[IMGCAP(1)]Everyone wants to be different, and accounting firms are no exception. Firms want to stand out in order to attract new clients, keep old ones, and lure in new recruits. They want to be unique snowflakes, the one in a million that sparkles above the rest.

And if you ask, most firms and most partners are happy to tell you exactly how they stand out. Here’s how:

  • They have the highest level of technical expertise.
  • They care deeply about their clients.
  • They care deeply about their staff.
  • They operate with the highest levels of integrity.
  • They are deeply involved with their communities.

Visit the Web site of just about any CPA firm in the country — no matter how big or how small — and you’re likely to see some or all of these claims. And in most cases, they’re true (or they’d better be): Most firms are filled with experts who care about their employees, clients and communities.
But with everyone claiming those differentiators, they cease being differentiators, and start becoming requirements. If every firm treats employees like family (or claims they do), then doing so becomes necessary, not sufficient. To brag that you do is like bragging that you pay your employees in U.S. dollars instead of glass beads, or telling clients that you won’t mess up their tax return. These things become, in an over-used phrase, table stakes — basics that every firm has to offer, which means that no firm can stand out by offering them.

  So how do you stand out? How do you go beyond expectations?

  • Specific, useful expertise. Clients expect you to be experts — that’s why they go to CPAs. You need to develop and highlight expertise in the areas that matter to specific clients, whether it’s European VAT rules or franchise accounting or the intricacies of grant reporting for nonprofits. Similarly, offer services that are of specific use to them — anyone and everyone can offer traditional tax and accounting services. (That’s not to say that you shouldn’t continue offering the basics, or that they’re not useful to clients — it’s just that they won’t help you stand out in a crowded marketplace.)
  • Show what being part of your client’s team really means. Answering every client call within 24 hours is great, but so is using sophisticated benchmarking tools to analyze where their business stands in relation to their competitors, or making sure that they’ve met and feel comfortable calling several members of your firm, so they’re never left without a contact. More important, bringing tools, resources and services to the party that other firms don’t will make you a more valuable partner than even the most genuine concern and empathy. (Though, again, you do need to care about your clients, or at least fake it convincingly.)
  • Treat employees better than family. A warm fuzzy feeling about work is great, but it’s not the same as a concrete mentoring program — or getting to go on client calls when you’re an entry-level employee. It’s certainly not the same as a bonus, or a seat on an employee council or committee that can actually affect the strategic direction of the firm. Yes, tax-season pizza parties and staff outings are great for morale, but every single firm in the country offers them, whereas most firms don’t clearly delineate a path to partner for young employees, or offer visibility into the firm’s finances and operations.

As with snowflakes, differentiation lies in the specifics, in the crystalline details, and if you want to be unique, you need to start bringing those into focus. Otherwise, you’ll just blend in with all the other flakes.

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