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Molly Sargent
Molly Sargent
 

Branding Your CPA Practice

Eight keys unlock the secret to making clients love
your brand.

September 8, 2009
by Molly Sargent

Clients choose CPA firms based on many factors, one of the most notable being the reputation or brand that’s built through word-of-mouth advertising. In today’s competitive market, brand matters. While companies design logos and slogans in the hope of making the client experience more positive, powerful and productive, but ultimately it’s important to consider how clients really experience your brand. The answer is: Through your company’s employees and staff members.

Brand comes alive for your clients in their interactions with your front-line representatives. Whoever touches the client embodies it. For that reason, CPA firms need to define behavioral accountabilities and communicate them to their staff from top down. For firms that fail to connect the dots between brand strategy and front-line behavior, the risk is that their strategy will fall short and be forgotten over time. Nice logo, but no lasting impact!

For example, visit your local bank. Their brand is visible in signage, collateral, building décor — all the trappings of a well-designed brand strategy. Sound familiar? These are meant to communicate the message: “We care.” Let’s say, however, that you pass by the signage and step up to the teller window. And suppose you meet a bank representative who is ill-groomed, lacking presence and lacking social grace. Despite all the effort to create a consistent brand message, this interaction with the teller becomes your experience of the bank’s brand. It’s no longer about the colors in the logo; this bank’s teller — and your experience at the teller’s window — becomes the brand in your eyes — the client — in ways that spell failure for the bank.

Your People Are Your Brand

What are you doing to manage how your brand is represented in every employee? What you should ask: Is it fair to have expectations about how your employees interact with clients, groom themselves, and conduct themselves by their manners and their presence? The answer is, “Yes. Tricky, but fair.” In fact, it’s imperative.

In an era when professional organizations are extensions of the education system and extensions of our families, CPA firms have an obligation to provide training and guidance on aspects of its employees’ professional demeanor that impact individual and company success. Cultural tolerance and respect in the workplace do not mean a lack of accountability for representing oneself in a way that reflects well on the firm.

Consider four critical factors that are part of how an individual in your firm represents your brand:

  1. Collaborative Conversations: Have your client-facing representatives engage clients. This way clients feel more involved and more in control, and assumptions are verified about the client before reps offer solutions that don’t fit the client’s needs;
  2. Professional Image: From business casual to boardroom credible, make sure your team looks the part without looking the same, projecting credibility and confidence even before they have the chance to speak;
  3. Business Etiquette: The knowledge of culturally sensitive behaviors and protocols that tell others that you are trustworthy and capable;
  4. Presentations With Presence: Deliver a message to a group in ways that inspire confidence and that move others into action. Create an interactive environment through the use of facilitation skills when the occasion calls for it.

Discussions on these topics are sometimes overlooked or avoided among colleagues because they can be taboo topics or tough messages to deliver. While feedback in these areas may constitute difficult discussions to host with an employee, ignore them at your peril, and at the peril of your brand.

Turn Slogans Into Action

Training and coaching for your employees need to go beyond communicating the concept of your brand. You need to translate brand into behavior. Train and coach client-facing representatives understand how to engage a client, how to dress, how to impress a client and how to address an audience.

Here are four steps to align individual employee behavior with brand strategy:

  1. Teach your people how to ask questions, listen intently, engage clients in discussions about solutions. This is called a Consultative Conversation. By engaging clients more effectively, your people are better able to develop relationships based on trust, understanding and value-delivered.
  2. Teach your people about professional standards of dress. This does not mean to teach people to look like everyone else in the office. It does mean: how to look their best — for not a lot of money, time or effort. Who benefits? The company, whose representatives live up to the brand; the clients, who are more at ease in the presence of credible, confident partners in business; and the individuals, who gain professional credibility and personal confidence.
  3. Teach your people about manners and their contribution to business success. Every culture has a language in its behaviors; these behaviors give clues about who you are and what you stand for. It’s important that the values you articulate as part of your Brand are the same values you see represented in your people. For instance, in the western cultures, respect for others means eye contact when you speak with them.
  4. Teach your people how to exude professional presence in groups and in one-on-one interactions through their body language, tone of voice and word choice. Having credible people helps to create a credible brand.

Conclusion

Defining a brand strategy is an important first step for enhancing the client experience of your organization. The trick is to not stop at the logos and slogans. Take steps to communicate how an individual’s behaviors align with the company’s intended image. Also train and coach your employees to be effective in those behaviors. In this way, the promise of your brand isn’t just words on a page; but comes alive in positive ways with profitable returns.

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Molly Sargent is the Principal of Norwalk, Connecticut-based Professional Impressions Consulting. She has trained and coached thousands of financial professionals and client-facing executives in professional image, presentation skills, business etiquette and sales effectiveness. Since 1985, Molly has helped major accounting firms and Fortune 500 companies, including Aetna, American Express, AT&T, Citibank, Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan, Key Bank, MasterCard, PricewaterhouseCoopers and Prudential achieve breakthrough results.