Professional services are organic - they have lifecycles and stages that are distinctly their own. Marketing your offerings to the maximum effect should include efforts to extend the lifecycle of your offerings. Infuse your services with innovation to keep them living - and giving - longer.The typical accounting offering starts out in an embryonic stage, in which your objective is simply to attract an early adopter. Properly managed, the offering matures to what I call the "diamond-in-the-rough" stage. It's the realization that there's plenty of unrealized potential ... and plenty you need to do to uncover it. At this point, if you do it right, you're beginning to pick up traction.

Eventually, you can reach "dominance," the stage at which the offering is driving relatively large amounts of revenue for your firm. Now you've got the hang of it. Once you're really humming, delivering efficiently and reliably, you've got a "cash cow."

Well before this point, you want a plan in place that will ensure that your cash cow doesn't turn into a stringy, struggling animal, a fossilized version of a once-robust offering. The name of the game is innovation. Left to its natural cycle, your offering will likely wither, and you'll be holding a low-margin, commoditized service with nothing to differentiate it in the marketplace. With little to distinguish it, you begin to look like every other Tom, Dick and Harry.

Enter Captain Innovation!

When innovation is added to the mix, the profitable lifecycle of an offering can be significantly extended. What does innovation look like? Imagine the difference between a cup of takeout diner coffee and a visit to Starbucks. The caffeine-peddling giant creates not only an excellent product, but a memorable experience - one that is warm, welcoming and inclusive.

One way to innovate is to do what Starbucks does - enhance the experience. One client who does 401(k) audits started by asking his clients about the hassles they face in working with the auditor on employee benefit plan audits. He learned that the biggest problem is the array of documents that they must gather and manage. His response was to develop a binder and a set of instructions that helps organize the paperwork in preparation for the auditor. Problem solved. Experience enhanced.

Try technology!

There is a growing wealth of innovation in software tools and solutions designed exclusively for CPA firms. These can be embedded in your offerings and drive demand.

One category focuses on performance measures, financial analysis and benchmarking. A product like ProfitCents provides valuable benchmarking information about companies in comparable industries. Another is iLumen, which delivers dashboard-style analysis indicating discrepancies like creeping accounts receivable or out-of-range inventory. Powerful and user-friendly Profit Driver enables you to easily fashion what-if scenarios with your clients, using their financial data. Similarly, workflow software tools like Xpitax add efficiency to the processing of tax returns, infusing efficiency, value and protection of margins in mature offerings.

Yet another category of tools helps you maintain contacts and identify new opportunities within your client base or among prospects. One such is BizActions, a service that unlocks partners' thought leadership and displays it for all to see. It makes it easy to write and distribute articles on issues of importance to prospects and clients. You can gauge interest by identifying how many recipients read which articles.

Another is Trust, a Web-based needs assessment tool completed by the prospect or client that pinpoints the top cross-selling opportunities for your firm. It permits the CPA to produce a professional report that addresses specific, identified needs such as strategic or financial planning, and budget and cash flow forecasting.

Commoditized offerings and razor-thin margins? Hogwash! This is the result of a lack of innovation, which is as fundamental to the health of your offerings as sunlight and water are to a plant.

If your services are struggling, ask yourself if you even know about the above-described tools. If not, get out there and start evaluating! The key to success with any of them is to be sure that they're applied with the spirit of innovation. Offer something new, fresh and exciting. Close your eyes and breathe deeply ... can you smell the latte?

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