David Ackert has played the bad guy on such TV shows as “Monk” and “CSI: Miami.” But for lawyers and accountants, he takes on an even more sinister role – that of a reluctant customer.
A professional actor, Ackert runs a company that trains professionals how to sell their services. Part of the training involves role-playing sessions in which he plays a cantankerous chief executive who resists the sales pitch.
“The most entertaining part of my work is teaching theater to people with zero acting talent,” he said. “Fortunately, they’re playing themselves so their stiff portrayal is appropriate, but in these programs they have to think on their feet.”
The need for these training sessions comes when CPAs or lawyers at large firms are eligible to become partners. Until that point in their careers, they have performed professional work for those who usually are already clients. Suddenly their bosses demand that they bring new clients and more revenue into the firm, a task that their schooling and experience hasn’t prepared them for.
His nine-person company, Ackert Advisory in Encino, has conducted about 300 training programs at large firms, mostly in the L.A. region. The six-month class, which meets about once a month, begins by teaching the basics of selling, such as finding the problems a prospective client faces and then suggesting ways a lawyer or CPA could help them solve those problems. This presents a challenge because many professionals can talk endlessly about their qualifications and firm, but aren’t experienced in asking about issues at a potential clients’ firms and then figuring how to help them.
While the classroom sessions are often conducted by other trainers from Ackert Advisory, later sessions feature one-on-one role-playing with Ackert himself. He starts playing a friendly executive with a clear need for business services. As the sessions progress, he plays more complex characters. For example, he may play a small business owner who is from a foreign country and speaks with a thick accent; another of his characters may keep complaining about a bad experience with a previous lawyer; and a third may be an eccentric inventor who doesn’t have a clue about business.
The final training session is a team pitch, where a group of students tries to win an account while Ackert, playing the client company’s chief executive, tries to make them trip each other up.
“I’ve certainly played my share of stubborn CEOs and people who are desperate for help but have no money,” Ackert said. “But at no point do I pull out a gun or threaten to blow them up, as I’ve done on television.”
Despite the adversarial relationships, clients believe the play-acting produces better salespeople.
“The role-playing exercises with David have been valuable in helping our professionals further develop nontechnical skills,” said Leon Janks, managing partner at accounting firm Green Hasson Janks in Westwood, which has worked with Ackert over the last five years.
While many actors in Hollywood run media training services that teach executives how to behave during TV news interviews or talk-show appearances, Ackert said he has almost no competition in the business-development training niche.
The cost for the traditional training is not cheap. Depending on the number of students, it can run in the thousands of dollars per person for the six-month course.
Last year, Ackert realized he could expand his business if he could reach solo attorneys and small boutique firms that can’t afford those rates. He created a series of online training videos called the Practice Boomer program. For a subscription fee that starts at $75 per person per month, small companies can train staff through the Internet.
Also, the online program in recent weeks has expanded the company’s clientele geographically.
“We are just now seeing a significant uptick in our growth, and all the firms are headquartered on the East Coast,” Ackert said.
Jonathan Fitzgarrald, chief marketing officer at the law firm Greenburg Glusker in Century City, is also president of the Legal Marketing Association in Los Angeles. His firm has never used Ackert Advisory, but he is familiar with the company.
Fitzgarrald said the biggest challenge facing Ackert is trying to convert his classes to video on the Internet without losing their value.
“For attorneys, who are highly educated and smart, face-to-face training is extremely effective,” he explained. “You might develop a curriculum for basic skills (online), but high achievers want material tailored to their style and comfort zone. To reach the pinnacle of their profession, they want one-on-one technique.”
Ackert has worked as an actor since the 1990s, playing what he calls “swarthy villain” roles on such TV shows as “Bones,” “CSI: Miami” and “NYPD Blue.” Last year, he played an Iranian policeman in independent thriller film “5th & Alameda.”
When not in front of the cameras, he has worked in the marketing departments for several local companies. In 2000, he married a lawyer who said her firm was asking her to become a rainmaker, but she recoiled at the idea of enrolling in a sales course.
That gave Ackert the idea for his company, which he launched in 2001.
At first, the business was a way to support his acting career, but over time he saw the company as an expression of his dual interests in marketing and dramatic art.
“I got to a point where I was more passionate about the business than playing another bad guy on TV,” he said. “I enjoy the craft of acting and this business shows it can help people even if they are performing for an audience of one.”
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