To grow an accounting firm, it’s my experience that you need three things working together:
- A big database of existing clients and prospects (most firms have very few prospects to whom they market).
- A sharp brand that reflects who you are, what you do and how you do it consistently. For example, if you tell a prospect you are an expert in helping small business grow, but they go to your website and all they see if your expertise in tax and accounting, that is a branding problem.
- Lots of marketing activity.
Many firms do next to nothing in terms of marketing. Therefore, the good news is if all you do is a little bit, you will stand out! On a recent webinar, I asked the audience a polling question to determine their approach to marketing. Very few had a dedicated marketing resource who was not also an accountant. Most firms suggested that the partners of the firm did a bit of marketing and that was it. Imagine what might happen if you really took marketing seriously.
In this article, I provide five ideas to become more effective in marketing your firm.
1. Bring in a dedicated marketing resource
If you are in growth mode, you need someone who will drive activity. You can build your prospect list daily (pull out all of those old business cards you and your partners and team have collected over the years and add them to your list for starters!) and if you need a brand overhaul, bring in an expert and get it done. The most important place to focus is in generating activity.
With that in mind, I do not recommend that you hire a senior marketing manager unless you are a firm with some serious scale. What most smaller firms need is a marketing coordinator. This is a commonly recognised role, and if you placed an ad on Seek with that title, you would have responses. The key role of the marketing coordinator is to make things happen. The partners of the firm set the strategy — for example, we aim to grow by 20% in revenue and to do that, we need $60,000 in additional work from existing clients and $40,000 in new clients, being four new clients at $10,000 each. You then determine what activities need to happen to generate that additional revenue, pass that over to your marketing coordinator and give them the brief to make it happen. This could include organising events, booking client visits, lining up speeches for the partners, and more.
Depending on your size and growth plans, you may or may not need a full time person in this role. It could well be a couple of days a week, and you will find that at least part of the role could be outsourced or even offshored.
2. Implement a referral strategy
Most accounting firms report that the preponderance of their new clients come from referrals from existing clients. It is likely the same story for you. If you started your firm from scratch, no doubt you remember asking everyone you knew if they needed an accountant because you had started a new firm — and new clients turned up. You might also reflect that when you got busy, you stopped asking and referrals slowed down. No surprise, but what you should glean from this is that it is quite easy to grow an accounting firm if you do the right things.
Asking for referrals starts with the language you use when you are asked a question. It’s a question you no doubt get asked very often: “How’s business?” If you respond — as many accountants do — by saying “we’re flat out, snowed under, work coming out of our ears” don’t be surprised when a flow of referrals is not forthcoming from the questioner. Instead, try this: “Business is terrific, thank you, but we are always looking for more. In fact, if you happen to know anyone who might benefit from our services, please know that we have the capacity to take on a small number of new clients, and we would be happy to meet with them for a free initial consultation.”
One important thing on referrals that I picked up from sales guru Jeffrey Gitomer: don’t ask for referrals until you have earned them. There is always risk associated with giving a referral, so you want to make sure that your client service is top notch for existing clients before you implement your referral strategy en masse.
3. Visit your existing clients systematically
A key performance indicator you should measure every month is number of sales meetings held with existing clients. I define a sales visit as any meeting that goes over and above handing over a document and saying ‘sign here.’ Every time you see a business client, your mindset should be: is this client buying every service that they need from us to fulfil their goals? That means you need to have better quality conversations with your clients to determine what their goals are (both business and personal), and then be prepared to recommend how you might help them reach those goals. A key frustration as articulated by clients is that they wish their accountant would get off the fence and recommend a clear course of action. Don’t be afraid that the client might say no — some will. You are doing your duty by visiting, asking great questions and making recommendations. And of course, if you do that consistently, new work will arise.
4. Hold events
Everything goes through cycles. The word on the street is that it’s hard to get people to come out to events now and that you should do webinars instead. Well, there’s certainly merit in holding webinars, but when everyone does webinars, if you hold face-to-face events you differentiate yourself. I recently had the privilege of speaking at an event for an accounting firm on the Sunshine Coast in Australia. They marketed the event really well, tapping into business partners such as financial planners, business brokers and banks. 105 people turned up, and the principal of the firm conservatively estimates he will bill $50,000 in new revenue in year 1 as a result of the event. If you are going to do events, do them properly and don’t fall into the trap of sending one email to market it and cancelling it when only two people register!
5. Build alliances with other referrers of work
The other place referrals come from is other professionals, such as the business partners the accountant tapped into to fill his event above. Take a look at where your top 20 most recent new clients came from. You might find that you got four or five from one source — perhaps a bank manager. If you nurtured that banker by meeting quarterly, presenting case studies of how you work with clients and sending work his or her way — treating them as you would an A class client — it’s not unlikely to think that you could easily double that number. In the 1990s, I worked in an accounting firm where we tracked over 70% of our new client referrals to four bank managers. We doubled our nurturing efforts with those four and referrals tripled — and into the bargain, the average fee of the referrals increased as well.
In summary, activity is the key to marketing your firm. Pick two or three of my ideas here and get a plan together to effectively grow your firm through focused marketing.