If you've ever found yourself in this dreaded scenario, you're not alone: As you're wrapping up a meeting with a long-term client, she asks how your firm is doing in the race for a project being sponsored by another executive. You're stunned because you know the other executive, but you didn't know about the project. Your firm is well qualified to do the work, but now you have to scramble.
You can avoid that fate if you know how to balance the demands of client service with the need to market your firm from the inside. Here are five tips to help you strike that balance.
Put away your golf clubs
Many accountants attempt to build relationships with clients using the wine-and-dine approach. Dinners, golf outings and tickets to sporting events top the list. The personal relationships you develop in this way can be valuable, but they aren't nearly enough.
In a study by analysts at Ross McManus, 1,200 senior executives gave their professional service providers, including accountants, a C+ grade for client satisfaction. They complained that professional service providers performed poorly on the executive's top criteria for client satisfaction: understanding the client's business.
The research also revealed that senior executives believed that the gap between what service providers think they know about a company and what they actually know had widened considerably.
It's axiomatic that an engagement team should learn as much as possible about a client before, during and after an engagement. Most accountants aim for that goal. But clients aren't seeing the results, and they are disgruntled. Overcoming this bogey will take more than a few rounds of golf.
Accountants who want to market successfully from the inside have to dig deeper to make up lost ground, and that means developing a holistic - not superficial - view of their clients' businesses.
You have to know much more than the gist of each client's strategy. Immerse yourself and your team in the high-priority issues facing all of the client's executives. Don't just focus on those that you're already watching for the chief executive, chief financial officer, treasurer, tax vice president and controller.
This depth of knowledge serves two purposes. First, your engagement work will be more relevant and, second, a holistic view of the business will uncover opportunities that your competitors will miss completely.
In his 1966 Harvard Business Review article, "How to Buy/Sell Professional Services," Warren J. Wittreich pointed out, "Any selling involved in a professional service has just begun when the contract is signed. All that has been sold up to that time is a promise. The major 'sale' comes in delivering on that promise."
The centerpiece of marketing to an existing client is the flawless delivery of every benefit and all the value you promise. It's not enough to perform satisfactorily. Every aspect of your work must reflect what Tom Peters calls "towering competence." Anything less will leave you vulnerable.
As you accumulate a track record of flawless work, you build trust with clients that will lead to unsolicited requests for services. You'll find your clients willing to take a leap of faith and entertain proposals from people in other parts of your firm. And the good news about your work will travel quickly.
Have a plan - and work it
The way to market to existing clients would seem obvious if all it took was an understanding of the client's business and flawless work. But there's more. Effective marketing demands that you develop a proactive, client-specific marketing plan articulating how you will get and hold your profitable clients. Without a plan, you'll drift from project to project, relying on luck.
Your plan describes your purpose with each client, how you will achieve it, the specific people you must meet, what you must learn about the client, and how you will differentiate your firm. Outline the tactics that you'll use and how much time, money and effort you will expend. Share the marketing plan with the engagement team, making sure that all team members understand their roles.
Keep your client marketing plan simple and flexible, and base it on client needs, not what your firm has to sell. You must serve clients in meaningful ways, focusing on helping clients first and selling second.
What is most important, though, is to work the plan. It's easy to get caught up in the client's day-to-day demands and let your marketing activities fall to the bottom of your to-do list. But that will leave you with fewer opportunities for new work once your current engagement wraps up.
Set aside time every day to work the plan, regardless of what other fires are raging. Set a goal, such as completing three marketing activities each week. Through consistent action, you will slowly but surely fill your pipeline.
Clients aren't 'sold'
Clients expect, and usually accept, that their accountants will try to sell additional services to them. But clients are not a testing ground for every service offering your firm has.
Bring new ideas to your clients, but only when you're confident that the value-to-fee ratio works for the client. Don't waste time figuring out how to sell to clients; instead, show how your ideas solve pressing problems. If clients want to buy, they'll take your ideas to the next stage.
Present ideas that solve front-burner issues, not nice-to-haves. If you have done your homework on the client, you'll know the difference. Your rate of success will improve when you focus on the dilemmas at the top of your client's list, not those on the bottom.
Client loyalty: An oxymoron
No matter how good you are, don't bank on client loyalty. When a group of clients was asked to rate loyalty to their existing service providers, 50 percent said that they were indifferent; they would switch to a new one without hesitation.
Many clients will drop an incumbent in favor of a provider who even seems to have a fresh angle. Use your client-specific marketing to create a high barrier to entry for the competition.
The rub is that marketing to existing clients can be more difficult than marketing to new ones, because clients look for increasingly great work from incumbents. Always keep in mind that your own flawless delivery raises the bar for subsequent work.
Clients will always surprise you. Sometimes they will bring you work that you didn't expect, other times your firm won't even be on their radar. Avoid the unpleasant surprises by making sure that these five tips are an integral part of your marketing.
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