Billy Crystal said it best:"Change is such hard work." But oh, how satisfying it is when the change you make leads to the success you seek.

One of the most profound changes that firms can make is in the way they look at the market. Historically, accountants develop an offering, and then present it -- "Tah-dah!" -- on a silver platter to buyers who, we hope, want and need it.

I propose a different approach: looking at the market from the outside in. It's a way of seeing things through the eyes of a potential buyer, instead of your own. The concept involves strategically assessing the needs of a target market, then aligning your services to those needs.

It's more than a subtle change in semantics. Looking from the outside in represents a 180-degree change in perspective. Developing service lines and industries/buyer groups that respond to market needs gives you a distinct advantage over firms offering generic inside-out services to every and all buyers.

 

STRATEGY

The "outside in" dynamic is supported by a simple graphic to illustrate the strategic elements of growth. Picture three circles aligned horizontally with arrows between them, from left to right.

The far left circle represents services you should provide. The middle circle is the distribution channels that help you and buyers find each other. And the far right circle is the targeted buyer group for those services.

Changing the service or buyer group necessarily changes the distribution channel. If we develop a new service, the distribution channels could change. That's because the new service may be of greater interest to a different buyer group than past offerings, and different buyer groups have different channels.

Here's a case in point. Firm Z has traditionally mostly done financial statement audits for construction companies, and their most powerful distribution channel is through sureties and brokers.

Having made a decision to start looking at its opportunities from the outside in, Firm Z studies the marketplace and identifies a need among contractors for forensic services. Such services may not be of interest to sureties, which were the distribution channel for audits. But Firm Z may find that forensic services could be of considerable interest to a new distribution channel, such as lawyers defending contractors.

The content of the three strategic circles is dynamic and will change as your firm's approach to growth matures.

 

WHERE DO I START?

To fully leverage the potential of "outside in" thinking, it's essential to start fresh. Wipe off your mental white board of misconceptions and take a new look at the marketplace.

Uncover unmet need by talking to your potential buyers. Conduct focused research calls and interviews to discover the top issues facing a buyer community. It's only by talking with a critical mass of individuals that themes will begin to emerge. That's when you know you're getting insight into the buyer group, not just a handful of individuals. The interview reveals the need and the need reveals the service.

You can also learn a lot about your buyers by talking with different groups about the same offering. If your interest is in valuation and litigation support, conducting interviews with two different buyer groups can lead you to two very different potential service lines.

For example, a business owner may tell you that they want a quick and dirty determination of value, while divorce attorneys need assistance in valuing assets in divorce proceedings. Armed with information about their needs, determine which buyer groups are of interest based on those you've served in the past, and/or those you wish to serve in the future.

 

FRESH EYES, FRESH OPPORTUNITIES

The days of deciding on a specialty, hanging out a shingle, and hoping someone walks in the door are over. Today's competitive conditions require a more focused approach. Firms can no longer sustain long-term growth with generic offerings. Instead, you need to align your expertise with demonstrated need.

It's a breakthrough in thinking that just might yield the breakthrough in growth that your firm is seeking.

 

Gale Crosley, CPA, is founder and principal of Crosley+Co., and brings more than 30 years of experience to providing revenue growth consulting and coaching to CPA firms. Reach her at gcrosley@crosleycompany.com.

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