Help prospects clients deal with the risk of engaging your firm

Accountants pay a lot of attention to managing risk. It's a big part of the value we bring to our clients. But what about the risk that a prospective client faces when trying to choose which accountant to engage? Firms that do a good job of lowering that perceived risk will grow and prosper.

Picking a professional services provider presents unique challenges to any prospective client. The "product" is intangible and often fungible, the "brand" is conveyed through the relationship between the professional and the client, and in any given category most firms tend to use similar terms to describe their services. Add to that the fact that the choice often carries high-stakes consequences for the client, and you have a particularly daunting challenge.

Clients and prospects try to minimize the risk essentially by asking two questions: "Can you solve my business problem better than anyone else?" and, "Are you compatible with my company and its people?"

To sell an assignment, the accounting firm needs to get a yes to both questions.

The role of marketing is to help accounting firm partners answer these questions. This means that accounting firms (and selling partners) must demonstrate expertise - typically, through case studies, frameworks, awards/credentials, metrics and identity. Your firm must communicate (directly through words and actions and indirectly through behaviors) how the experience of working with you will feel and why it will create value. Consciously or not, clients make choices based on the combination of expertise and identity.


During an economic downturn, firms that have blurred identities - or unclear expertise - will appear to be very risky purchases for decision-makers whose own jobs or fortunes are on the line. These firms may be great at their game. They may have professionals on staff with strong skills and credentials. But they are unlikely to cement or grow client relationships unless they calm the conscious (and subconscious) fears of decision-makers, many of whom need more clarity and proof than ever before.

On the other hand, firms that treat the downturn as an opportunity to demonstrate their identity and expertise are likely to enjoy strong lead streams and remarkably high client conversion rates.


Most selling partners are well-versed in communicating expertise. Clients want to know that their accountant has a track record of successful outcomes and the vision to identify and solve unanticipated problems. But most of us are far less comfortable communicating our firm's identity - which is essentially the sum of what we do (i.e., the business problems that we solve) and the way the firm operates (i.e., the meaning that we create through our relationships with clients and co-workers).

An accounting firm that does the hard work of discovering and articulating its identity can use this as a tool to shape three core business processes: people, clients and ideas. The result is an organization that is "all of a piece" - inherently differentiated and coherent without being overly rigid.

Here are six key questions to ask when assessing the clarity of your firm's identity:

1. Do prospective clients quickly and clearly understand our service offering? If it takes too long for prospective clients to understand the business problems that you solve (or if your offering sounds just like everybody else's), you likely have an identity problem - or at least a problem communicating your identity.

2. Do we prove the value we create by showing as well as telling? Can a prospective client or employee infer from your behavior, language and processes the values and qualities that you say make you distinctive?

3. Do we stand out in the crowd? Like other professional firms, many accounting firms use industry buzzwords to describe their services, claiming to "navigate risk," "achieve objectives" and "deliver results." However, those descriptions don't promise the prospective client anything they wouldn't expect at a minimum - and they fail to differentiate a firm from others describing their services with similar terms.

4. Are clients and prospects engaged by our expertise? Does the thought leadership you develop - e.g., articles, whitepapers, speeches, studies, blog posts - go beyond simply stating your capabilities? Does it give away real value? Does it generate inquiries and follow-up conversations? Good thought leadership displays the caliber of your thinking and mitigates the perceived risk associated with the purchase of your services.

5. Do clients understand how we manage our people? The most important asset in any professional services firm is its people. If a prospect understands how you recruit, train, motivate and incent your professionals, they will be more likely to believe marketing promises that suggest "superior" results, "teamwork" and "unparalleled" service.

6. Are we portraying empathy and curiosity about our clients? Many professional services companies are inward-looking - everything from the language they use in their marketing materials to the way they interact with potential clients signals that their relationship is with the problem, not the client.

In the current environment, clients are hungry for solutions. Accounting firms that meet the need for expertise, risk reduction and collaboration will establish far more than a pipeline of solid business leads. These firms will lay the foundation for a strong and differentiated identity that provides clarity and proof of the value they create.

(c) 2009 Accounting Today and SourceMedia, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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