What role can a sales professional play in helping an accounting firm develop new business? Many CPAs have struggled with this question, wondering how they would reconcile their need to improve the firm’s ability to gain new clients with their appreciation for the fact that, in the professional services arena, the service and the service provider cannot be separated.

The answer is simple: While a sales professional has much to offer, he or she must always play a supporting role in the business development process. Accountants will always have direct contact with prospects because they are, in a sense, “the product.” The effective sales professional acts as a powerful ally: helping you to achieve the best possible results at each step in the sales process, from initial contact and pre-qualification to fully understanding the prospect’s needs and securing the prospect’s commitment to engage your firm.

Traits of a successful sales professional

A good sales professional should have an excellent grasp of the essentials of your services-what they are, how they are delivered, and, in general, how much they cost. The sales professional must also be capable of identifying a prospect’s needs and explaining why the firm is the right choice to meet those needs. However, because the sales professional is always teamed with a practitioner when meeting with prospects, a complete mastery of the technical intricacies of accounting is not required.  In fact, too much technical detail too early in the sales process can actually short-circuit the sales process by focusing on FASB, SAS, GAAP and GASS rather the prospect’s strategies, goals, worries and profits.

In essence, the sales professional initiates the action, and then works in a complementary fashion with the accountant to convert the prospect into a client. A team approach to professional selling really works because it doesn’t require all accountants to be Dale Carnegie or Zig Ziegler – they can focus on problem solving – not what step comes next in the sales process.

While sales professionals can play a key role in helping accounting firms achieve their business development objectives, they cannot do it alone. It’s very important for all firm professionals, especially partners, to understand that their responsibility for cross-serving clients as well as referral source and prospect development will in no way be reduced when the firm hires a sales professional. Rather, the efforts of all will be optimized.

Keep in mind that hiring a sales professional may not cure a sales drought any more than buying a new golf club will cure a slice.  Just as a quality firm’s reputation will give the sales professional something of great value to bring to the market – the opposite is also true.

Hire an individual whose character and sense of professional behavior is in alignment with the standards set for the firm as a whole, then he or she will generally be accepted by clients, prospects, and firm members quite quickly.


While in many instances the sales professional acts as a leader, and a standard-bearer, he or she must also have someone in the firm to turn to for advice, mentoring, and leadership. That person should be the firm’s managing partner.

If the firm has multiple offices, it may be preferable for the sales professional to report to someone located in the same office, such as the partner-in-charge. This person – the managing partner or the partner-in-charge of the office – should also be responsible for evaluating the sales professional’s performance and for helping him or her to overcome any obstacles that come up in the course of the work.

In addition, the managing partner should work hard to keep the sales professional “in the loop.”  The sales professional can feel isolated and even unappreciated if he or she is taken for granted or inadvertently excluded from informal lunch groups, etc.  It’s important for there to be firm-wide recognition that the sales professional has as much experience in his or her profession as a senior manager or partner has in accounting or tax.  The sales professional needs respect and interaction – lest he or she feel like a “hired gun.”

Now, on to the interesting part….What is the optimal mix of salary, bonus, and commission that will keep your sales professional motivated? Most firms should expect to pay a top candidate an amount equivalent to what they pay their managers or senior managers.

While some firms have utilized a commission-only compensation plan, many accomplished sales professionals may not be willing to take the position when they bear all the financial risk. In fairness, it would be difficult for them to do so, as they could not reasonably be expected to earn significant commissions within the first 12 to 24 months, of service. Since the goal is for the sales professional to focus on high-quality, profitable prospects, the compensation program must reflect this.  An all commission plan would motivate the sales professional to bring in any work he or she could scrounge up, without regard to quality, in order to keep from starving!  In fact, many firms have utilized one kind of compensation program for the first 12 to 18 months of the sales professional’s tenure, and then introduced a more results-oriented system at the end of that period.

