Sometimes I drive by a strip mall and I see it's under construction and getting a facelift. Off come the signs written in that 1960s-style cursive and on come new signs with updated colors and symbols that don't seem to mean anything but must be conveying a subliminal message, because those chain stores paid a designer a boatload of cash to create it.

Are those new facades really worth it? Are they bringing in new business? Am I not shopping at a store anymore because its logo is in cursive and the sign hanging above the door looks like it hasn't been updated since the premiere of The Beverly Hillbillies?

The answer is yes. Sometimes you have to spend the money to keep up with the times. Otherwise, you fall behind. And your competitors, who are keeping up with the times, pull ahead. Once in a while we all need a facelift. Just ask Joan Rivers.

That's what Lynn Nelson discovered. She runs a midsized accounting firm and she's also a client of mine. Unlike Joan, she's not into plastic surgery. But she's definitely into communications. And she was the driver for her firm's communications facelift.

"In 2011," Lynn said to me, "people have different expectations. And different preferences."

I get that. I still prefer to read a newspaper, rather than get all my news online. Yes, that's old and out of touch, but that's just the way I like it and I'm the guy who writes the checks, OK? When it comes to my high school kids, they prefer to conduct all communications with me and my wife via text messaging, which is just fine by us (you seriously don't want to spend too much time talking to high school kids ... it's not healthy). I have clients who don't care to speak to me ... but don't mind getting e-mails. I have other clients who hate e-mails and, like my grandmom, only want to hear from me by phone or not at all. And then there are those crazy, crazy people who actually like to read a letter once in a while. My God, what century is this?

 

WHOSE CENTURY IS IT ANYWAY?

It's the 21st century. And there are choices. Inexpensive choices. And CPAs like Lynn are taking advantage of these options to stay in touch with their customers. "We ask our clients how they'd like us to communicate with them," she explains. "And we do what they tell us to do."

The customer's always right. And the customer should always get what he or she wants. And if he or she wants to be like my grandmother, eat prunes and watch roller derby on Sunday afternoons (and get phone calls from me, rather than e-mails), then that's what smart managers are doing.

The good thing is that in 2011 it's so easy to do.

For example, for those clients who prefer e-mail communications, Lynn's got an account with JangoMail. There are other e-mail services like Constant Contact and MailChimp. They're inexpensive and simple to use. She can upload a spreadsheet of these clients and send out targeted communications from templates that she creates herself.

Lynn also uses a text messaging service called Tatango. That's because some of her clients, like my teenage kids, prefer to spend their entire evenings playing Xbox, instead of doing their homework. And they also prefer to get their information by text. Again, it's inexpensive. And again, she keeps a spreadsheet of these clients, usually generated from a central database or customer relationship management system, that she uploads to send out mass texts.

Then there are the clients who actually enjoy interacting with other humans. These are the people who want to hear their information by phone. Sure, Lynn talks to them. But to help her communicate en masse she uses VoiceShot. Same deal with the spreadsheet. And similar procedure as the text messaging, but this time she records a message by calling in and the service sends out a bunch of calls all at once.

And of course there are those old timers who still like to get their information by mail. (And they call themselves the "Greatest Generation." Geez, what nerve.) For these guys, she uses a service called PrintPlace where she sends out custom letters and postcards to a list from her database.

It's part of the procedure. Her partners ask their clients how they prefer to be contacted. Their answer is noted in an appropriate field in the firm's database and that's how the lists are generated.

But don't forget, it's 2011. Which means social media. And it can't be ignored.

That's because a growing number of people are only getting their messages via Facebook and Twitter. They live there. Their friends are there. Their community is there. The good news for Lynn is that, because she specializes in manufacturing, most of her clients have above-average intelligence. Therefore they don't use these social media sites. But if she had many clients in other businesses, like a craft or a sport or technology or consumer service, she would, in addition to all the options above, have to have a social media presence in order to communicate with her customers.

 

THE PRICE OF KEEPING UP

Does this cost? "You bet it does," says Lynn. To have an effective communications facelift, you first need that central database for storing everyone's information and indicating their communication preferences. This is usually a CRM system. These things can run from a few hundred dollars per user, or from $25 to $75 per user per month if you use a cloud-based option. And then you've got to have someone be the master of the data. That person's in charge of the data entry and updating. They generate the lists, send out the mails, post the updates to Facebook, schedule the mass calls.

Sure, the tools are there - just like a baseball bat is there. But Ryan Howard still has to swing it in order to strike out. Lynn, on the other hand, employs a part-time person to utilize her communication tools.

So CPAs: Welcome to 2011.

It's a whole new age of communication. And like those store owners at that strip mall who have to share in the cost of the facelift, you too may need to invest a few bucks to keep up with the times.

Your competitors are.

 

Gene Marks, CPA, is the owner of the Marks Group, which sells customer relationship, service, and financial management tools to small and midsized businesses.

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