Consultative Selling in Small Business Finance
It’s nearly impossible to teach fiscal responsibility to most consumers, according to researchers at universities and nonprofit agencies. But alternative small-business funders and brokers often manage to steer clients toward financial prudence, and imparting pecuniary knowledge can become part of a consultative approach to selling.
Still, nobody says it’s easy to convince the public or merchants to handle cash, credit and debt wisely and responsibly. Consider the consumer research cited by Mariel Beasley, principal at the Center for Advanced Hindsight at Duke University and co-director of the Common Cents Lab, which works to improve the financial behavior of low- and moderate-income households.
“For the last 30 years in the U.S. there has been a huge emphasis on increasing financial education, financial literacy,” Beasley says. But it hasn’t really worked. “Content-based financial education classes only accounted for .1 percent variation in financial behavior,” she continues. “We like to joke that it’s not zero but it’s very, very close.” And that’s the average. Online and classroom financial education influences lower-income people even less.
The problem stems from trying to teach financial responsibility too late in life, says Noah Grayson, president and founder of Norwalk, Conn.-based South End Capital. He advocates introducing young people to finance at the same time they’re learning history, algebra and other standard subjects in school.
Yet Grayson and others contend that it’s never too late for motivated entrepreneurs to pick up the basics. Even novice small-business owners tend to possess a little more financial acumen than the average person, they say. That makes entrepreneurs easier to teach than the general public but still in need of coaching in the basics of handling money.
Take the example of a shopkeeper who grabs an offer of $50,000 with no idea how he’ll use the funds to grow the business or how he’ll pay the money back, suggests Cheryl Tibbs, general manager of One Stop Commercial Capital, Douglasville, Ga. “The easy access to credit blinds a lot of merchants,” she notes.
Entrepreneurs often make bad decisions simply because they don’t have a background in business, according to Jared Weitz, CEO of New York based United Capital Source. “Many of the people who come to us are trying their hardest,” he observes.
Weitz offers the example of his own close relative who’s a veterinarian. That profession attracts some of the brainiest high-school valedictorians but doesn’t mean they know business. “He’s the best doctor ever and he’s not a great businessman because he doesn’t think about those things first. What he thinks about is helping people. That’s why he got into his profession.”
Entrepreneurs often devote themselves to a vision that isn’t businesses-oriented. “They start a business because they have a great idea or a great product, and that’s what excites them,” Grayson says. “They jump in with both feet and don’t think much about the business side.” The business side isn’t as much fun.
Merchants also attend to so many aspects of an enterprise—everything from sales, production and distribution to hiring, payroll and training—that they can’t afford to devote too much time to any single facet, notes Joe Fiorella, principal at Kansas City, Mo.-based Central Funding. Business owners respond to what’s most urgent, not necessarily what’s most important.
For whatever reason, some business owners spiral downward into financial ruin, bouncing checks, stacking merchant cash advances and continually seeking yet another merchant cash advance to bail them out of a precarious situation, says Jeremy Brown, chairman of Bethesda, Md.-based Rapid Advance.
Weitz advises sitting down with those clients and coming to an understanding of the situation. In some cases, enough cash might be coming in but the incoming autopayments aren’t timed to cover the outgoing autopayments, he says by way of example.
Informing clients of such problems makes a demonstrable difference. “We can see that it works because we have clients renewing with us,” says Weitz. “We’re able to swim them upstream to different products” as their finances gradually improve, he says.
The products in that stream begin with relatively higher-cost vehicles like merchant cash advances and proceed to other less-expensive instruments with better terms, says Brown. Those include term loans, Small Business Administration loans, equipment leasing, receivables factoring and, ultimately the goal for any well-capitalized small business—a relationship with the local bank.
Failing to consider those options and instead simply abetting stackers to make a quick buck can give the industry a “black eye,” and it benefits none of the parties involved, Tibbs observes. But merchants deserve as much blame as funders and brokers, she maintains.
Prospective clients who stack MCAs, don’t care about their credit rating and simply want to staunch their financial bleeding probably account for 35 percent to 40 percent of the applicants Tibbs encounters, she says.
Just the same, alt-funders continue to urge clients to hire accountants, consult attorneys, employ helpful software, shore up credit ratings, keep tabs on cash flow, calculate margins, improve distribution chains and outline plans for growth. It’s what helps the industry rise above the “get-money quick” image that it’s outgrowing, Weitz, says. Many funders and brokers consider providing financial advice an essential aspect of consultative selling. It’s an approach that begins with making sure applicants understand the debt they’re taking on, the terms of the payback and how their businesses will benefit from the influx of capital. It continues with a commitment to helping clients not just with funding but also with other types of business consultation.
“It’s not so much selling as building a rapport with clients—serving as a strategic advisor or financial resource for them, identifying their needs and directing them to the right loan product to meet those needs,” says Grayson. “They should feel they can call you about anything specific to their business, not just their loan requests.” He also cautions against providing information the client will not absorb or will find offensive.
Justin Bakes, CEO of Boston-based Forward Financing also advocates consultative selling. “It’s all about questions and getting information on what’s driving the business owner,” he says. “It’s a process.”