Commission and bonus system vary widely but generally include the following:

  • Five to 20 percent of the first year’s fees collected, depending on the amount of the base salary
  • Some percentage of the expected amount of fees for the first year (depending, in part, on the size of the fee and whether or not the work is recurring).  As a rule, 100% of the commission is paid out in the year the revenues are generated, although some firms pay the commission out over a two- to three-year period.
  • Other plans pay a tiered commission schedule such as 15% of first year fees generated by a new client, 10% of second year fees and 5% of third year fees.  This is in recognition of the fact that most clients are retained over a long period of time, yet the sales professional may only be rewarded in year one.
  • Other plans utilize a significant salary and a structured bonus plan.  The bonus is usually a percentage of the salary and is tied to tangible and pre-established measures such as total dollar amount of new work won, total number of new prospect relationships established, etc.
  • An override bonus can be established and tied to overall firm profitability.
  • One school of thought says that the salary should be two-thirds of the total compensation with the bonus potential being about one-third.  This structure is good for encouraging long-term relationship building on the part of the sales professional.
  • Firms wanting to encourage the start-up efforts of a new sales professional may opt for paying commissions on the value of the proposal opportunities the sales professional is able to generate for the firm. In this case, there is frequently a ceiling on the amount that can be paid, such as 5 percent of the proposal amount, up to $2,000 per proposal. The firm retains quality control because the sales professional only receives a commission on the proposal opportunities the firm chooses to pursue.
  • Bonuses in addition to commissions are generally only paid out when the sales professional has reached or exceeded targeted production quotas, or other performance measures, for the year. Or, alternatively, the bonus may be tied to the firm’s profitability, as mentioned above.

Two areas of caution:

  • Take care not to create a system that puts the sales professional in direct competition with the partners and accountants for commission and bonus dollars.  This is likely to doom the sales professional to failure and taint any future efforts to utilize a sales professional with the partner group.
  • Resist the urge to make the compensation plan overly complex.  The easier it is for the sales professional to understand how commissions and bonuses are earned, the more motivating the plan will be.

Whatever approach you use, be sure to compensate fairly based on tangible activity that is within the control of the sales professional (e.g., leads versus wins in the first year or so and allowances made for “strategic” use of time).  Keep in mind that the old adage, “You get what you pay for” is good advice when determining compensation for a sales professional.  It’s a challenge to budget for what could be a six-figure position. But, it’s important to look at the impact on firm revenue over a five or ten year period when determining the true value of the sales professional’s contributions.


Will your sales professional contribute enough to become a long-term asset of the firm, and therefore merit consideration as a principal? If the answer is yes, and if the sales professional is interested in this type of advancement, you will have to create some kind of career path. Ultimately, this opportunity to advance may be a key ingredient in retaining a quality sales professional for the long term.  Many firms have admitted sales professionals as well as marketing professionals to the ownership ranks and many more have considered it.  As such, it is not an unprecedented move and, therefore, worthy of serious consideration.


Accounting firms of every size are employing salespeople with greater and greater frequency, and with good reason. Hiring a professional sales professional can be the most powerful strategy a CPA firm can use to acquire new clients and to catalyze its business development efforts. It is also an excellent way to facilitate the introduction of new products or services targeted to a specific market segment or niche.  As specialty and boutique firms proliferate, “traditional” firms are under pressure to keep pace.

With the advent of Sarbanes-Oxley, the accounting pie is getting bigger.  This is an era that presents firms with unprecedented opportunities for quality growth.  Utilization of a  sales professional may be the right move now to assure that your firm moves ahead and stays ahead in the years to come.  Because a sales professional’s efforts can be clearly quantified and the results more precisely measured, the utilization of a professional sales approach will continue to grow among accounting firms of all sizes.

While it’s true that the initial years after deciding to hire a sales professional will have their share of challenges, managing partners must summon the courage to unabashedly defend their decision as in the best, long-term interests of the firm.  If recent trends continue, the question of why a firm should hire a sales professional will lik