial fallouts that can come from a well-intentioned CPA taking on work beyond the scope of a project. “Something I’ve found in this space is that accountants, bookkeepers, CPAs—they care so much. They genuinely want to serve, and they genuinely want to help people. And very often, that can be their undoing.”

Completing work that isn’t part of the scope of a project can mean a lot of things, but when things go south, it will almost always mean a loss in time. James recalls an accounting firm owner who spent 250 hours of unpaid time wrapped up in a client’s divorce settlement because only one of the two parties had signed their engagement letter. 

Unfortunately, most accounting firms don’t have the resources to navigate this part of the process effectively. Stuart points out that for an accounting firm to master this process, they need an entire compliance department, which isn’t feasible for many, especially small firms. 

Instead, firms need to look for reliable software that automates this information for accountants. 

GoProposal, which integrates with Karbon, provides solutions so that accountants can quickly and accurately draw up the correct paperwork, mitigate risk, and ensure their firm isn’t wasting hours on unprofitable tasks.

Don’t forget a dash of magic

While courting clients and converting consultations into signed contracts, it’s important to always remember the importance of a bit of magic.

GoProposal’s currently preparing to release a new internationalized video advertising its services on its website. This new welcome video will be narrated in a different accent depending on the location of the website visitor. James explains, “We’ve always been tailored for those [international] markets, but we want people to feel that we’re tailored for those markets.” 

It’s a little detail—something that the website visitor probably won’t consciously notice. But it’s a technological magic trick that sends a powerful message. 

Afterall, James knows that at the end of the day, a little magic can go a long way when building personalized and tailored client relationships.

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