Date posted: 28/02/2018 6 min read

How to step into 21st century selling

Some of the best sales leaders come from accounting backgrounds, and more in the profession now need to embrace their inner ethical salesperson, argues sales expert Sue Barrett.

In Brief

  • Accountants have the higher order thinking and problem-solving skills to sell successfully.
  • The concept of selling is often viewed negatively, yet everybody lives by selling something.
  • Successful selling no longer relies on personal charm but rather delivering tailored solutions.

By Sue Barrett.

Without paying clients, we do not have a business; we only have a hobby. It’s as simple as that. 

To get a steady stream of paying clients, we need to sell. However, we understand that the concept of “selling” is viewed negatively by many people. For instance, the banking sector hasn’t done itself any favours lately by generating a plethora of news reports about unethical sales practices and mistreatment of customers. That’s helped to trigger a banking royal commission and has left banks on the nose. Understandably, people are uncomfortable being associated with such stereotypes.

Yet, whatever our role, everybody lives by selling something. 

And it is perfectly possible to take a positive, ethical and proactive stance to selling. To win over new customers and retain existing clients, we bring them new opportunities and ideas that serve them well – opportunities that are underpinned by a “we” focus and a fair exchange of value. None of that sales activity is out of line for an accountant or any other professional services provider. 

It would be confusing to call selling anything but selling. It is what it is, and we can choose to do it ethically or not. 

The trust challenge

Today, the world needs more people who can offer ethical and responsible ways of selling, doing business and working with clients. Accountants often have the inside running in helping businesses perform better and building trust-based relationships, whether the accountants are embedded inside companies or working for clients. Technical accounting skill on its own, though, will not secure and retain clients in highly competitive markets. 

With competitors closing in, accountants need to preserve and protect their trusted client relationship advantage. To do so, they need to consciously adopt and embrace the concept of ethical and proactive selling strategies and practices. One vital step towards embracing your inner ethical salesperson is to reposition “selling” in the hearts, minds and capabilities of everyone in your business or team. And that should start with a firm’s leaders, who need to be modelling best practice and leading the way. 

The world needs more people who can offer ethical and responsible ways of selling, doing business and working with clients
Sue Barrett CEO, Barrett Consulting Group

The 21st century world is getting more difficult to navigate. Trust is at a premium and there is a flight to quality, especially when it comes to sound advice and service. Discerning buyers look for a leading edge, for productivity and cost control, for business value and the ability to stick around. They want to engage with people who have a depth and breadth of knowledge in their area of expertise. They want advisers who can engage in business discussions that respect complexity, advisors offering ideas and solutions that address the opportunities of both today and the future. This requires high-order thinking and communications and collaboration skills.

And all this requires accountants to be able to sell themselves ethically, effectively and honourably. It challenges them to sell in solutions that deliver real and tangible value beyond product and price. It requires people in client-facing roles to have a much better and deeper understanding of their and their clients’ businesses. It demands that they understand how their offering works in concert with the complex systems of business, markets and communities.

The accounting opportunity

This should serve capable accountants very well. 

Why? Because many 20th century-oriented salespeople have found the move to more complex thinking and business solution selling difficult. They continue to rely on old forms of persuasion, charm, friendship and showmanship. Many have been found wanting by their clients and are likely destined for obscurity if they don’t transition to a higher order thinking.

Here is the opportunity for the wide range of technically trained and qualified people – engineers, technicians, mathematicians, scientists and the like – who are schooled in higher order thinking. Overall, individuals with STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) backgrounds and training do well solving problems in technology-rich environments. They’re better equipped for new business models, new markets and new sources of economic growth. 

So what about accountants? They, too usually come with higher-order thinking and problem-solving skills. Some of the best sales leaders we are now working with come from accounting backgrounds. They’ve made the leap into the front line, taking on a more systematic and goal-oriented approach to leading sales teams and managing operations.  

More and more of our work at Barrett is focusing on taking technical people and teaching them to do solution selling and strategic or key account management. That should come as no surprise. When these people get past the negative stereotypes of selling, when they focus on what good selling is, they find that they can sell well and actually enjoy the experience. 

I’ve met a great many technical people in my life. The vast majority of them love solving problems and being useful. Many of them were not taught how to be user-friendly. They confused “telling” with “helping”, which can often alienate people. But they can be trained and coached in how to make effective contact with clients, and to understand where those clients are coming from, before they fix anything. They can acquire a whole new skillset that complements their technical assets.

So here is a whole new career path for the engineers, technicians, mathematicians, scientists and accountants – and a whole new recruitment pool for employers and sales leaders.

Related: Brewing up a great career in the family business

For Melanie Cooper AM CA it’s the CA, rather than the family name, that’s driven her success in the family brewing business.

Sue Barrett is the CEO of the Barrett Consulting Group and a sales consultant, advisor, trainer and writer. She blogs at

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