Consultative sales hinges on knowing the customer, agrees Jason Solomon, Forward Financing vice president of sales. “Businesses are never similar in the mind of the business owner,” he notes. “To effectively structure a program best-suited to the merchant’s long-time business needs and set a proper path forward to better and better financial products, you need to know who the business owner is and what his long term goals are.”
“It’s taking an approach of actually being a consultant as opposed to a $7 an hour order taker,” Tibbs says of consultative selling. “I like to teach new reps to think of it as if you were a doctor. Doctors ask questions to arrive at a final diagnosis. So if you’re asking your prospective customer questions about their business, about their cash flow, about their intentions of how they’re planning to get back on track.”
Learning about the clients’ business helps brokers recommend the least-expensive funding instrument, Tibbs says. “I really hate to see someone with a 700 credit score come in to get a merchant cash advance,” she maintains. The consultative approach requires knowing the funding products, knowing how to listen to the customer and combining those two elements to make an informed decision on which product to recommend, she notes.
Consultative sales can greatly benefit clients, Weitz maintains. If a pizzeria proprietor asks for an expensive $50,000 cash advance to buy a new oven, a responsible broker may find the applicant qualifies for an equipment loan with single-digit interest and monthly payments over a five-year period that puts less pressure on daily cash flow.
It’s also about pointing out errors. Brokers and funders see common mistakes when they look at tax returns and financial records, says Brown. “The biggest issue is that small-business owners—because they work so hard— make a profit of X amount of money and then take that out of the business,” he notes. Instead, he advises reinvesting a portion of those funds so that they can build equity in the business and avoid the need to seek outside capital at high rates.
Another common error occurs when entrepreneurs take a short-term approach to their businesses instead of making longer-term plans, Brown says. That longer-term vision includes learning what it takes to improve their businesses enough to qualify for lower-cost financing.
Sometimes, small merchants also make the mistake of blending their personal finances and their business dealings. Some do it out of necessity because they’re launching an enterprise on their personal credit cards, and others act of ignorance. “They don’t necessarily know they’re doing something wrong,” Grayson observes. “There are tax ramifications.”
Some just don’t look at their businesses objectively. Take the example of a company that approached Central Funding for capital to buy inventory in Asia. Fiorella studied the numbers and then informed the merchant that it wasn’t a money problem—it was a margins problem. “You could sell three times what you’re wanting to buy, and you still won’t get to where you want to be,” he reports telling the potential customer.
Consultative selling also means establishing a long-term relationship. Forward Financing uses technology to keep in contact with clients regularly, not just when clients need capital, Bakes notes. That cultivates long-lasting relationships and shows the company cares. As the relationship matures it becomes easier to maintain because the customers want to talk to the company. “They’re running to pick up the phone.”
The conversations that don’t hinge on funding usually center on Forward Financing learning more about the customer’s business, says Solomon. That include the client’s needs and how they’ve used the capital they’ve received.
“We have our own internal cadence and guidelines for when we reach out and how often and what happens,” says Solomon. Customer relationship management technology provides triggers when it’s time for the sales team or the account-servicing team to contact clients by phone or email.
Do small-business owners take advice on their finances? Some need a steady infusion of capital at increasingly higher cost and simply won’t heed the best tips, says Solomon. “It’s certainly a mix,” he says. “Not everybody is going to listen.”
Paradoxically, the business owners most open to advice already have the best-run companies, says Fiorella. Those who are closed to counseling often need it the most, he declares.
Moreover, not everybody is taking the consultative approach. “New brokers are so excited to get a commission check they throw the consultative approach out the window,” Tibbs says.
Yet many alt-funders bring consultative experience from other professions into their work with providing funds to small business. Tibbs, for example, previously helped home buyers find the best mortgage.
Consultative selling came naturally to Central Funding because the company started as a business and analytics consultancy called Blue Sea Services and then transformed itself into an alternative funding firm, says Fiorella. Central Funding reviews clients’ financial statements and operations between rounds of funding, he notes.
Consultations with borrowers reach an especially deep level at PledgeCap, a Long Island-based asset-based lender, because clients who default have to forfeit the valuables they put up as collateral—anything from a yacht to a bulldozer—says Gene Ayzenberg, PledgeCap’s chief operating officer. Conversations cover the value of the assets and the risk of losing them as well as the reasons for seeking capital, he notes.
No matter how salespeople arrive at their belief in the consultative approach, they last much longer in the business than their competitors who are merely seeking a quick payoff, Tibbs says. Others contend that it’s clearly the best way to operate these days.
“The consultative approach is the only one that works,” says Weitz. “Today, everything is about the customer experience. People are making more-educated, better informed decisions.” What’s more, with the consultative approach clients just keep getting smarter, he adds.
The days of the hard sell have ended, Grayson agrees. Customers have access to information on the internet, and brokers and funders can prosper by helping customers, he says. “Our compensation doesn’t vary much depending upon which product we put a client in so we can dig deeper into what will fit the client without thinking about what the economic benefit will be to us.”
Even though the public has become familiar with alternative financing in general, most haven’t learned the nuances. That’s where consultative selling can help by outlining the differing products now available for businesses with nearly any type of credit-worthiness. “It’s for everybody,” Weitz says of today’s alternative small business funding, “not just a bank turn-down.”Last modified: October 17, 2019