7 ways to grow your accounting practice, even in a down economy

No one predicted this. No one saw 2020 shaping up the way it has. We didn’t choose this year, but for some reason, it chose us. Hopefully, you’ve moved through all the stages of grief and have accepted that life “is what it is.” We can reminisce about the “good old days,” but life has turned the page and given us a new chapter.

Things are good for a few of us. Bankruptcy experts and investors in Amazon or Home Depot are probably feeling pretty good. For the rest of us, not so much. During this season, chances are high your accounting practice has experienced some slowdown.

As an accounting professional, these are tough days. But that doesn’t mean your practice can’t grow during this season.

Yes, the economy is terrible. Yes, all the talking heads on TV seem to believe it will be bad for a while. But this doesn’t mean your practice is doomed to shrink during this season.

Now is the time for all business owners to think creatively. Now is the time to separate yourself from the competition. Now is the time to change things up, get out of your rut, and try something new.

To that end, I want to share some ideas that might inspire you. Here are seven ways you can keep growing your accounting practice, even in a down economy.

Stop talking about yourself.
Here’s a little secret: Your clients aren’t into you. I know many of them have done business with you for a long time, but don't confuse their loyalty with their curiosity. Your clients don’t wake up every day thinking about you. Don’t worry; this isn’t because you're an accountant. It’s because your clients are humans. They can’t help it.

What this means is that now is the time to change the focus of your marketing efforts. Most firms focus their efforts on selling themselves. How long the firm has been around, relevant industry expertise, how many CPAs are on the team, and where the firm placed on the “best firms in town” listing. Those facts are excellent, but that’s not where marketing materials should focus. You and your credentials are not the best places to start.

Remember, people don’t pay money for accounting professionals who are merely experts. They pay money for accounting professionals who have an expert understanding of their problems and can provide solutions.

People buy solutions to problems. During this down economy, your marketing needs to focus on how you understand the accounting, tax and valuation problems your clients (and potential clients) face and the emotional stress these problems cause. Then, you position yourself as someone who can solve these problems.
Be generous with relevant content.
Wooing a new client is similar to starting a new romantic relationship. Unless a couple signs up for a reality TV show, very few people marry a stranger they’ve just met. Most couples go through a phase of getting to know one another (or getting to know one another’s public relations department, but I digress).

The same is true with business relationships. Most potential clients are not ready to “sign the deal” quickly. Therefore, giving away free, but relevant content is a great way to build the relationship and let the potential client learn more about you.

What kind of free content? The most common are articles and continuing education classes. However, given the COVID-19 season we’re in, I see podcasts and webinars growing in popularity.

Many firms did this very well with the CARES Act. For weeks, my LinkedIn feed was full of links to articles and webinars, helping people navigate this legislation's complexities. In what other ways can you keep being generous with content?

You know more than you think you do. You are an expert (you just don’t need to make that the center of your marketing). You’ve seen a lot. You have a broad range of knowledge that is worth sharing with others. Write some of it down, make it look nice, turn it into a PDF and put it on your website as a free download in exchange for an email address.

Accounting issues are complex. Your clients need your help to make it simple. When you are generous with relevant content, it keeps you front of mind. Remaining front of mind will grow your network, and growing your network is growing your business. It might not turn into cash flow right away, but be patient; it often will.
Check in on your contacts.
If you are a parent, you get this. How would it feel if your kids only called you when they wanted money? It probably wouldn’t feel great.

Unfortunately, this is the way many accounting professionals act. We only check in on our clients or potential clients when we want their business, or we need them to pay an invoice.

Now is the time to change the way you view your contact list. If you want to separate yourself from the other firms in town, view your contacts not as “clients and potential clients” but instead see them as “relationships.”

Relationship is a word used all the time in the accounting industry. “It’s all about relationships.” My guess is your website says something about that being one of the differentiating factors that set you apart.

