Toward the end of February and early March, I usually plan a family vacation in a warm location like Mexico. I do it to escape the cold, but I also choose this time because a percentage of my clients go quiet in busy season.
I have worked with public accounting firms across the country for almost two decades, and little has changed in that golden time from January to about mid-May. For partners and staff, the hours are long, the focus is intense, and the rewards come later.
Marketing and business development staff know their plans and budgets must be approved prior to busy season, and that major initiatives will have to wait until everyone is back from vacation sometime in June or July.
And yet, I'm sure that every partner would agree that the best time to attract clients is when those prospective new clients are angry with their current accounting firm ... right around springtime. It doesn't matter if their grievance is logical or not; buying is 50 percent emotional.
The biggest issue of 2013 for accounting firms of all sizes was attracting new clients, according to the American Institute of CPAs' Private Companies Practice Section CPA Firm Top Issues survey. I suspect this same issue will top the list in 2014 across the board.
Due to the intensity of busy season, however, a whole-firm focus on marketing and business development is likely a mere six months long each year (or less with busy times around September 15 and October 15).
I risk appearing crazy if I suggest that accountants step away from paying client work to ponder new business development when they are already working seven days a week. So I won't. Instead, greasing the wheels in your "less-busy" seasons will attract qualified leads exactly when you are buried in returns, audits and consulting next January through April.
In fact, one accounting firm we know in North Carolina landed three new clients at the end of January. Partners did it by committing to an integrated marketing and business development strategy 18 months earlier.
Your accounting firm can experience the same type of success by considering three strategic steps that don't require heavy lifting until after you've had your vacation and annual physical.
1. COORDINATE YOUR STRATEGY
According to the AICPA survey, the firms that are most successful at attracting clients have a whole-firm approach with an integrated marketing and business development plan. Partners champion the effort. They approve marketing staff and consultants to work with a core group of subject matter experts who will support focused tactics: articles and blogs, speaking, networking or cross-selling to existing clients. This group will identify their ideal prospects and brainstorm ways to attract them.
All of these efforts are then mapped out in a six-to-12-month marketing calendar, along with personal business development plans/goals for partners and/or key emerging leaders. The heavy lifting starts in mid-summer and tapers down to planning for next year toward the holidays.
2. CREATE KEY TACTICS
What happens during the heavy lifting? The firm works on major branding initiatives and Web site updates that tie into specific niche marketing campaigns for lead generation.
Evergreen, client-focused articles are produced for the Web site and also for trade publications that will publish three to six months from now. Content might also go into blogs or newsletters. Direct-mail campaigns and ads are approved and developed to run at key points in the summer, fall and spring. A tax guide and other resources are updated and posted for easy download when prospects are searching for them.
During the heavy lifting, you have partner and manager attention to create, review and approve articles, blogs and other marketing tactics for use during busy season.
Whatever your marketing strategy entails, it must also be aligned with your sales strategy. This way, the content you create can act as an extra salesperson when accountants are busy.
3. COLLECT RESULTS
Once busy season hits, marketing staff or consultants can pitch partners and managers for speeches in summer and fall; they can also plan client-focused events for that time. They will promote published articles and blogs on the firm's social media pages and track downloads of resources promoted through the newsletter that went out in February or through a direct-mail campaign. They are repurposing speeches and articles into tips lists and video blogs and sharing those with business media.
No marketing staff? Work with your Web designer, a ghostwriter or hired Google expert to make sure the content you already have out there is optimized with proper Web page titles, headlines and key phrases to attract the leads either referred to you or cold-searched. You can also schedule social media posts and e-mail blasts (pre-written and programmed to go out automatically every few weeks) to promote your Web site and content while you're busy meeting with clients. Your only other job will be to pick up the phone when a prospective new client calls.
By the time everyone is back to business, new business development will come from lead nurturing that started six months to a year ago ... and the planning begins again. Think of it this way: Busy season for marketing and business development is during the months leading up to busy season. What's left in busy season is to track the processes and channels designed to attract new clients and refer those hot prospects to partners.
Sounds logical and yet challenging, with multiple opportunities and too little time. That's why a focused summer and fall effort on a few key objectives will help enterprising and organized firms grow during busy season when others have gone dark.
Dawn Wagenaar is co-principal of Ingenuity Marketing Group LLC, providing growth, brand and marketing strategy consulting to accounting firms across the country. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or (651) 690-3358.
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