…I agree that the stereotype of a salesperson that most people hold in their minds is a very negative one. I know that, personally, I don’t like that archetypal personality and I don’t think most other people do either because we are constantly being sold to in our daily lives: by social media, by tv, by billboards, that we don’t want that in our face-to-face interactions with others.
As a part of my series about how to be great at closing sales without seeming pushy, obnoxious, or salesy, I had the pleasure of interviewing Courtney Barbee. Courtney has 20 years of experience in accounting and has worked in corporate, tax, and governmental sectors. She is majority owner of The Bookkeeper, a Raleigh-based bookkeeping and CFO consulting firm with over 200 clients around the world.
Thank you for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to this career path?
My father, who is also co-owner in the company, was a corporate CFO for 25 years. I started interning with him when I was 15 and absolutely fell in love with accounting. Of course, I was also a kid who, at 7, had a line graph of my allowance savings, so I’ve pretty much always been this way.
Can you share with our readers the most interesting or amusing story that occurred to you in your career so far? Can you share the lesson or take away you took out of that story?
In our first few months of business, we had someone email us looking to hire a “bookie”; they wanted us to go out and break someone’s kneecaps for them. It taught us the lesson of being very clear about our service offerings on our website.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
I’ve been partnering with some local community organizations and non-profits to teach business accounting basics to aspiring entrepreneurs who have lost jobs during the pandemic. When it feels like no one is hiring, it’s awesome to be able to give someone the ability to be their own boss.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Obviously, as a parent and business partner, my Dad gets a ton of credit for where I am now. But I also have to give credit to my stepmom and my husband. Craig (my Dad) and I are both so driven, we could run ourselves into the ground focusing on nothing but work. My stepmom, Lorrie, and my husband, Shane, have formed this great alliance where they help steer us away from the company and make sure that family time doesn’t turn into work time.
For the benefit of our readers, can you tell us a bit why you are an authority on the topic of sales?
Our revenues have grown 10-fold in the last 5 years, and we are projecting our first 7-figure year in 2021. And we’ve done it all without an aggressive sales strategy, focusing instead on education and enthusiasm.
Let’s shift a bit to what is happening today in the broader world. Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the COVID-19 pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty and loneliness. From your experience, what are a few ideas that we can use to effectively offer support to our families and loved ones who are feeling anxious? Can you explain?
I think the most common mistake people make is in downplaying or trying to rationalize away others’ fears. I’m a big fan of facing the unknown via planning, asking the, “What then?” questions if the worst were to occur. “If my loved one gets COVID, what’s the plan? If I lose my job, what’s the plan?” That way, even if the fear isn’t totally gone, you can feel prepared for it.
Ok. Thanks for all that. Let’s now jump to the main core of our interview. As you know, nearly any business a person will enter, will involve some form of sales. At the same time, most people have never received any formal education about how to be effective at selling. Why do you think our education system teaches nearly every other arcane subject, but sales, one of the most useful and versatile topics, is totally ignored?
I feel such sympathy for teachers in our education system because I feel like they don’t have any time to dedicate to teaching skills that can’t be measured on a standardized test. Sales is so subjective, and so empathy-based that it could never be boiled down to a multiple-choice, ABCD answer, so it, along with other essentials like how credit cards work and how to change the oil in your car, fall along the wayside.
This discussion, entitled, “How To Be Great At Sales Without Seeming Salesy”, is making an assumption that seeming salesy or pushy is something to be avoided. Do you agree with this assumption? Whether yes, or no, can you articulate why you feel the way you do?
I agree that the stereotype of a salesperson that most people hold in their minds is a very negative one. I know that, personally, I don’t like that archetypal personality and I don’t think most other people do either because we are constantly being sold to in our daily lives: by social media, by tv, by billboards, that we don’t want that in our face-to-face interactions with others.
The seven stages of a sales cycle are usually broken down to versions of Prospecting, Preparation, Approach, Presentation, Handling objections, Closing, and Follow-up. Which stage do you feel that you are best at? What is your unique approach, your “secret sauce”, to that particular skill? Can you explain or give a story?
