Bringing In New Customers

With a revived economy and more technology options, firms are attracting more customers.

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Death Care Seminars might not sound like the most appealing activity that a CPA could engage in. But, for Mickey Scheffki and Clifton Gunderson, the seminars are part of an important niche marketing effort. Scheffki, a CPA and CITP, targets cheese processors-seven in Wisconsin over two years-and funeral homes-about 12 engagements-for Sage Software's MAS accounting software line. When working with funeral homes, the firm conducts the educational seminars, which it also provides to companies such as cemeteries, and suppliers that provide services to the funeral home market.

"We just happened to do one and then another," says Scheffki, the firm's director of technology consulting. "Then, we met up with some other providers that work with funeral home directors across the country and decided to do some half-day educational seminars with them." One of the accounting firm's offices also exhibits at the annual conference of the funeral directors association. It was easy to identify the target market. States have funeral directors associations with Web sites that list members.

The link to MAS 90 is not because it does a great job of tracking caskets. It has more to do with the fact CG has partnered with a firm whose software handles the CRM angles, including government reporting, funeral pre-planning, cemetery mapping, and keeping information on the survivors. But it does not do the financials.

Partner Insights

"That's where the MAS 90 comes in. They have the interface to MAS 90 done so there's no need for re-entering information," she says.

Word of mouth still represents an important part of business development and so is location, although having the firm headquarters in Peoria, Ill., doesn't offer one of the best geographies. However, the firm's sales and marketing efforts are producing a steady increase in business.

And she expects that business to increase. The Downstate Illinois Technology Consulting practice, for which she is responsible, currently has 400 active clients and expects to add approximately 40 more by year-end.

Scheffki's group is broken into four categories: software services, infrastructure and network services, security services and application development. The software side sells Sage's MAS 90/200, and Microsoft's Great Plains and Navision.

Another source of business is cross-selling technology products and services to its traditional clients. It is a tactic that has not always worked well in CPA firms, but it is one that CG emphasizes and says has consistently produced results.

"We work hard at being consistent and offering education to both our customers and internally to the more traditional side of the firm that focuses on tax and audit services" says Scheffki. Her group hosts lunch-and-learns for the tax and audit side with sessions covering topics such as products and identifying good leads. Each month, the technology department receives approximately ten leads from other departments within the firm.

The technology group also has three staff members dedicated to business development. These employees work with the marketing staff to develop marketing plans and ongoing campaigns, identify potential lead sources, and generate leads by developing centers of influence and contacts in the local business community.

"Each business development person has sales goals and is compensated based on an incentive plan, and must also keep management and software vendors apprised of the status of opportunities. In addition to knowing the products and services they sell directly, they must learn about the other service offerings of the firm, and actively seek opportunities to cross sell those services," adds Scheffki.

Whatever the business, in tough times or good times, business development is crucial. The main job is still finding new customers. With the economic climate far improved over two years ago, firms are setting higher goals. But it is one thing to have ambitious goals. It is another to achieve them.

Focusing on niches is only a part of the firm's business development. And business development is something that firms need to work on, no matter whether the pickings are slim, or whether business is picking up, as it has this year for many accounting and consulting organizations.

Different views

Sometimes it is how you look at things. Baytek, a Las Vegas-based Sage reseller, finds that segmenting its customer base helps the firm serve clients better.

"When we look at segmenting, we are studying our 'customer group' and analyzing those groups with similar buying needs and desires so that we can serve them with the same or similar value propositions," says CEO Judy Thornell.

The process has helped Baytek move past the half-point in reaching its goal of acquiring 800 new customers this year in July. The company, which employs twenty-three, handles Sage Software's applications, including the MAS, Peachtree, and BusinessWorks accounting lines.

Better Connecting the Accountant

Mountain View, Calif.-based Intuit's ProAdvisors wanted to be better connected to small business owners.

"After what we heard from our Accountants' Advisory Council, we knew we had to make customers and prospects better aware of our QuickBooks ProAdvisors," says Rich Walker, director of the accountant service group. Intuit did several things to make this happen and as result of these efforts, hits to the ProAdvisor Referral database have gone up five fold. Initiatives included:

* On the QuickBooks home page there is now a link to find local QuickBooks experts. The link takes QuickBooks owners to the QuickBooks ProAdvisors Referral database.

* Intuit now sends out an email to all new QuickBooks registrants. They receive a list of resources via email, including how to find a local QuickBooks ProAdvisor.

* QuickBooks users also receive educational emails, that include topics such as how to use QuickBooks efficiently. Each issue features an article about the way a ProAdvisor has helped a customer.

* Intuit created a QuickBooks Client Newsletter. Accountants can subscribe to the newsletter at a discount, and can send it to their customers in either print or electronic form.

* Intuit's pre-packaged PowerPoint presentations and instructor notes for several one-hour seminars. "We found accountants who host one-hour free seminars on QuickBooks bring in more new prospects," says Walker.

"We add approximately 40 new customers per month. This year, we have more team members involved in networking within their respective communities. We ask for referrals from our customers, build outbound telemarketing programs, leverage business intelligence, and participate in programs for various events or organizations such as the Ronald McDonald House," says Thornell.

Within each segment, the firm studies three customer groups: existing customers, new customers, and customers who may be seriously considering a competitor's product, which might have a chance of being a lost customer. The firm identifies sales strategies, products, and services that are appropriate for each.

"These groups are important to Baytek as we use them to review and analyze the customer focused trends within our organization, which further helps us identify whether we are winning the deals we have targeted and whether our current customers are responding to our value programs," adds Thornell. "We also use this data for cross-selling and up-selling."

Segmentation is important to not only gaining new customers which result in increased sales profits, but allows us to win many of those customers with common marketing and value proposition which can reduce costs and further increase profit. Segmenting allows us to find our sweet spot," says Thornell.

Niche Marketing

Many firms are finding marketing to specific industries is bringing in a solid amount of new customers.

Clifton Gunderson is making marketing to niches a firm-wide goal. Each service center has specific target markets. Firm-wide niches include manufacturing, construction, home health care, professional services and grain elevators. Home health care services, based on Navision, is particularly important.

Factors that are considered in picking a niche include what is driving the need for technology services, the changes the industry is undergoing, and what technology that businesses in that segment need to be competitive.

The firm isn't always looking for large number of prospects. Sometimes, as with the cheese processors and funeral home directors, the target is what Scheffki calls a mini-niche.

"We target groups of 100 and aim to get 10 clients," adds Scheffki. "We consider how many organizations are located in our targeted geographic regions, look at who our competition is in these areas, and consider how we can differentiate ourselves from the competition and give added value to these potential clients."

Clifton Gunderson isn't the only firm that has seen an increase in customers from targeting a niche market.

David Thikoll, owner of Phoenix-based Cardamel Consulting, hired three people in the last six months to handle the increased interest in software geared at the construction industry. Thikoll, whose firm sells Microsoft's Solomon software, prefers to work with homebuilders who are ready for a change.

Although the company is averaging one new customer per month, he does not want a high-volume of new sales.

"We prefer to work with fewer customers for a longer time," he says. "Homebuilders need a lot of hand holding and education and we don't want more customers than we have people to handle them."

Success has come from referrals from existing clients and participating in industry-specific events, including the Builder 20 Clubs put together by the National Association of Homebuilders.

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