by Bruce T. Andersen

In the past year, most businesses have been hanging on rather than growing - an issue that has touched virtually every accounting practice. After a decade of solid, dependable and often spectacular growth, the economy began to lag.

But, as the old saying goes: When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping ... for new clients, new business and new opportunities. Even in hard times, there are golden opportunities waiting for those who know how to take the market’s pulse and base their prospecting and service delivery on the needs, wants and expectations of clients and prospects.

For private-practice CPAs - as well as for their clients - the past 12 months have been a time to hunker down, focus on basics, control costs and hang on.

For a brief time, perhaps, a bunker mentality may have been beneficial. However, savvy CPA firms are now leaving their bunkers, gearing up to once again storm the ramparts of opportunity. But the question on many minds is: "How?"

One way is to take a fresh look at your business strategy, to look for new opportunities to both sell fresh services to existing clients and to bring new prospects into the client fold.

That’s what I did, and it’s paid real dividends. The economic downturn has caused me to re-evaluate my business strategy; and perhaps the lessons I learned will help you. I did two things that I think will prove helpful to others in similar positions.

First, I realized that, while I have a fair number of QuickBooks accounting clients, a core element of my business is mid-market accounting software reselling. As that market’s growth stagnated and sales leveled off, I had a few choices.

  • Hunker down and ride it out.
  • Aggressively prospect within the mid-market.
  • Move down-market, increasing my QuickBooks accounting clientele for both short-term revenue purposes and working with them to upgrade to mid-market accounting software as their businesses grew.

Riding it out was not an option. And, while prospecting within the mid-market was viable - and I have continued that - it offered fairly low-level short-term returns. So I decided I’d better penetrate the small business accounting market.This is a strategy that any mid-market accounting VAR - or any accountant who primarily serves the mid-market - can do effectively. And because recessionary economies generally rebound first in the small business market, growth potential there is real and more promising than the zero-sum game found in the existing mid-market.
With that decision made, last December I reviewed my resources. Then I thought about how I could leverage them to better meet my objectives.

My resources included:

  • I am a CPA with an accounting practice, providing a reputable service to a solid core of businesses.
  • I am a QuickBooks Advisor, able to advise small-business clients on maximizing the utility of that entry-level accounting software package.
  • I am a reseller of small-to-midsized enterprise and mid-market accounting software.
  • Beyond those specific resources, I had another set of less measurable, but no less important resources:
  • I am motivated to succeed - I do not take success for granted.
  • I am willing to innovate in marketing my business lines to enhance that success.
  • I am willing to invest in savvy, marketing-related efforts designed to generate positive marketing returns.

That last resource is vital. If you are not willing to commit resources or if you see marketing as an expense, rather than an investment, you are not likely to be ready to successfully carry out a re-evaluation and re-direction of your accounting practice.But let’s assume that you are.
That’s how I chose to approach my situation. After considering this personal balance sheet, I realized that during the flush times, I had not really explored ways of leveraging one of my resources - QuickBooks clients - into new opportunities.

Tougher times suggested that creative marketing could fill this gap. I informally surveyed some clients and discovered I was not alone in failing to effectively offer profitable services to QuickBooks clients or to work with them to change systems when their needs outgrew QuickBooks. If you are not maximizing the revenue and market potential of your QuickBooks clients, you, too, could be missing important opportunities.

For purposes of illustration, let’s look at one of my 2002 business objectives: to conduct a respectable number of SME/mid-market accounting system installations, with an efficient, profitable cost of acquisition.

To accomplish this, I needed to evaluate two opportunities:

  • Up-sell existing clients from QuickBooks to SME/mid-market software packages; and
  • Prospect for new clients - ones ready to move to an SME/mid-market solution and those who are still meeting their needs with QuickBooks.

From there, I could focus on implementing specific business development plans to move me toward my objective. To begin this process, I looked at the software that was being used by my clients, and the software I was replacing when systems were being upgraded.The name that kept coming up over and over was QuickBooks. This meant that I was in an excellent position to leverage my status as a QuickBooks advisor to gain my clients’ confidence.
With that confidence, I would be positioned to advise them when their businesses began to need more accounting horsepower than QuickBooks provides. The question, then, became: "What should I do to best accomplish this?"

This also prompted me to ask: "How do I increase my number of QuickBooks clients to better offer QuickBooks-related services now and be positioned to help them upgrade to an SME/mid-market solution later."

After evaluating the marketplace and my own QuickBooks client needs, I decided to put together a training program for existing clients, one that would also attract other QuickBooks users. My goal was quite simple - train them on how to use this application to its maximum benefit.

For those who found that QuickBooks was still sufficient, I would be helping them control costs while improving their accounting efficiency. I’d also be winning their trust, not just as their accountant, but as someone who had their best interest at heart.

For those who did not use my accounting services, this training program would give them the opportunity to evaluate my services and my approach. In the process, I’d win some new QuickBooks-based clients.

The marketing benefit was equally straightforward. For those who realized that QuickBooks no longer provides the optimum solution, I would be in a strong position to recommend an alternative. This would apply equally to current clients and to non-clients who attended the training program.

I executed this plan by offering a series of monthly seminars to QuickBooks users. The seminars had one objective: to provide the highest quality presentation to empower the attendees to capitalize on the full capabilities of QuickBooks. I didn’t build any other objectives into the presentation - I knew that if I best served those who attended, I’d ultimately serve my own marketing needs.

By the end of each seminar, I identified each attendee’s business type, as well as those businesses that had already outgrown QuickBooks and those that had that potential. Just as important, the participants now saw where they fell in the continuum of QuickBooks users, which prepared those who were ready to grow for my next marketing step.

The seminar series is followed by a nurturing marketing program, which continues to keep my name in front of the attendees by providing them additional low-key services. These include regular newsletter updates, e-mail reminders for calendar-linked QuickBooks activities and other helpful outreach efforts.

This marketing program provides me with constant visibility in my business market, as well as in my market niche within that business community. It also provides an ongoing flow of prospects who are attracted by a program with a relatively low maintenance cost.

This approach works and is easy to replicate. It can be adapted to your practice and hopefully provide you with the same low-investment/high-return marketing effort I’ve achieved.

The best part is that it best serves the needs of your existing clients, while also attracting profitable prospects.

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