I think I’m best at Presentation, because I get so excited about sharing all the possibilities open to the client. Clients are so often unaware of all the options available to them with their finances and I feel I excel at taking these complicated paths and concepts and distilling it to easy action points for the client to follow along with. I was recently speaking with a new prospect who initially said he just wants bookkeeping for tax purposes. When I found out he had multiple medical offices and was building a third, I mentioned the ability to track net revenues by location, and to cost-segregate the building of the third location for accelerated depreciation purposes. His eyes lit up and his voice changed when he started talking about how he could have friendly competitions by locations, and give out bonuses, etc. It was great to be able to share that excitement with him and have him join in.
Lead generation, or prospecting, is one of the basic steps of the sales cycle. Obviously every industry will be different, but can you share some of the fundamental strategies you use to generate good, qualified leads?
We’re very passive in our lead generation, for a couple of reasons: one, we feel that it increases our perceived value when clients seek us out, as opposed to the other way around and, two, we just don’t have time for active prospecting. The good, qualified leads we receive come to us through our website intake form and referral partners.
In my experience, I think the final stages of Handling Objections, Closing, and Follow-up, are the most difficult parts for many people. Why do you think ‘Handling Objections’ is so hard for people? What would you recommend for one to do, to be better at ‘Handling Objections’?
Again, I think that sales should be empathy-focused, and I think that is especially true when Handling Objections. If you can understand where the client’s objections come from, and empathize with it, you can address it. What you can’t do is ignore it or talk over it, even if it isn’t a logical objection to you.
‘Closing’ is of course the proverbial Holy Grail. Can you suggest 5 things one can do to successfully close a sale without being perceived as pushy? If you can, please share a story or example, ideally from your experience, for each.
The first thing to do is ask for, and confirm, the sale. Craig will often wrap up an initial consult with, “Does this mean we’re working together?” 9 times out of 10, the answer is, “Of course!”
Then, we provide the client with next steps, letting them know when to expect an agreement, and that we’ll need their signature before proceeding further. Some clients like to send us all the information we need to get started right away, or want to schedule meetings for us with their staff, and we have to reiterate that we cannot perform any work without an agreement on file.
The third thing is follow up and consistent communication. Sending an email to let them know the agreement is coming or should have hit their inbox. If it goes unsigned, following up with questions about whether they received it, or if they have further questions for us. Some of our clients are less comfortable with technology than others, and we have to make accommodations for that, sometimes by faxing agreements or meeting them in-person for signatures.
Throughout this whole process, we keep ourselves available for questions and are constantly following up.
Finally, we know when to back off. If someone becomes unresponsive, or asks for more time to think things over, we thank them for their time and let them know we’re available whenever they need us going forward. Then, the ball is in their court.
Finally, what are your thoughts about ‘Follow up’? Many businesses get leads who might be interested but things never seem to close. What are some good tips for a business leader to successfully follow up and bring things to a conclusion, without appearing overly pushy or overeager?
It never hurts to check on a lead without referencing the sale itself. It can be something as simple as sending them a link to an article they might like, or a recommendation for a movie that fits their tastes. If you care about your clients, and potential clients, as people, there’s nothing wrong with letting them know when you’re thinking about them.
As you know there are so many modes of communication today. For example, In-person, phone calls, video calls, emails, and text messages. In your opinion, which of these communication methods should be avoided when attempting to close a sale or follow up? Which are the best ones? Can you explain or give a story?
Personally, I prefer to do business by phone or email, though I have clients that prefer texts, chat, etc. But when it comes to sales, to me, the biggest offense is following up by text. I find text too personal and invasive, and would be offended by someone texting me to close a deal.
That being said, when we started working with a lot of realtors, I had to quickly get more comfortable with text! So many realtors use texting as their primary form of communication, probably because real estate is a much more personal, less “corporate” type of business.
Ok, we are nearly done. Here is our final “meaty” question. You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I would love to lower the barrier of entry to entrepreneurship for those coming out of generational poverty. The internet has improved some things, but so much of business is still done by connections, on the golf course, etc. I would love to build a movement for those who face greater hardships in accessing the network of the wealthy and well-connected.
How can our readers follow you online?
Thank you for the interview. We wish you only continued success!