Client Needs Analysis: The Process and Questions

So, you’ve decided that one of the best ways to sign a new prospect is to convince them you are the resource that can answer their needs the best, and you’re going to do this by going to your first appointment with them all fired up to do a Client Needs Analysis (CNA), right?

But, do you know what questions to ask during your all powerful needs analysis?

Knowing what to ask when interviewing a prospect for the first time is often a tricky undertaking.  I always found it helped to have a script, even a poorly written one from the Tom Hopkins School of high pressure selling.

Among that genre of strong closing scripts, there aren’t many guides for the complex sale that accountants make, or selling to the specific industries or niches you wish to target.  So, what’cha gonna do when you ain’t got no script?

So, in the interest of making myself sound really cool and knowledgeable, I’m going to write about how what to ask when you’re doing a client needs analysis. If you want to expand beyond what I spew here, you’ll have the knowledge that will allow you to easily create your own questions for any target firm, industry or specialty.

Admittedly, like everything else, things change, but the basic concerns most businesses have are still the same: cost, labor, revenue, safety, taxes and liabilities. It all becomes a balancing act, and the better you are able to help your client prioritize and balance their concerns, the more they will respect you as an industry expert.  This is where the money is: being recognized as an expert advisor who can solve the client’s needs.

And, as a (dare I say) “Trusted Advisor,” you are there to help your client with their business, not just the recording of data, or the reporting of taxes.  You are there to advise your client on all their business needs.  Accounting is merely the tool you use to expose those needs and budgets are where you propose solutions and guide your client.

So, in order to understand your prospect, or client, one of the first things you should do is get a subscription to a couple of major trade publications for the industry, niche or specialization that you are targeting and start getting an overview of the industry.

For example, if you’re targeting a lawn maintenance firm, get a subscription to Lawn & Landscape (it’s a great magazine, and I still keep my subscription active so I can judge how my own yard man is doing).

If you’re targeting a restaurant, get subscriptions to magazines such as Nation’s Restaurant News and Restaurant Business Magazine.

You can check out and find a lot of trade magazines for niches and specializations you may want to target.  Many are available in print and online versions.

By subscribing to and reading those trade publications, you will have the opportunity to develop some industry specific knowledge that you can use when you are trying to carry on a conversation with your prospect.

Tip - Having industry and company specific information gives you the opportunity to establish rapport and build on your open ended client needs analysis dialog.

Once you’ve made an appointment to hold a conversation with the prospect, you need to have some specific information about the prospect itself.  This can be public information, hints of something that you may have picked up while preparing for your first appointment with them, or industry info.

Remember, clients are going to look to you as an expert. What kind of expert they are looking for depends on their needs. So, if you want to keep your client, or get new ones, then you need to know what needs you have to satisfy, and how to satisfy them.

Now, before you can start trying to fill the blanks, you have to know what they are, and there is only one way to figure that out: play detective and dig in a little with the right questions. Of course you may not get an answer, but if you know what the right questions to ask are, and how to ask them, then if you don’t get an explicit answer, you can get close to figuring out the answer.

There are basically two kinds of questions you can ask, open ended, and tie down.

Open ended questions are questions you use to elicit information, whereas tie down questions are questions you use to elicit commitment.

Open ended questions can be further broken down into background questions, challenge questions, history of critical events questions, urgency questions, benefits questions and solution questions, and they are best used in that particular order.

For example, your first series of open ended questions should be designed to put your prospect at ease, establish rapport, and avoid putting them on the defense. A good series of questions would be designed to explore and understand the prospect’s background.

Basic background questions might be something like:

  • ”I’ve done some research on your company and feel like I have a decent understanding of your background, but I’d really like to learn more about it from your perspective. Could you please tell me a bit more about yourself, how you got into this business, and about your company?”
  • “What are some of your company’s goals over the next year or two?”
  • “What is working well for you now?”
  • “Are there any areas where you see opportunities for improvement?”

By asking background questions first, you warm them up for deeper inquiry.

Hopefully, your research will have exposed a lot of this information prior to your meeting, and knowing most of the answers will help you develop the rapport you need.

As the prospect responds, you want to be able to understand their motivations for entering the industry, even if it is something as simple as a restaurateur saying “My spouse makes great soup.”

Big Point to Remember Here – At this point you are gathering information. You have not established enough rapport to be challenging the prospect’s management style.

You want to spend some time not talking about yourself, or your practice.  As a matter of fact, at this point in the game, every time you mention your practice and what you offer, you are turning the prospect off.  They just don’t care about you or your practice.  They care about themselves, and want you to also.

If you have any thought at all that your prospect wants to hear about you, or your practice—even though they invited you to find out what you could do for them—and both of you know that helping them is why you are there, this is not the time to talk about it. Take this opportunity to ask them some challenge questions instead.

Challenge questions are what you ask to discover more about the prospect’s needs and whether you can help them solve their problems.

Begin with a direct question about the problems facing them might open some doors in your mind. Hopefully, if you were listening while you were establishing rapport, you were able to pick up on some ideas as to what the prospect is facing.

Examples of challenge questions are:

  • “What problems do you see facing you and your company right now?”
  • “Are these the same types of problems that are facing others in the industry?”
  • “What do you find most challenging about these problems?”
  • “When did you first start noticing these problems?”
  • “Do you currently have anyone working with you to solve these problems, and if so, how effective are you finding them to be?”

