Don't cut that marketing budget -- or at least think twice before you get out the scalpel.
That's the mantra (or plea) of many accounting firm marketing directors these days, whose departments are among the first to get downsized in challenging economic times.
Not surprisingly, marketers say that slimming down such resources can undermine efforts to raise a firm's profile at a time when it most needs to have a presence in the marketplace. Still, many are combing through their budgets to re-assess spending and offering up innovative ways to promote their firms.
"The economy has provided us the impetus to look at everything we do," said Michael Mattia, partner-in-charge of marketing for Amper, Politziner & Mattia LLP, in Edison, N.J. "The inclination of some is to summarily cut marketing programs and initiatives, but that's a mistake. You need to look at initiatives and better target them, do a better job tracking return on investment and effectiveness."
Mattia has done this by renegotiating contracts, taking a second look at marketing tool vendors and analyzing whether it makes sense to implement programs that may not have had firmwide support or a strong champion to see them through.
"These are things, obviously, that you should always do, but that sometimes get put on the back burner when the economy is good," Mattia said.
"We actually see the down economy as a tremendous marketing opportunity," said Adam Wolf, director of marketing and business development at Grassi & Co. in Lake Success, N.Y. "As many firms out there are retrenching, we are ramping up our program and filling the void."
Wolf said that he has watched his marketing program grow despite the economy, but there's a closer scrutiny of the monies spent, as seen in the last-minute slashing of a few budget items.
Though his marketing dollars were less than 2 percent of the firm's operating budget, Neil Fauerbach, a partner and director of business development and marketing at Smith & Gesteland LLP in Madison, Wis., said that he is still looking for ways to be more efficient -- namely through electronic newsletters and alerts, "bold-only" listings in the Yellow Pages, and careful attention to entertainment spending.
"What has helped this effort more than anything else is that we know who we want to pursue as clients," Fauerbach said. "This eliminates the need for shotgun approaches like post cards and image advertising."
Lori Jamail, director of marketing at McConnell Jones Lanier & Murphy LLP, in Houston, was in the midst of budgeting season at press time, though she did predict some scaling down. "I think we will see some cutbacks in terms of the associations we are involved in, [such as] various Chamber of Commerce organizations and industry associations," Jamail said. "We are taking a hard look at the ROI on those to see how active our experts are in the organizations."
Some firms have been reducing marketing staff and eliminating anything that is a major budgetary expense that seems extraneous, according to Nancy Fox, president of New York-based Fox Coaching Associates, a consulting firm that works with accountants and lawyers.
"The very smart firms are continuing their marketing efforts because they know now is the time to be capturing new opportunities," Fox said. "With the economy so difficult, midsized firms are looking to see how they can capture a piece of the business, where the fallout is going to be."
Fox said that because some firms' clients are going out of business, they are moving around -- perhaps leaving firms they've been with for years. "On one hand, firms will lose clients, but on the other hand, it can increase their client base because clients will move from one firm to another," Fox said, adding that a challenge for firms is that clients are becoming increasingly fee-conscious, forcing staff to really understand their value propositions and articulate them to clients. "It gives you an opportunity to put your best foot forward and it also allows you to get even stronger with your current clients by offering them additional assistance, so you become a closer confidante."
Nurturing those client relationships should be a no-brainer, but given the popularity of the virtual office, sometimes the personal touch is lost amidst the wires of technology.
Reducing interactions and communications efforts in times of economic uncertainty sends the wrong message to clients, according to Austine Olson, director of marketing at the large regional CPA and advisory firm of Rothstein Kass in Roseland, N.J.
"They need to know that their service providers are sensitive to their challenges and can provide the solutions to help them navigate through difficult times," Olson said. "We've increased our investment in monitoring client satisfaction, retaining third parties to assist in providing a forum for our clients to provide feedback."
Marketing directors all agree that staying in constant contact with your clients is of the utmost importance all the time -- but it's even more necessary during a time of crisis.
"I cannot stress enough that you stay on top of your client relationships through all levels of the firm -- from the people who answer the phone, to the partner-in-charge of that account," said Jamie Trayner, director of marketing at LBA CPAs PA in Jacksonville, Fla. "Don't e-mail if you can pick up the phone. Make sure you are answering all those questions by the end of the day."
Trayner, who is also president of the Association for Accounting Marketing, an organization that offers resources and education to accounting firms, said that she has felt the effects of the weakened economy and has also recognized an increased sensitivity among clients regarding fees.
"What I'm nervous about is that you have that long-term client who says, 'Look, you give me the best service and the best advice, but I just can't afford your fees.' Knock on wood that won't happen, but I don't think any of us are in a position to rest on our laurels to think that it won't," she said, adding, "We have had some clients call us to say they are not getting paid by their customers, so we are seeing a slower pay cycle."
Trayner said that those clients are also asking CPAs to scrap some of the strategic consultant work for assistance in trimming budgetary fat in order to make sure their businesses survive.
At Armanino McKenna LLP, in San Ramon, Calif., the marketing initiative has been refocused from branding to lead generation, according to Lori Colvin, partner and chief marketing officer.
"We are working with partners more intensely to follow up on initiatives so we have a stronger sales component to our programs," Colvin said, adding that in the past two years the focus has been on marketing, branding and sales support. "Our goals are always focused on how we are going to get our partners in front of the right target."
At PKF Texas in Houston, Karen Love, director of the firm's practice growth, said that her firm -- despite the lagging economy -- has seen growth, yet they view this next year with cautious optimism. "We are still planning about a 5 percent growth this year."
The bottom line for marketers trying to distinguish their firm in the marketplace is to get out there and generate more business -- and the easiest way to do that is keep your marketing departments intact.
"If you are thinking about emphasizing or positioning your brand, the tendency might be to wait because of the economy before investing in any sort of rollout," Fox said. "I think it's really important for accounting firms to really jump in before the floodgates open for new business."
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