by Burt Bierman
In my unique position as a client service partner and director of practice development, along with my involvement in the Association of Accounting Marketing, I am able to understand the challenges that partners and marketing professionals face when working together to create a world-class marketing organization.
Many CPAs believe that the responsibility for building world-class marketing falls on the marketing department. This is only half of the the story. Although marketing must bear substantial responsibility, partner support is often the difference between average performance and world-class status.
You might ask, what can be done to make a difference? The answer is fairly simple. There are 10 key areas that define partner responsibility:
1. Make sure that an overall plan is written for the firm (include incentives for partner compliance).
2. Hire the best marketing professional that the firm can afford based on a written job description.
3. Insist that the marketing department present an annual budget — and help them do it.
4. Understand that marketing is a difficult job.
5. Know that continuing education is as important to marketing personnel as it is to the professional staff.
6. Understand the difference between marketing and sales.
7. Give marketing room to be creative and strategic.
8. Be prepared to implement the plan.
9. Understand that branding involves building the firm’s reputation, not name recognition for individual partners.
10. Remember that actions occur quickly, but results take longer.
The overall plan
In general, it is never a good idea to do anything in business without a plan. Yogi Berra once said, “If you don’t know where you are going, you might just get there.” But where will you be? For a CPA firm, business development without a well-documented plan is even more of an issue because marketing is not a skill that comes easily to many accountants.
Each firm needs a written marketing plan to support its business plan to ensure accomplishing its goals. Along with the firm’s plan, there should also be marketing plans for each partner.
If you choose not to reward them, my experience shows that cooperation levels generally will not be sufficient to help the firm reach world-class status. Based upon the available time for partners, their marketing efforts must be rewarded.
I have seen and used various partner compensation programs. In my mind, the best are those that are tied to attaining goals and objectives by the partner. With this approach, points are awarded at a level high enough to generate compliance.
Hire the best with a written job description
This is an area where I have personal experience.
As most CPA firms do, we hired our first marketer by placing an ad in the paper, seeking someone with experience in a firm similar to our own. We interviewed candidates based on compatibility. When the process was completed, we found that we had hired a person mismatched to our needs.
Why? To begin with, we didn’t have a written job description. This was a big error on our part, because without a job description, we had no way to guide the marketer or to measure success at the end of the year. Second, we never considered the importance of matching up the employee’s work ethic with the philosophy at our firm. We hired a 9-to-5er when our firm valued growth commitment. Lastly, we budgeted this position at an amount that was too low to hire the quality of person we needed based upon our vision and culture. You could say that we made almost every error possible, but we do not view the experience negatively.
We learned from this encounter, and our next effort was successful. It took us 18 months, but this time we were much clearer on what we needed and we refused to compromise. (As an aside, it did help that I had become active in the AAM and was introduced to a wide variety of talented marketing professionals. In addition, we were willing to set a salary level commensurate with our firm’s requirements, and we prepared a detailed job description to help us meet our expectations.)
Get an annual budget
An important component of any written marketing plan is the annual budget. This helps the firm establish its priorities, fund projects and judge performance.
When you ask your marketer to attempt this task the first time, remember that he is not an accountant. Offer help and training, but allow him ownership so that he is accountable to the firm for the success of each initiative. Think of your clients and how they struggled the first time that they made this effort as you guided them through the process. You have done this for clients, and you must do the same for your marketing department.
The difficulties of marketing
Based on my experience, marketing is substantially more complicated and time-consuming than I could ever imagine. How do I know this? Here is my first-hand experience, which is typical of most CPAs.
I was frustrated that one of my marketing projects was bogged down in the marketing department. The project was our banker match-up program. The purpose of the program was to make sure that we spread ourselves evenly over as many bankers as possible.
The project, which I thought would take two to three months, was still not done after five months. In my frustration, I made a critical error. I said that I would finish the project. I anticipated no more than one month of effort, but two months later, the project was still not finished.
I learned a great lesson from this process. In general, marketing projects do take longer than most CPAs estimate. Going over each project at the beginning (the planning stage) can help, but remember not to be surprised when projects take longer than anticipated. Identify critical stages and time lines for the best results.
Marketers need education, too
Why do we train people? Is it just that we have continuing professional education requirements? I hope not! As a service firm, our major resources are our employees’ capabilities. As they become more capable, they become more valuable and the firm becomes more marketable.
It is the same for your marketing department. I hear marketing professionals voice concern that there is little budget designated for their training.
Partners are reticent to let them attend any meetings, and when they do, it is often limited to no more than one meeting per year.
Think about it. Our marketing budget generally is 3 percent to 4 percent of our gross. So if your firm is doing $5 million, the marketing budget ranges from $150,000 to $200,000. If we assume that each out-of-town meeting cost $1,500, then three per year would cost $4,500. This is a maximum of 3 percent of the marketing budget, and yet I know that many firms would not budget for education. This seems shortsighted to me. Can you justify attending three conferences per year?
Consider that learning takes place not only in the course work, but also in the valuable networking that marketing conferences provide. I have seen non-competing marketers from across the U.S. form their own think-tank groups to share marketing ideas regularly. The cost for professional development is very low. I urge you to encourage the staff instead of refusing to support these activities.
Marketing isn’t sales
Partners are the busiest resource at any CPA firm. The ability to delegate, or leverage, usually helps firm profitability increase, except in marketing. When partner time is absolutely required, nothing can take its place.
It is my premise that if the marketing department operates on a world-class basis, assisting partners to minimize the time required, then the partners “owe” marketing and must make themselves available when necessary. There is no replacement for partners’ insight when it comes to strategic planning, database issues, networking, speeches and sales calls. If you strive for your firm to be the best, partners must make time.
Room for creativity
Another stumbling block for CPAs is understanding how world-class creative firms operate. In a CPA firm, work looks like work. We emphasize each task by the guidelines, do it right and do it quickly.
But for creative enterprises, doing it in a world-class way looks different. Don’t expect output all the time, because thinking is a major part of marketing’s role. Ideas sometimes come quickly, but more often slowly.
This is a very different approach than accounting and tax work. As CPAs, we need to adjust if we want our firm to be the best it can be. In the end, measurable results will be the final judgment of this effort.
Implement the plan
The marketing team can only do so much. They cannot effectively replace partners at networking events. They can enter information into the database, but cannot clean up the information. They can do research for a sales call, but cannot ask for the sale.
They can draft a speech, but cannot deliver it. They can write a partner’s marketing plan, but cannot implement it. And, in the end, they can run the marketing department for the firm, but they need oversight by a partner.
If you want your firm to be world class, partners must be involved. Generally, the top firms have significant partner involvement.
Action first, results (much) later
The investment in marketing is not like a chargeable hour investment. It takes much longer to produce results. But it is also different from a charge hour in that, once it is productive, it can remain so for a long period of time.
One of my partners tells a story about how he networked for so many years in such an intense manner that, later in his career, people often asked him how he enjoyed events he hadn’t even attended. People just assumed he was there.
Another example is an event we have run for a number of years — Oktoberfest. It is such a strong program that we own it. If another firm tried to compete, they could not. Effective marketing has a long shelf life.
Get to work!
Marketing is not easy and it is not comfortable for most CPAs. Don’t expect to build a marketing empire overnight. Follow the 10 steps, don’t rush. A step at a time can work. I have personally experienced everything I have discussed in this article. Be persistent and you will not fail.
It has been my experience that marketing is fun. I hope it turns out the same way for you. Good luck!
Burt Bierman, CPA, is a partner with J.H. Cohn, in Roseland, N.J.
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