[IMGCAP(1)]I had long suspected that there was a strong disconnect between CPA partners’ perceptions about practice growth initiatives and their actions and behavior.

My firm, Tierney Coaching & Consulting, surveyed 113 CPA professionals across the United States to obtain pertinent information about CPA firms’ main initiatives to support practice growth. As a result, we were able to collect meaningful data on nationwide marketing initiatives and common obstacles that were faced during implementation.

The survey asked participants to identify the most significant performance factor among partners and shareholders when it comes to practice growth. We found a surprisingly large disparity between partners’ current roles and responsibilities and what they define as the most significant key factor of their performance.

It is apparent that the focus areas in which shareholders have chosen to invest their time and energy do not, in fact, support what they have identified is the most critical area for their success—a strong emphasis on business development.

Respondents to the survey represented management (27 percent), marketing (58 percent) and other categories (15 percent). Let’s take a look at the main areas of focus that were selected to support the CPA firms’ growth.

CPA Firms’ Marketing Initiatives Revealed
The main marketing initiatives as identified by CPA firm professionals are:

• Web site redesign (30 percent)
• Niche-focused marketing plans/efforts (30 percent)
• Branding/rebranding (10 percent)
• Social media (8 percent)
• Client relationship management (7 percent)
• Individual marketing plans (7 percent)
• Lead generation (6 percent)

Common Obstacles Faced During Implementation of Main Initiatives
When we examine the common obstacles that deterred the initiatives from moving forward we see a common pattern. Let’s explore which areas need partners’ attention and which do not. The results should provide a catalyst for a shift in focus from CPA firms’ management.

Web site: 30 percent of the respondents claimed a new Web site as their top initiative, which often included a new design, increasing user friendliness via a mobile device, blogs, or enhanced search engine optimization. The most common obstacles conveyed were partner involvement (unresponsiveness, lack of attention to review/supply content) that resulted in missed deadlines, doubled timeframes and increased costs.

Niche-focused marketing: 30 percent, or nearly a third of those surveyed noted a desire to focus on niche-focused efforts (concentrating on an industry or service to craft a strategy on attracting an “ideal” client). The main obstacle shared was a lack of time and focus on behalf of the shareholders.

Rebrand: 10 percent of those surveyed referred to a need for a branding or a rebranding. This was clearly connected to the afore-mentioned main initiative of launching a new Web site. The biggest problem here was the challenge of obtaining majority partner buy-in around the new look and feel of the brand.

Social media: 8 percent of those surveyed said they valued education about and training on social media, specifically LinkedIn. Many marketing and management professionals admitted to under-utilizing this medium. The main obstacle communicated was getting “buy-in” and sustained momentum at the partner level.

CRM: 7 percent cited the implementation of a client relationship management system as a main initiative. The challenge is the commitment from partners to populate the database from individual “address books” and maintenance issues (“Who will be allowed to edit or access this information?”).

Individual practice development plans: 7 percent of those surveyed were keen on providing senior professionals with a specific, strategic marketing plan. The biggest obstacle was getting commitment from the accountants (shareholders, too) for face-to-face time with clients.

Lead Generation: 6 percent were interested in a variety of ways (traditional and innovative/digital) in which they could attract new prospects. The obstacle cited with this initiative was a lack of follow-up from the shareholders and professional staff.

The Key Role of CPA Shareholders
The survey asked, “Can you identify a key aspect of the role or responsibility of the partners at your CPA firm that has changed significantly within the last five years?” Forty-four percent of those surveyed identified their role as business developers as a key performance indicator.

The majority of the responses (44 percent) to this question noted a strong emphasis on developing business as the most critical role of the partners at their firm.

Partner Involvement Misaligned with Key Performance Indicators
The survey indicated that partners have identified their most critical as that of a business developer; however, the survey suggested that partners are currently not appropriately engaged in activities to support this role. Business development at the partner and shareholder level is most effective when there is consistent interaction with clients, prospects and referral sources. We can clearly split this list of main marketing initiatives into two separate sections: active and passive, as demonstrated below:

ACTIVE = involving personal contact and interaction with those who can hire you or who can endorse you to those who can hire you, such as through conversation and dialogue, direct interaction, making a presentation to an audience, and one-on-one email.

PASSIVE = not involving active participation or visible reaction, such as writing an article, posting a blog, or broadcasting an email.

ACTIVE                                              PASSIVE                    

Niche-Focused plans                   Web site

Social Media                                  Branding

Personal Marketing Plans           CRM

Active Lead Generation               Passive Lead Generation

Should we just forget about all those passive marketing activities? Well, if you’re a partner you should! Leave it to the marketing professional you hired. They possess objectivity and a unique perspective that will better serve to oversee the passive marketing initiatives. For those firms without a marketing professional (and, of course for some of the more technical or larger tasks), it will be much more cost effective and time efficient to hire an external consultant or expert who can write that Web site, guide you through that CRM installation or conduct an appropriate survey of staff and clients to identify your (already-existing) brand. Save your energy and focus for the initiatives that are worth your time and money.

It just might be that the partners’ claims of a “lack of time” or “lack of focus” are really more about a lack of priority around which initiatives they should be involved in. Perhaps the partners in CPA firms today just have their hands in too many honey jars. Perhaps they don’t have time for all that they do, and, when those tasks fall under the guise of marketing, their perception is that they are spread too thin and can’t see any results of their labor.

If partners are guided to focus on doing more of what makes sense in terms of supporting their objectives, they will start to value the activities because they will be doing less while yielding more results, explained as follows:

Niche-focused efforts are the number one winner in terms of being recognized as a key area of focus. However, the challenge remains to convince partners to regularly interact with their current clients who fall into their niche, referral sources that serve this niche, and, finally, actively participate in one or two target organizations to plan ahead to proactively market your firm.

Personal marketing plans help encourage professionals to find their own way when it comes to communicating their value to a group of their ideal clients. Participation in marketing activities that they genuinely enjoy and value can make all the difference in the world in addressing motivation, which will result in sustaining momentum.

Social media remains to be the most under-utilized venue for interaction by accountants. Understanding the potential of this medium for research, education, introductions and communication can turn each and every one of your professionals into an expert marketer.

Web sites, brochures and the like are great. But no company is calling you up to say, “Your Web site is so cool! Will you conduct my $40,000 audit next year?”

If partners can learn to let go of what is actually keeping them from their clients with passive marketing activities, and instead embrace the need for more comfortable interaction with their ideal client through active marketing, they will soon see the difference.

Lisa Tierney, CLSC, is a certified professional coach and an award‐winning consultant to the accounting profession which she has served for over 15 years. She is a frequent author, speaker and facilitator of workshops serving the accounting profession. She currently serves as the vice president of the Philadelphia Chapter of the Association for Accounting Marketing. She is a member of the CPA Leadership Institute's Leadership Panel and an active member of the International Coach Federation. Her firm, Tierney Coaching & Consulting, Inc., serves multi-partner CPA firms across the country offering customized marketing plans, business development coaching, leadership development programs and innovative incentive comprehensive programs. She can be reached at (267) 470-4250 or Lisa@CPAMarketingConsultant.com.

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