In a down economy, now is actually the time to be great at relationships. One simple way to do that is to check in on your contacts. What do I mean? I mean to send them a text message or an email that simply says,

“Hi _______, I was thinking about you today. How are you and the team handling this COVID season? Are you all planning to come back to the office anytime soon? Let me know if you'd like to hop on the phone and swap some best practices to safely come back to the office. Anyway, drop me a line when you have a moment."

Checking in on your contacts is the right thing to do. All the talking heads on TV keep telling us these are “unprecedented” times. If that’s true, then check in on your contacts. It lets them know you care about more than just their taxes or the condition of their financial statements.
Note the questions you’re asked.
Chances are, your clients are reaching out to you right now with questions. Be sure to take note of the questions you are being asked. Why? These are a great indication of potential product offerings for the future.

This down economy might be a time when you are forced to modify your business plan. This might be the time to add a new consulting service or expand into a new market. Before COVID hit, these kinds of changes were called “innovation.” Now that COVID is here, these kinds of changes are called “surviving.”

Regardless of what you call it, “innovate or die” has never been more accurate. The questions you are receiving from your clients and your contacts are a gift. They might be the encouragement you need to innovate.

When someone asks you a question, they are letting you know they have a need. Their question is essentially saying, "This is valuable to me, I don't know what to do; I'm seeking help."

I’ll repeat it, people don’t pay for experts; they pay for solutions to problems they can’t solve. When you are asked a question, someone admits, “I don’t know how to solve this problem.”

Start paying close attention to questions. Always ask yourself, “Is there a new service we can offer? Is there a way we can leverage this information to innovate?"
Don’t lower your prices; change your scope.
During a down economy, you will probably have some clients asking you to lower your prices. In some instances, this might make a lot of sense. However, before lowering your fees, it might be helpful to first think about changing the scope of your agreement.

Maybe instead of an audit, you perform a review. Instead of providing a custom due diligence report, you deliver a quality of earnings analysis. Instead of completing both federal and state returns on behalf of your client, you only complete the federal return and let them complete.

If you asked to lower your price, here’s a simple and effective way to respond: “I completely understand why you are asking me to lower my price. Unfortunately, I can’t do that right now. What if instead, we changed the scope to match the amount you can afford right now?”

Cutting your prices might make sense, but I would suggest leaving that as a last resort. Which leads us to idea number six...
Be flexible with your payment terms.
Sometimes, when asked to reduce your fee, it’s not about the fee. Sometimes, it’s a cash flow issue.

One option, especially during a down economy, is to be flexible with your payment terms. If someone cannot pay a 50% down payment before the audit begins, maybe reduce it to 25%. If a client cannot pay for your tax services in full within 30 days, possibly extend it to 60 or 90 days.

Extending payment terms doesn’t show desperation; it shows empathy. It shows that you care about your clients and want to partner with them for the long run, not just during good times.

To be clear, generosity like this will slow down cash flow in the short run. However, in the long-run, this will build and grow your practice.
Become the best accountant in town.
If everything else fails, make sure you are growing as a professional. If there are simply no ways to keep your practice growing during a down economy, then grow yourself.

This is not a time to sit back and just wait for the economy to rebound. This is a time to hit play while the rest of the world might be hitting pause. Learn a new skill, develop a consulting service offering, get a new professional designation (who doesn’t love additional letters after their name, right?).

When you resolve to become the best accountant in town, you are growing your business. You might not see the results right away, but the investments you make in yourself today will pay off.

Keep your edge

When the dust settles, the winners will be the ones who realized life didn’t stand still during this season. You have a choice to make. You can either complain that things aren't like they used to be or start embracing what they are. Some firm is going to figure something amazing out during this time. Why can’t this firm be yours? Give a few of these things a try and see what works. If you don’t, another firm in your town will.

Adam Tarnow is the founder of Tarnow & Company, a business development consulting firm focused on accountants and other professional service providers. He can be reached at Adam@TarnowCompany.com.