You would think that, by now, accountants and other professionals would have a clear understanding of how marketing and selling fit into the management of a professional services firm.It amazes me how many professionals still don't understand or do the basic things right. They then wonder why they are not getting the marketing results they should be getting.

Successful firms do four things very well:

1. They know how to market;

2. They provide value to their clients;

3. They create a client service culture and a winning environment for their people to work in; and,

4. They execute their plan.

The basics

I am often asked to define the basic skills and talents needed to build a practice. I respond with the following five points:

1. Every day, you need to create opportunities to meet new people. This is the lifeblood of any practice-building technique. You won't meet new people by staying in your office all day long.

A corollary to my first point is realizing that it will take time to create opportunities. Just remember that clients buy services when they need them, not when you want to provide them. You cannot offer a special on audits and expect clients to call your practice.

Meeting people is especially important for practices that are just starting out. Build a plan that will help you expand your community of referrals, resources and prospects.

2. Professionals need to develop outstanding listening skills. Since most professionals are highly intelligent people and know more about their area of expertise than any one else, they also think that they know the answer to the client's problem before the client can articulate the issue. The more you can effectively listen, the more you will hear about the problems that your clients have. Even though a client says "X," the real problem may be "Y."

3. Professionals need to learn what selling a professional service is all about. Never think of selling as doing something for a client that the client does not want or need. Selling in the professional arena is problem-solving - nothing more and nothing less. Once you understand the client's problem, you can offer solutions. If the problem is not at the top of the client's concerns, chances are that he's not interested in any of your solutions.

4. When clients have objections to your solutions, you need to understand why. Perhaps you did not explain the benefits that they'd receive. Perhaps the value exchange is too one-sided. Part of selling is learning how to probe so that you get not only to the client's real concern, but the urgency of the matter.

5. Getting clients is only half of the equation. You also need to keep them. You do this by providing outstanding client service. Simply having a good relationship with the client is no longer a guarantee that the client will stay with you.

You need to think externally, rather than internally. Internal focus deals with outstanding technical service quality. Most accountants are pretty darn good at this. An external focus puts you in your client's shoes. What is the client getting for the service you are rendering? Clients are interested in receiving solutions for their problems. They want their businesses to run smoother. What's your game plan for providing this?

Marketing, selling and client service

If you are going to be successful, you will need to be good at marketing, selling and client service.

* Marketing. Let's get one thing straight: Marketing is any activity that you do that creates an opportunity for you to talk to a new prospect or existing client. Marketing is not selling.

Are you a member of an industry association or chamber of commerce? How many new people have you met this last year, month and week? What about at your church, synagogue or alumni association?

Marketing activities such as sending newsletters, direct mail or e-mail, writing articles, giving speeches, etc., all may create opportunities. Just remember that this is a people business, and people buy from people, not from newsletters. A newsletter, like many other marketing activities, is a tool for you to use. The tools don't take your place in the process.

But even before you start doing some of these marketing activities, you need to figure out who your client is. Big Four firms target the Global 2000 companies and companies that want to go public. Smaller firms need to be able to articulate who their ideal clients are. It's silly trying to be all things to all people.

If you are just starting your practice, determine whom you are best able to serve. Do you have an industry expertise? Say, for example, that you were the chief financial officer of a major auto dealership. It would seem logical that you would have tremendous expertise to bring to this market segment.

If you have an existing practice, it's important to analyze your client base by industry. Not all of your segments are profitable. Start looking at your profitability per client. It will tell you which clients to cull from your list. If you have a tax practice, you could analyze it by service type, i.e., individual, corporate, estate, trust, etc. You want to do this because each one of these niches has different needs, and if your marketing activities are to be successful, you need to be able to address the needs of your segments.

* Selling. It's unfortunate that the words "sales" and "selling" have such negative connotations in professional services firms. In order for you to overcome those negative feelings, remember that selling in a professional sense is nothing more than problem-solving. I remember speaking to a business owner who thought he needed marketing help, and after several conversations with him it became apparent that what he really wanted was to get his business ready for sale - a different problem to solve, hence a difference solution.

Learn how to listen and you will become outstanding at sales. Just think of the client loyalty that you would develop if you could solve the problems of each and every client. And every client has at least one problem.

* Client service. Client service is not technical service. Clients are buying the benefits that we deliver and are paying for the value that they get. The more a client understands the benefit of your service, the more they will value that service. Specialized services have a higher value and get a higher fee than commodity services.

After all is said and done, client service is about keeping your promise to deliver the tax return on time, to install the new computer system without major problems, etc. It is doing for the client what you told them you were going to do. Nothing more and nothing less!

Before you head off and start investing in all sorts of marketing material, make sure that you have these basics down.

If you start with a firm foundation, you will build a strong practice.

August J. Aquila, Ph.D., is the director of practice management consulting at The Growth Partnership, a full-service consulting firm for CPAs. Reach him at aaquila@thegrowthpartnership.com or (952) 930-1295.

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