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Blake Christian
Blake Christian
 

Marketing in a Challenging Economy

Ten best-practice tips revealed.

July 13, 2009
by Blake Christian, CPA/MBT

By nature CPAs are not natural born marketers. We tend to be very technical, but often more comfortable in the office versus approaching a client, prospect or a potential referral source to discuss a potential new service. Sadly, the old joke that: “A CPA is simply an actuary with a slightly better personality” is applicable to more than a few CPAs.

Many CPA firms are experiencing significant decreases in certain practice areas, including management consulting, M&A, audit and various niche practices. This has resulted in firm layoffs, salary freezes and aggressive cost cutting measures within the public accounting industry.

Those firms and professionals who have experienced a decade-long feast of new clients, higher billing rates, technology improvements and profitability enhancements are now experiencing a virtual famine of new clients. Furthermore, there is a natural reluctance to spend time or money on marketing.

The silver lining in the current economic environment is that CPAs continue to be the most trusted advisors for clients — and our services are needed more than ever to help guide business owners through the complex accounting, tax and financial issues they are facing. Another benefit in this economy is that just a minor amount of marketing effort can elevate your firm’s visibility dramatically since your competitors are likely hunkered down focusing on internal issues.

Even though many CPAs are under-gunned with respect to their marketing expertise, your competitors are equally handicapped. Furthermore, many clients have relatively low expectations of our marketing skills. However, the tough economy has raised the level of clients’ expectations with respect to timely, accurate and creative solutions to their unique issues. In fact, the vast majority of new clients our firm has secured this year is due to client perception that their former CPA firm lacked a pro-active style and/or truly understood their industry or cared about the client’s success.

Therefore, with just a little focus on your firm’s marketing effort you can easily differentiate your professional service offerings and your partner/principal/managers’ capabilities. New client proposal opportunities, higher client and personnel retention rates and expanded relationships with existing clients and referral sources will follow.

By capitalizing on exiting intellectual capital and current technologies, an updated practice development/ marketing plan can be accomplished without significant financial or time commitments. Here are a number of suggestions to make the most of your practice development efforts. Corporate CFOs, controllers and tax directors can also apply these best-practice tips to improve communication within their departments and with their outside CPA firms:

  1. Involve only the partners, managers and support staff who truly have the skills and passion to be involved in practice development. Unsupportive or unskilled firm members on the team will “poison the well” and likely doom your marketing initiative. Include a cross-section of tax, audit, consulting and other personnel to ensure synergies and cross-fertilization.
  2. Identify the niche practices and/or industries in which your firm excels in terms of outside reputation and/or profitability since these will provide you with the most impactful opportunities. Also evaluate areas where you have excess capacity.
  3. Gather useful articles, memos, whitepapers and related material to build an internal library of reference materials for team members. Post these items (after redacting client names) on your intranet for efficient access.
  4. Consider developing a single marketing piece (as well as press-releases, whitepapers, etc.) that includes critical information regarding the key technical/industry issues and your firm capabilities, including case study examples, for each targeted marketing effort in terms of industry or technical focus. For example manufacturing industry, hi-tech industry, debt restructuring, tax loss carry back maximization, forensic accounting services, employee benefit analysis, cost segregation studies, multi-state tax analysis, foreign tax structuring, energy incentive tax credit analysis, hiring and equipment tax credit analysis.
  5. Establish reasonably achievable goals (in writing) regarding the specific practice areas where your firm will develop new work, the percentage of the new work which will be generated from existing clients versus new clients, and the timeline for securing the new work.
  6. Triage your marketing efforts into short-term, mid-term and long-term objectives and spend the majority of your initial efforts on the “low-hanging fruit” which can generate work in the next 60 days.
  7. Share the top 10 key marketing initiatives with ALL partners, managers and appropriate staff in order to have them assist in identifying the top 10 internal and external targets to focus each of the marketing initiates to. Then establish a database and system to monitor the outreach and follow-up of these marketing efforts (see 10 below). This should include an initial partner or manager call to the target, a follow-up e-mail and/or letter, request for meeting, meeting/webinar or conference call with target’s key decision-makers and ongoing follow-up. A minimum of five contacts with the target is generally required to close any proposal and this is generally where the practice development effort fails due to lack of CPA follow-through.
  8. For the longer term improved internal and external dissemination of key economic, audit, tax and other financial data to your internal professionals, your clients, prospects and referral sources. As previously mentioned, clients have dramatically increased needs and expectations for relevant information from their service providers. Therefore, CPA firms should be circulating this information via client meeting, email, and/or their web sites. Culturally, CPA firms also need to stress this importance to everyone within the firm — even support staff who can direct people to sections of your web site, etc. All emails should include your firm’s web link and encourage employees to send a direct link (i.e. “deep link”) into the specific page or article posted on your web site as this will drive traffic to your site and allow your professionals to more effectively leverage their time.
  9. Data harvesting can easily be improved for purposes of enhanced client service and targeted marketing. For example, Google applications can allow you to keyword search your audit reports and other client correspondence. In addition, most of the tax return processing software products, e.g. Pro-Fx, Fast-Tax, etc, have the capability of producing various reports sorting returns between S Corps, C Corps, LLCs as well as those returns reflecting specific items such as foreign tax credits, bonus depreciation, capital gains and losses, LIFO inventory, domestic production activities, which can allow firms to easily develop highly targeted mailing lists to circulate topical tax and other financial updates to those companies who will be directly impacted.

    The majority of CPA firms have been slow to implement Contact Relationship Management (CRM) systems, which can be invaluable for marketing, internal and external knowledge sharing and ultimately maximizing effective client service. This is the perfect time to review your ability to effectively track clients, prospects and referral sources, as well as your ability to identify other firm members who have overlapping relationships with these contacts since this is critical to successfully closing proposals.

    With the slow-down in the industry and the availability of low-cost summer interns (check with your local Workforce Development Department or Universities), simply adding key data to your Microsoft Outlook “categories” sections can provide a very simple and cost-effective basic CRM solution. LinkedIn, Facebook and similar social networking options can offer additional marketing outreach — particularly for the younger professionals. Also consider updating your firm Web site to highlight your areas of focus and consider starting separate blogs for purposes of client development and recruiting.

    For serious firms, there are numerous other CRM systems with a wide assortment of bells-and-whistles with escalating costs. Other popular CRM choices include: SalesForce.com, Constant Contact, Microsoft CRM and Lexis-Nexis InterActive.
  10. For the longer term, educating all levels of professionals and support staff of the importance of ongoing marketing and practice development is critical for both personal and firm success. With such a diverse workforce these days, this offers tremendous opportunities to expand marketing into minority-owned businesses, marketing to certain ethnic groups and directing staff and managers to get involved with community organizations that they may have a passion for.

Conclusion

We can all look around at our competing firms and our coworkers (and recently-departed coworkers) and see fairly wide variations in reputations, current capabilities and potential. Being highly visible internally and externally through this challenging period can improve your longevity as well as your satisfaction level.

By taking some proactive steps to improve your personal and firm-wide practice development, while your competition is focusing on internal challenges, you won’t be left in the Darwinian dust.

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Blake Christian, CPA/MBT, is a tax partner in the Long Beach, California office of HCVT, LLP. Christian is also co-founder of National Tax Credit Group, LLC.