With the ongoing challenges in today's tax & accounting industry, many firms are looking to keep their eyes on growing their business. Here's some ways they could do it.
As 2022 approaches, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact the economy, businesses are wrestling with inflation and supply chain challenges, and employers are striving to strike a winning balance between in-person and remote work. In this uncertain, fast-changing environment, what marketing and sales strategies will help accounting firms engage clients and stay on a growth trajectory?
Sarah Johnson Dobek, founder and president of Inovatus Consulting, which advises accounting firms on business development strategies, programs, and training, offers seven recommendations for accounting firms looking to keep their growth on track.
1. Get ready for competition without borders
Remote, virtual work is here to stay, but this gives accounting firms the opportunity to go after clients anywhere — and clients aren’t limited to only the CPA firms in their backyards. “We believe that this is going to increase competition among firms,” Dobek says. “We’ve already seen firms picking up a number of clients outside of their immediate areas.”
Large regional and national accounting firms have marketed across geographies for years, but it’s a big shift for those firms outside the top 75 or 100 in the country, she notes. “In order to do this, you have to understand your clients and what they want — and be really clear on your messaging.”
2. Confirm client wants and needs
Most businesses have undergone unprecedented change within the past two years, so it’s reasonable to assume that what they’ll need going forward from their CPA firm has changed as well. “Many accounting firms don’t really know what their clients want and need,” Dobek explains. “They don’t know what’s on their minds, what their priorities are, or what’s challenging them. They don’t understand how they’re making decisions.”
The ability for firms to demonstrate that they understand their clients’ business offers another opportunity for firms to set themselves apart from the competition, she adds. “If we want to really connect and differentiate ourselves and create marketing content that resonates, it requires us to have that knowledge and have the right conversations with our clients — deep conversations — not just, ‘When do you want us to get this done?’”
Even when a firm is certain it has a deep understanding of the business of a client or prospective client, they should validate their beliefs, Dobek suggests. “You might learn something new in the process, and there is nothing you will lose by deepening your relationship with your client,” she says. “You are only going to gain something: you’re going to gain loyalty; you’re going to gain trust; and you might gain some opportunity by understanding some things that you didn’t know that [the client] had going on. Get curious, get really curious with your clients.”
3. Identify the right market segments
As mentioned earlier, accounting firms can pursue business virtually anywhere — so how do they decide where to focus? What market segments do they target and where? Who are their ideal clients in this new ball game?
Often, firms established a market niche through happenstance and serendipity and then built a solid portfolio of clients through hard work, good service, and business savvy, Dobek says, adding that often they don’t have a detailed, nuanced understanding of the market and competitive landscape in which they operate. And now borderless competition has the potential to transform markets, bring in new competition, and open up opportunities.
Dobek and her team help accounting firms leverage market research to gain a solid foothold in this shifting landscape. “As firms look at expanding outside their geographic market, we’re spending a lot of time on research to help them make decisions regarding on what areas they should focus and what markets to enter,” she says. “If they have a choice between two markets, which one do they target? Market research informs that decision-making process.”
4. Differentiate your service from competitors
If you removed the logo and branding from many accounting firms’ websites it would be hard to tell them apart, Dobek says, because they describe similar or identical services and work products. “Service is important to every firm and, of course, it’s important to the client; but people’s definition of service differs,” she explains. “How you approach delivering on your service — that’s where we see the opportunity for firms to differentiate their messaging. What truly makes firms unique and different is the combination of their people and the unique knowledge and skillset those people have, how they view the world, but also how they approach serving their clients.”
That special sauce is driven by the accounting firm’s vision, mission, and core values, Dobek explains. “The firms that have figured this out do a better job articulating what makes them unique.”
5. Align core values with service specialties
A firm also can craft its unique operational approach — the how that sets it apart — to deftly align with a particular advisory service or specific industry expertise. For example, a firm specializing in a market segment — real estate, for example, or trucking — could create communications that emphasize its industry expertise and pair that with its intense drive to forge a deep, detailed understanding of a client’s operations and strategic priorities.
6. Find the right client fit
“Every client has one or two things that they’re going to base their decision on when selecting a firm, and firms want to go to market with a handful of things that make them unique,” Dobek explains. “One of those things will resonate, typically, and help you attract the right client.”
If your firm values relationships, for example, talk to your clients and prospective clients about how you build relationships with clients. This will engage prospective clients who value close relationships and, equally important, repel those who are looking for the cheapest tax return or audit, Dobek adds. In this way, marketing communications leads to a sales funnel of clients who are a good fit with the firm.
7. Change the sales conversation
Refining the firm’s narrative in its marketing materials is not enough — this story needs to come through in the sales process, as well. “There’s an opportunity for a lot of our sales professionals to get more comfortable talking to clients about what makes their firms unique, to have a story about what they believe in as an organization and how it ties into the work they do,” Dobek explains. “You can’t begin to teach people to do that, however, until the organization itself understands what that is.”