"Why can't my clients find us online," an associate asked me of her firm. "Do you have a Web site," I asked. Pause. "No." Well, there you have it. (I didn't say that.) This conversation may sound ridiculous to some people, but I've started to believe it's the norm, rather than the exception. A lot of accounting firms claim they don't have Web sites because they don't need more clients. They think of the Internet only as a marketing tool, and why should they bother marketing to prospects they don't even want because most of their clients come from referrals? Two reasons: 1. To stay in touch with current clients more often. 2. To let referrals check them out. While conducting research for the March cover story of Accounting Technology magazine, "Marketing Your Firm Online," I found that even the companies that build Web sites specifically for accounting firms struggle to convince firms to invest. But the accountants who took the leap seem happy with their decision and pleasantly surprised with ancillary results. New Jersey-based Cullari, Gallo, Soojian, Carrabba hadn't changed its Web site for at least half a decade. Prior to creating a new one, the firm would never tell existing clients to visit the site, which was promoting an even from 1999. But now partner Raymond Burke includes the site on his business card and is "happy and proud" to promote it. Recently while at a client's office, Burke needed to prepare an amortization schedule/calculation, so he suggested they use his firm's Web site to do it. The client was so impressed that he immediately added it to his favorites. "They were a client for years, but that was before we told clients we had a site," Burke said. "It's giving a client a tool they find invaluable. But they still view it as us helping them. It saves us time, maybe 10 minutes, but I almost couldn't charge them for it before." Time savings tops the list of return on investment accountants are seeing by investing in Web sites, especially when most of the service providers make all the changes for them and even write the newsletters and automatically deliver them to clients' inboxes. Where they report the most savings is in weeding out clients who aren't a good fit for their firm, essentially by explaining the kind of clientele they want or letting prospects fill out forms about what they are looking for and dismissing those who don't fit the bill--or won't make money. I interviewed a few marketing gurus for the story who are using Google AdWords and dabbling in all sorts of search engine optimization strategies to drive traffic to their sites and win clients. But I realize that most small firms don't care about that. One of our columnists, Gene Marks, actually wrote a piece in our same issue, "We Don't Need No Stinkin' Web Sites," talking about the fact that a lot of small businesses in general can sell their wares and services without the Internet. And a lot of accountants feel the same way. Roughly 13,000 of Inuit's 18,000 Certified ProAdvisors are listed on findaproadvisor.com, which gets about 40,000 hits per month, 500,000 per year, according to Inuit. Only about 50 percent of them have Web sites, however, according to Jody Weir, who manages the ProAdvisor program. The rest just list an email or phone number. But some of those ProAdvisors I interviewed for the story told me that a lot of their hits came from that findaproadvisor.com site. The point is, consumers like looking for information on their own--online. They do it for everything else they buy, so why not for accountants? What firms need to keep in mind is that while they may not need more clients now, their current clients will one day all be gone. If those firms don't start appealing to their current clients' kids, a few years down the line they're going to be playing catch up. Alexandra DeFelice is Senior Editor of Accounting Technology and can be reached at Alexandra.firstname.lastname@example.org.
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