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Peter Brown
Ask these questions to land new clients

A tactical, strategic, and well-managed approach is critical for consistently winning new business.

September 23, 2013
By Peter Brown

In a recent survey, the AICPA asked accounting firms to rank both their top priorities and the top issues they are facing. Not surprisingly, bringing new business into the firm is one of the top issues for firms of all sizes and was the top issue for firms with 11–20 professionals.

Consistently, accountants I work with say that competition for new clients is and always will be, fierce. Top clients tend to be judicious and thorough in selecting their financial services professionals. Therefore, a tactical, strategic, and well-managed approach is critical for consistently winning new business. To get started, it’s often helpful to consider a few questions.

Why?

A specific client can be targeted with any number of goals. The goal may be to increase market share or introduce a new service to existing clients. Or the firm could be entering a completely new market for a specific service, or simply seeking to broaden its geographic base. Firms often find success when they are able to identify which industries have been experiencing high sales growth or expansion, and avoid devoting significant resources to industries in decline. Whatever the reason may be, the firm should have a focused and well-defined idea of how the engagement fits into its strategic direction.

What?

Hinge Research Institute polled both CPAs and business executives in an effort to determine why firms win new business in the final bidding stage. The top response was better expertise and specialization. It is critical for a firm’s decision-makers to ask: Are we specialized? Are we really looking at a specific industry niche that makes us unique or at industries that we have enjoyed great success with in the past? Have we focused on specific services in which we excel, or are we employing a jack-of-all-trades strategy? It makes sense that those firms that compartmentalize and specialize are the ones winning new business.

What makes the firm unique? What sets it apart from the competition? In answering these questions, it is useful to understand what makes clients go elsewhere. CPAs often believe that clients choose their business based on relative cost. However, in the same Hinge poll, only 16% of business executives reported price as the motivating factor in choosing one competitor over another compared with 43% of CPAs who said price is the largest influence.

It appears that businesses are willing to pay for the right fit with the relevant expertise. Again, business executives report that lack of industry knowledge is the primary factor in why they chose a competing CPA firm, followed by a sense of having a bad fit or sharing different values. Being able to demonstrate that the firm’s professionals can serve as trusted experts who understand their clients’ industry is of inestimable importance, and it will help the firm win clients time and again.

Who?

Knowing the various strengths and specialties of each client-facing individual helps determine who is best suited to go after a particular client. A partner with a relevant sales or business development background would be a good place to look, even if he or she doesn’t serve in that capacity in the firm.

How?

Once the firm knows why it wants to approach a target, what the nature of the pitch should be, and who should be pitching the services, it is critical to understand how to best approach a potential new client.  Sometimes the simplest personalized touches (e.g., a congratulatory note about a milestone that the prospect’s company has achieved) can help get the firm’s foot in the door with a potential client. Research has shown that developing personal relationships is by far the best way to do this. Advertising, email marketing, and social media are all fantastic tools for outreach, but they have not supplanted a good old-fashioned handshake.

As a final note, it is worth pointing out the relative costs of client acquisition and client retention. According to the AICPA, it is 11 times more expensive to bring on a new client than it is to keep an existing one. A firm should use this information to its advantage; when surveyed, 44% of clients reported that they were interested in additional financial services. The largest pool of prospective clients is often the untapped potential within a firm’s existing client base. Thus, it is imperative to continue deepening relationships with clients to identify opportunities where the firm can grow its business from existing clients.

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Peter Brown is a senior consultant at Sageworks, a Raleigh, N.C.-based financial information company that provides accounting and audit solutions.