Another Big Marketing Tip - One major question that most people forget to ask is to ask if others in the industry are having the same type of problem.  For example, if decreased foot traffic is a problem for the restauranteur, then you want to ask if anyone else is having the same type of problem. Many people don’t want to admit they’re unable to solve their problems, so they’ll often answer affirmatively.

Major Tip – If the prospect tells you who is suffering from similar challenges, you’ve just picked up potential leads. It won’t be an actual introduction, but it is another party worth researching and approaching later. Commit these names to memory.

Once you’ve been able to identify your prospect’s most serious problems, it’s time to see if you can understand what caused the problem and see if you can find a different way of solving the problem.

This is a shorter phase of the needs analysis, but will help both you and your prospect understand why the status quo isn’t good enough.

Here are a few questions to help you draw out the problem history:

  • “How were things before these problems developed?”
  • “What happened to cause these problems to escalate?”
  • “What has changed to cause these problems to become so serious?”

As you come to understand the history behind the prospect’s problems, and have an idea about what triggered their rise to the level of immediacy, you are ready to begin asking questions that identify the negative impact that will arise if the problems are not addressed.

These are called urgency questions, and they may include something like:

  • “How soon are you hoping to have these problems solved?”
  • “How have these problems affected your business?”
  • “How have these problems affected you personally?”
  • “If these problems are not solved in the immediate future, how could it negatively impact your business?”

At this point, you should have established rapport with your prospect, identified their needs, and gotten them to start thinking about the problems they face.

Your next step is to start drawing out a bit of the history.

For example, that restaurant owner we were talking to may have identified food costs as a problem, you may want to ask them when they first noticed that food costs were getting out of control, what happened that the food costs to start rising, and what have they noticed that they think may have caused this rise to become so serious.

Drawing out the prospects problem history should have caused their feeling of urgency to have built up enough connection so that they feel the problems you have identified are worth solving.

Following the history exploration, you want to find out if the problems have affected the prospect personally, and what will happen if they are not solved in the near or immediate future.

And finally, you want to help them see the positive outcome if you are able to help them solve their problem.  You want them to be able to visualize how much their life would improve if you could make their problems go away.

Without identifying solutions, you want to paint a picture in their mind of how much better their life would be if these problems were solved.

Here is where you want to start them on the emotional buying journey as you start asking benefit questions.

Yes, this is the beginning of the close.  You are starting to close the sale, and this is where you want to start using some “tie down” questions.  Benefit questions are primarily tie down questions, where you are working to get the prospect to commit.

Benefit questions can go like this:

  • “If I could solve your problem today, how much additional revenue do you stand to gain, or how much will you save in costs and resources?”
  • “How much closer would it bring you to hitting your goals?”
  • “What would it mean for your business?”
  • “How could this positively impact your life outside of work?”

By now you have probably stirred up some positive emotions around finding an immediate solution to their biggest problems.

Remember This Key - Buying decisions are made on emotions more than on anything else.

If you have completed this aspect of your client needs analysis, you know whether you can help them or not. Either way, it is time to thank them for the opportunity to learn about their issues, and walk away.

Yes, that it what I said. Now is not the time to be presenting your solution to their problems.

I’ll bet you didn’t see that one coming, did you?

Instead of going into your close and talking to the prospect about your services and your solution to their problem you need to step back and take some time to analyze their problem.

For the time being, all you should do is look as your potential client and say something like:

“I think I have a good idea of how my services can handle this problem, but if you don’t mind, I’d like to go back to the office and do some more analysis and put together a solution that is specifically designed for your unique situation. Can we meet again on (first option) or (second option)?”

Set a time to get back together, say goodbye and leave.

Your prospect will be pleasantly surprised, and should by now be thinking “Hey, these folks are actually interested in solving my problems, not just signing me up.”

At this point, you want the prospect to see you as a thoughtful and introspective expert with their best interests in mind.  You want them to think of you as having their interests first on your mind.

Asking for their business at this point defeats that by making the engagement seem more important than the solving of their needs.  Remember, this is not about you, it is about understanding and solving their needs and wants.

You want to take the time to go back to your office and carefully weigh their situation, and if you have associates, discuss their problems with them.  Then, you want to use that time to develop a custom solution that specifically meets their needs, and solves their specific problems.

Come back in a few days with a custom proposal that is designed to solve the needs that you and they identified at your first meeting. Give them the solution that will make their life better, just as you discussed the first time you met.

I guarantee you that once they see that you are not there to sign them as a client; that you are there to solve their unique problems, they will be waiting for you with pen in hand, and when you deliver, you will have a client for life.

Read part one: How do You do a Client Needs Analysis (CNA), and When?

About the Author

Kirk Ward, developed and sold a small chain of taco stands after a youthful career in broadcasting, and used the proceeds to finance his accounting education, graduating from Baylor University in the early 1970’s.

After a fifteen year career as an “Asset Based Loan” examiner or auditor, focused on contract compliance and fraud prevention, Kirk started and built several accounting and payroll practices in cities across the Southeast, authored a Special Enrollment Examination Review manual for Micro-Mash, a leading computer based training firm (now a part of Thompson-Reuters), and retired to the North Georgia mountains.

After retirement got boring, Kirk moved online to provide accountancy marketing tools and resources to independent, local, practitioners on the Practice Builder Publishing website at

Say something about this...
Share on Facebook
Tweet about this on Twitter
Share on LinkedIn
Email this to someone
Print this page