What strategies enable a CPA firm to not only remain competitive, but also to differentiate its people and service offerings from legions of practices across the country also looking to capture greater market share and grow their books of business?

Whether it's an expanded focus on burgeoning trends such as social media and niche marketing, or investments in rising technologies, today's CPA firms know that survival and growth in today's climate requires multi-pronged strategies in a number of areas.

With that in mind, Accounting Today asked five veterans across a variety of practice areas for their expertise on how to remain both competitive and profitable in today's uncertain economy.

 

Social media

Michelle Golden

President, Golden Practices

The sky is not falling. Your firm needn't use social media in order to remain a viable business after two or five years. That said, foregoing use of these powerful communications tools sooner rather than later is comparable to having postponed adopting e-mail for business use.

Social media (with the exception of LinkedIn) weren't created for marketing; they were developed for communicating - and that is precisely why they are so effective for marketing.

Great communication begins with knowing exactly to whom you are speaking, and tailoring what you say accordingly. Always ask yourself: Who is the audience?

The best way to stand apart in your business development is to have separate social media outposts that are buyer-niche focused. By trying to appeal to everyone at once, most firms position themselves in a firm-centric manner. Changing from a firm-centric mindset to a buyer-centric one is challenging, but if you nail this, you will have differentiated yourself from 95 percent of your competitors.

As a resource, you're trying to achieve credibility. Position yourself and your firm as hire- and referral-worthy through substantiating your claims of expertise: Demonstrate knowledge, capabilities and thought leadership with evidence.

 

Marketing

Karen Love

Director of practice growth, PKF Texas

To differentiate your firm in a marketplace of any size, start by asking two questions: "What do we do better than our competitors?" and "Who needs to know about us?" Then intentionally put yourself and key members of your practice in situations that align the two.

For example, maybe you have built a reputation for helping small companies grow. So you would want to seek out the events and activities that draw small-business owners. If this kind of forum doesn't exist in your market, create it. Host small-business educational seminars or partner with a local college to offer workshops. This lets your partners and employees interact with prospective clients in a non-selling environment.

At PKF Texas, we have special expertise in serving high-tech startups. So we partner with Rice University as the official scoring firm for its international business plan competition. The result? We get prominent positioning as the scoring team. We meet contest entrants and watch their business plan presentations. We work side by side with prominent chief executives, venture capitalists and other leaders. Our partners are at the podium when the winners are announced. This allows us to build our center of influence in a way our competitors can't touch. And when the entrepreneurs launch their businesses and need an accounting firm, they already know us.

 

Operations

Grace Singer

Audit partner, quality control leader, Berdon

There's a direct connection between our low staff turnover and high client retention that is at the core of how we stay competitive. We give our staff people opportunities to grow on the accounts they serve on. They don't just learn what to do on the account, but also why they are doing it. No one is isolated and there is a lot of interaction between Berdon and clients' staff, so everyone knows each other and their responsibilities.

At the junior level, our staff get exposure to higher-level members of the client's team so that they get a greater understanding of the client's business. The close relationships that develop naturally pay dividends immediately, and sometimes down the road. As an example, a current Berdon partner built a strong relationship with a client staff member when both were at junior levels. Ten years later, that client member, now chief financial officer at another company, remembered their good relationship and brought Berdon in.

We keep our people sharp with ongoing training and encourage them to provide peer-to-peer formal training to those at more junior levels. These interactions help our people build their confidence and communications skills. This carries over into being better communicators at the client level and serves as a boost in preparing them to be public speakers, which adds to our competitive edge.

 

Technology

Roman Kepczyk

President, InfoTech Partners North America

As firms transition to digital documents, it is more important than ever to keep this "information at their fingertips" - a combination of document management, collaboration, project status and due dates that is encompassed with workflow tools.

For firms looking to replace their server infrastructure, it is critical that they take a holistic approach that promotes stability and disaster recovery, which means they need to look at server virtualization. This technology allows accounting applications to run more effectively, as well as giving IT the opportunity to deliver much quicker disaster recovery options both onsite and offsite.

With all the difficulties of synching engagement binders in the field and concerns about security of data on the laptops, firms should thoroughly explore using remote access through Citrix/Windows Terminal Services that allow this data to be housed only in the firm. With the rollout of 4G digital cellular systems and the expansion of 3G networks, availability of the Internet will be ubiquitous in the very near future, promoting the use of this "private cloud" technology.

Web-based applications reduce the amount of support that both firms and vendors have to provide, while allowing full access to any authorized user with Internet access. Firms should plan their transition to whatever cloud-like technology provides them the most functionality, stability and support that they can reasonably afford.

With all the changes and new applications being rolled out to firms to take advantage of today's "less paper" environment, it is more important to identify best practices, document them thoroughly, and provide training so that production personnel can use them as quickly as possible. Owners must realize that learning is a continual process impacting everyone in the firm, which we refer to as "creating a culture of firm optimization."

Firms should promote the use of portals and encrypted e-mail to move data between the firm and the client in a secure manner that notifies the recipients. Client data transfer solutions should be outsourced to providers in the cloud with enterprise-class infrastructure (security, 24/7 coverage, disaster recovery planning).

 

New client niches

Andy Armanino

Managing partner, Armanino McKenna

Advocacy drives successful niche marketing. Niche marketing is built on adding value to a prospect's business or career.

Armanino McKenna launched CFO Evolution two years ago and it has paid us back in closer connections to the CFO community in our markets, positive publicity and, of course, in new customers and increased revenue

It's primarily an acknowledgement of the professional challenges our CFO clients face, accompanied by a suite of on-point solutions they can use to improve their organizations and advance their professional agendas.

The initiative is anchored by our CFO Analytical Framework and a CFO Evolution Benchmark Survey Report, which we compile in December and then publicize early in the first quarter each year. Less than a week after we released our 2011 benchmark survey, we had booked more than 20 prospect meetings. We've also found that CFO Evolution helps us grow smaller accounts into significant client relationships. In one instance, an account worth $50,000 in annual revenue grew to more than $250,000 through the program.

Beyond publicity from the benchmark survey, we've done extensive research into the needs and specific interests of CFOs. For example, we found that accounting and risk management functions consume most of the CFOs' organizations and time, leaving too little time for these highly skilled strategists to assist their companies with big-picture business decisions. The program has allowed us to offer our own services as consultants, such as sophisticated IT architecture, products and equipment.

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