Client lists and client loyalty are built by a number of factors, including personal relationships and satisfaction with the work completed.
However, another critical factor in business-building - marketing - is often overlooked by smaller and midsized accounting practitioners.
Although some accountants take naturally to selling themselves, most prefer to take a more humble approach, standing in the background and letting their work speak for itself.
That's a mistake, according to Salim Omar, president of The Omar Group, an eight-person practice in Cliffwood, N.J.
"You can't do that anymore because the competition is so intense," he said. "If you build a better mousetrap, people have got to know about it. You can be the best CPA and still go hungry unless people know about you and come to you."
Omar credits the marketing of his practice over the years for its steady growth and evolution.
And becoming a teacher has been part of that evolution, as he now mentors other CPAs who wish to grow their firms and reach their lifestyle goals through his "CPA Marketing Genius" business - a comprehensive marketing package.
"I describe all the strategies that I use in my own practice," explained Omar. "It includes a participant's guide, a 200-page manual with all the sales letters, ads and e-mails that I've used to bring in clients, as well as examples of my [client] newsletter."
ALL ABOUT THE CLIENTS
But at the core of The Omar Group are tax and financial planning services for both individuals and small businesses. Omar said that he meets with his clients to hold regular financial and tax stewardship meetings. "We have these meetings either quarterly, semi-annually, tri-annually or annually, depending on the package. We get together in face-to-face meetings, and I guide them on how to maximize finances and minimize their taxes."
"In addition, we provide QuickBooks Health Checks," he explained. "We like to provide our services together in a package, so when clients sign up, every month they pay a certain amount and get certain services. For example, we perform compliance work and a QuickBooks Health Check on a monthly basis."
Omar believes that in addition to honing their marketing skills, CPAs can be much more efficient in their approach to their practices. "In general, CPAs work way too many hours in their practice and they can get burned out. It doesn't have to be that way," he said. "They should create a practice that enables them to get their work done more efficiently. If they do this by hiring additional staff, they have to be able to charge premium fees by giving great value to the client."
For Omar, it was a long road to building a thriving business and client base - about 8,000 miles long, in fact.
Omar, 46, who is of Indian descent, was born and raised in Kenya and immigrated to the U.S. in 1985. After getting his accounting degree, he worked at a small New York CPA practice before moving on to the CFO post at an investment firm.
He founded The Omar Group in 1996. "I wanted to be my own boss, and make a real difference for the people I serve," he said.
However, the first five years were a struggle. "I seemed to be attracting the low-quality clients," he revealed. "And because my clients were low-quality, I couldn't pay my staff enough, so that resulted in a revolving door of employees. My clients' businesses would fail because they were technicians, not entrepreneurs. I finally realized that I didn't know how to run a small practice, and I began studying the ins and outs of making a business successful."
With a number of lessons learned since then, Omar stressed that it's important to define exactly what it is you're agreeing to do for the client. Not only as a protection from professional liability claims, but also to cut down on the additional work often performed as a "favor" for particular clients.
"When I went into practice for myself, my approach was, 'I'll do anything and everything you want,'" he said. "For example, if they wanted to buy another business, my approach was, 'I'm here to help,' and I'd assist them without adding to my normal fee. I was too eager to be their friend. Defining the services is important, because any request beyond what's been agreed on should result in extra billing."
Omar finds that the practice of regular meetings with clients minimizes additional questions that they might have. "With the financial and stewardship meetings scheduled on a regular basis, I get very few phone calls and interruptions, because I'm meeting with them on a structured basis," he explained. "And when I do meet with them, I'm prepared to answer any question they might have, which doesn't always happen with random phone calls."
The packaged meetings have been well-received. "It's a proactive way to address their concerns and have a dialog about what they should be doing. It provides a sounding board for the business owner."
THE RIGHT BLEND
Omar holds the Series 6, 7 and 63 licenses, and therefore is able to sell investments including stocks and mutual funds, as well as insurance products, to clients - and his marketing expertise dovetails nicely in upselling his tax clients to financial planning.
"Financial planning is a nice blend of what I'm already doing for my clients," he said. "It's a natural progression from tax preparation."
"About 30 to 40 percent of my tax prep clients become financial planning clients," he said. "It's really a cross-selling procedure - let them know that you do financial planning, and they'll become your client. Once you have the relationship with a client and you're their trusted advisor, the CPA is in the right place to talk about financial planning," he said.
However, tax and accounting are full-time operations, as is financial planning, and Omar said that one of the top challenges is to perform them all well.
"If one person tries to do everything, things start falling through the cracks," he said. "I used to do everything on my own, but now we have a separate individual within the group to handle investments."
In addition to achieving high-quality client satisfaction, Omar said that one of the final pieces to his marketing approach is positioning yourself as a subject matter expert - particularly in an author capacity.
"Do the things that experts do, such as writing a book, authoring a special report or getting published in magazines. It's huge - once you're perceived as an expert, prospects want to work with you as a CPA. Rather than you pursuing them, they pursue you."
Omar's book, Straight Talk About Small Business Success in New Jersey, has bolstered his reputation in the business community.
"Book publishing is a credibility-builder," he said. "Now when I talk to my clients, I'm approaching them not only as a CPA but as a knowledgeable expert. It helps bridge the gap between being a numbers-cruncher and someone who can guide them in their decision-making process."
Said Omar: "My goal in mentoring other accountants is to teach them to take a balanced and efficient approach to their practice, and to urge them to create a practice that is compatible with their desired lifestyle."
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