[IMGCAP(1)]Years ago I was working for a franchise company in New Zealand and as part of my role I would travel around the country talking with the individual franchise owners, their clients and potential clients about their business.

On one particular trip I had one of those “aha” moments when I realized that something else is at work besides pure economics when it comes to a company’s success. In a small, rural community I decided to go into town to visit several of the franchisee’s clients (primarily retailers) to get a sense of how they were getting along in their local market. On the first couple of stops, I received terrible feedback about the economy, how it was affecting them, and that they weren’t sure about surviving.

Feeling a little low by now (their moods were impacting me), I went across the street and visited with a few more. I walked into a store and after introductions and the question “how’s business?”, the owner looked up and he said, “You know, my business is just great. I am up on last year and feel good about growing.” When I related what I had heard from others who were having such a hard time, he shrugged and couldn’t explain why they were in such a state. After that I found several more retailers who were having a good year, and it hit me then that attitude and personal perspective have tremendous strength and can truly impact your success or lack of it.

Talking with many accounting firms recently, I am getting uncustomary feedback that having a flat year or possibly just above that point will be acceptable to the firm. The reasons given are good and valid (mainly it’s the economy); however, setting such low sights is not what you need to drive your business.

There remains good opportunity in the marketplace for businesses that are actively seeking it out. In fact this recession is an opportunity itself waiting to happen. A December 2009 report from the Bay Street Group entitled, "Emerging Opportunities for Accounting Firms," explains that “leading-edge accounting firms are already taking advantage of the changing economic and regulatory terrain to gain a competitive edge”.

I am here to suggest, rather implore, that you capitalize on what is available in your market or possibly what isn’t available from your competitors. Then, focus on providing services that meet the changing needs of business owners. Just imagine, if you are concerned about your business, how do you think someone who doesn’t understand the numbers and all their implications feels right now…it’s a scary reality that you can help them understand and cope with.

Don’t let past failed attempts prevent you from future success…
I've spoken with firms that wanted to start a niche. The problem is that I was also talking with them two years earlier about the same thing. They may have half-heartedly tried a few things over the years to get a niche moving, yet they have never drawn up a plan and worked to go after it aggressively. Gene Garrelts, managing partner of Orizon Group, once said about his highly successful financial services niche, “It doesn’t help if you just dabble in it.” Really, this goes for anything your firm does. Trying to operate on the edge without making a full commitment will not bring you the type of success you are after.

If you see an opportunity in your market, now is the perfect time to attack it with gusto and make something happen. Believe me, there will be enough people talking and not doing. Don’t be one of them.

Another big conversation was with firms that continue to struggle with pricing pressure. Some are trying to upgrade their clientele to larger businesses who they believe will value the firm, its high level of service, its range, and its depth. They need clients who are willing to pay what their accounting services are worth and appreciate the relationship with their accounting firm.

The problem for some in accomplishing this objective is that the marketplace struggles with understanding and valuing their services. One firm I visited recently explained that their clients and the marketplace in general have a low level of expectation in terms of what their firm can actually deliver. The firm has grown over the years and now provides many services that were previously not available, yet no one has told clients (and prospects) about the new capacity and so the perception remains.

The greatest brands in the world (e.g., Disney, GE and IBM) never stop relating to their customers about the value they receive from their brand. Incredibly, many accounting firms have trouble talking with their clients in this or any other way. Some are not even willing to get regular feedback from clients for fear that they may bring up a problem the client is having with their firm.

Question: Is it better to have one of your competitors uncover one of the issues or would you like to discuss and understand the problem so that maybe you could recover as opposed to losing the business without even a phone call?

It is important to remember that existing clients are your greatest source of new revenue, referrals, references, and, yes, feedback that will sometimes challenge you to improve how you approach and deliver to the marketplace. Talking to clients is not optional; it is something you need to do regularly as part of building and sustaining your firm’s culture and profitability.

Patrick Pruett is the executive director of Enterprise Network Worldwide and The Alliance of Professional Associations (The APA). He is dedicated to providing and developing solutions that fit members’ needs as a group and as individual firms. He is particularly focused on growing the association’s membership base and developing long-term relationships with leading, pro-active firms that are committed to a 5 Star Client Service culture. He can be contacted at Patrick@The-APA.com

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