by Charles Hylan with Marijean Jaggers

More than 25 years have passed since accounting industry restrictions against certain practice development activities were lifted — and yet the results of the latest Managing an Accounting Practice Survey cited marketing, sales and overall practice development issues as the greatest concerns among public accountants today.

Why is it that the accounting profession continues to fall short of the target when it comes to “professionalizing” the practice development function? Isn’t it time we knock marketing and practice development off that list?

It’s critical for firms to put together a balanced marketing and business development plan. Many firms either have no plan or one that is unbalanced. An unbalanced plan is one that focuses a firm’s resources in only one area — usually support activities like brochures, advertising and Web sites.

A balanced approach
A balanced marketing and business development plan adheres to disciplined activities designed to drive measurable return on investment. The Growth Partnership breaks these activities into four disciplines:

  • No. 1: Client development.
  • No. 2: Referral development.
  • No. 3: Attracting new clients.
  • No. 4: Support activities.

Client development
Each year, we survey hundreds of accounting firm clients about the quality of service they receive from their engagement team. Historically, the lowest rated response has been to the statement: “My engagement team routinely offers advice and suggestions for improving my business and financial position.” As such, it’s important for a piece of your marketing and business development plan to revolve around proactively serving your clients, especially your top 50. Proactively serving your clients is important for two reasons; it enables your firm to:

  • Protect your client from your competition. Simply providing technically competent accounting services in a timely manner is no longer enough. It is imperative for an accounting firm to proactively serve their clients by anticipating client needs and providing the appropriate professional advice and service.
  • Focus on business development. Your existing clients are most likely the largest untapped resource for new business. Illustrating to them your anticipation of their needs and then providing additional services further cements the client-firm relationship.

Referral development
Regardless of changes in the accounting industry, referral sources remain an important driver of new business. An effective referral relationship includes three elements.

  • Education. Referral sources (e.g., insurance providers, attorneys, bankers) obviously need to know about the core services you provide clients (e.g., audit, tax consulting). More important, these key resources need to understand your capabilities beyond those services (e.g., cost segregation studies, information technology consulting, etc.).
  • Learning. An effective referral relationship needs to be a two-way street. As important as it is for your sources to understand the type of referral you want to receive, it is just as important for you to understand the type of work they want sent their way. Establish a profile of what a good referral is to them, including details like revenue, industry, geography and type of work.
  • Long-term relationships. Seek referral sources that match your personal style and choose quality over quantity. Develop close relationships with a few, rather than distant relationships with many.

The key is to develop programs and activities that enable your partner and manager group to effectively accomplish the above objectives.Attracting new clients
While Disciplines 1 and 2 may be considered “low-hanging fruit,” Discipline 3, attracting new clients, can be more difficult. To address this challenge, we recommend a “nurture” marketing approach: After a firm has defined its ideal prospect set (i.e., future client set), it should demonstrate a sincere and ongoing commitment to securing those prospects as clients.

History has demonstrated that it’s simply a matter of time until something necessitates a change in CPA firms (service delivery issues, lack of industry expertise, fees, etc.) So, it is important for your firm to position itself as the No. 2 (back-up to the incumbent) provider.

Nurture marketing follows a specific process designed to nurture prospects into client relationships through a series of direct mailings and telephone follow-up. With the prospect’s permission, continue regular contact, sharing executive summaries of industry-related articles of interest to the prospect, while demonstrating your firm’s knowledge of and interest in the prospect’s industry, and showing an ongoing commitment to gaining their business.

Support activities
All firms need to avoid falling into the “marketing black hole” by ensuring that Discipline 4 activities support the first three disciplines. Support activities include the development of testimonials, brochures, advertising, Web sites, public relations, etc. The key is to engage in only those activities that support your strategies and initiatives in Disciplines 1 through 3.

Scientific and predictable
Research continues to show that the profitability and length of client relationships today are increasingly dependent upon providing proactive advice and quality service. To this end, a firm’s practice development efforts should be designed to directly support the development of profitable relationships.

In essence, an effective practice development program plan should be both scientific and predictable. Any time throughout the implementation of a plan, a firm should be able to assess the progress made against projected goals. The key is to focus on implementing activities that will generate the biggest return on your investment.

Disciplined marketing drives revenue, and helps create desired business results. To get there, take that first step by refusing to repeat the same practice development plan again, expecting different results. Change the process to a balanced, disciplined marketing approach, and your results will reflect that change.

Charles Hyland, CPA, is a principal and Marijean Jaggers is the director of marketing at full-service accounting consultancy The Growth Partnership. Reach Charles at or (314) 209-0922 ext. 102, and Marijean at or (314) 209-0922 ext. 109.

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