Sometime in the 1990s, a group of marketing types must have gotten together to come up with the next big trend for businesses to use.

And did they ever.

They came up with the "We are more than" line. We are more than your neighborhood bank. We are more than your public relations firm. We are more than your office supply company. All of a sudden, accounting firms around the country were on the bandwagon, screaming, "We are more than a CPA firm!"

Firms said it, but did they deliver?

Prospects felt uplifted upon hearing the news. "Bring me your proposal, I found a new home" was heard throughout the markets. Finally, a firm was out there to offer guidance and assistance to business owners to help them run their business while doing their books. They thought a partnership was born. It worked. Actually, it worked too well.

Prospects took the bait and waited for the "We are more than" promise to kick in. In many cases it never kicked in. Someone may have forgotten to tell the troops back in the shop what they were supposed to do, because all they were doing was ... well, the books.

Given the current unsettling economic times, and with competition between firms at an all-time high, the tables are now turned. Prospects are telling these same accountants, "Before we switch to your firm, we want more than a firm that provides accounting services. What else can you do for me and my business?" Thus the trend reversed.

DE-COMMODITIZATION

Accounting services provided to businesses can be looked upon as a commodity. However, the accountant is the differential. Every professional should be ready to contribute in some fashion to converting prospects into clients, and to retaining current clients. They are also needed in developing relationships with centers of influence, or COIs.

Business prospects and current clients are looking for ideas, suggestions, information and approaches. How they can better run their business, increase revenues and profits. Get more visibility. Create more opportunities. Business owners are asking their trusted accountants for more information, ideas and suggestions about issues unrelated to accounting, but that come back full circle to their own personal and family finances. Do they know a good attorney who can help with estate matters? Can the accountant provide a referral to a good banker who can assist with their banking needs?

Accounting looks back into the past. Today's business owners are asking their accountants to look forward into the future with and for them, which can be a daunting task. More than ever before, accountants need to be in regular contact with their clients, prospects and COIs. Why? Something called competitors who are calling on your clients.

Competition is a good thing because it will make you better in business development. You will work harder for your clients while developing your reputation. Guess what? Your reputation will be the differential in the eyes and ears of your prospects, clients and COIs. Whether you are in a small, midsized or large firm, you offer the same services as your same-size competition. But your firm has one unique advantage that other firms don't: you. You are the difference.

We can't forget the COIs. Those are the bankers, attorneys, insurance agents, consultants and others who can provide ongoing referrals of their own client base to you. Keep them informed about what's going on in your shop to develop the relationship between you and the COI. Don't expect to just meet a COI once, talk about yourself and your firm, and then sit back and wait for a flow of referrals to gush in to you. That won't happen.

Don't feel you need the one Holy Grail of all ideas for your prospect, client or COI before reaching out to them. That one big killer idea in most cases is not out there. A consistent, measured level of contact with them and offering ideas and suggestions throughout the year may work to your advantage. Given today's technology, reaching out to them is a no-brainer.

Here's what you can reach out to prospects, clients, and COIs with:

An article that pertains to their industry.

A heads-up to potential changes in tax laws, banking regulations, HR issues, medical and health issues, and how these and other changes could affect their business.

An article or seminar about their personal hobby or interest.

Marketing, sales, business development, social media, advertising, or public relations best practice samples.

A seminar or presentation that would be of interest to them and their business.

How other resources within your firm can help them, a.k.a. cross-selling. Share your talent pool and your colleagues.

An introduction to a person or company that will help improve their operations.

Family finance or other family-related information.

Public information, not gossip, about other similar companies in their industry. Even if they already know it, it will be viewed as a positive that you are keeping them in mind.

An idea or approach from a different industry that might be applied to theirs.

Ask, "What keeps you up at night?" to see if you can help find a solution.

Imagine how a prospect, client or COI will feel when they hear you say, "I saw this and I thought of you."

You are the difference.

Nicholas D. Keseric Jr. is the director of practice growth at Mulcahy, Pauritsch, Salvador & Co., a Chicago-area middle-market CPA firm, and a partner with MPS Capital Advisors-Mergers & Acquisitions.

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