Take a moment to consider a piece of the strategic puzzle that you may think is inconsequential to your business objectives: research. In this day and age, a comprehensive research strategy can make or break governments, politicians and yes, even established accounting firms.

There are a number of ways in which building out your marketing resources with research could direct your firm’s business development plan and strategies to fuel opportunities. To start, we need to focus on the most relevant, top-of-mind considerations for any professional services firm: a targeted market research approach.

That said, there are four key areas where research can be integral to your ongoing business development efforts.

1. Preparedness. Time in front of prospects is precious – and yet firms waste much of it learning things they could have researched in advance. A go-to research tool such as Audit Analytics can help you reach the optimal level of preparedness for meetings, presentations and sponsored conferences/events.

For instance, when a firm sponsors a conference (a necessary evil at times), partners are the ones who need to attend. And the loss of billable time due to obligatory attendance can be significant. What if we created an opportunity for them to focus their time “in the field?”

For each conference, a good research strategy can identify who the presenting companies are, their executives, the company profile, who their auditors are, what the fees have been over the past few years, and their growth year-to-year from reviewing their 10-Ks, as well as identifying any recent activities. This information can inform the attendees of an opening in order to facilitate a meet-and-greet. Know the people you want to meet and, most important, have the marketing team and partners on the ground know who you want to meet. The result is a well-executed approach to sponsorship goals, which can significantly shift the outcome toward a tangible return on investment.

For our second example, let’s consider a new business opportunity that involves an established public company looking for a new auditor. You will want to use research and strategic planning to prepare for the meeting with a tailored presentation that speaks to what the company history is, what it wants to achieve and how that aligns with your strengths. To achieve this, a well-thought-out strategy for preparing will be to review the executive suite, any recent changes, past auditors and fees, and to read the transcripts of their most recent earnings call. The earnings call, accessed from a source such as Capital IQ, will be the crystal ball needed to best understand the goals of the company and the priorities of executive leadership. Once you have the necessary pieces, you will be able to complete your proposal by aligning your firm’s strengths with the needs of the company.

2. Expanding opportunities, both current and new. I like to use the analogy, “When a door opens, walk through and then open some windows.” By understanding your clients, their needs and business model, you can find ways to open windows to conversations for expanded services. Your marketing department can help you define the business model of current and new clients and help guide you to understand where the entry points are for more opportunities. If they are a tax client, do they also need assurance work, compliance services, forensic accounting? Are there opportunities for advisory services? What other partners or managers can you introduce them to in your firm that can set a wheel in motion for expanded services?

A good business development strategy will also consist of a key client “network tree.” Once you have identified your key clients, your marketing department’s researchers can create a tree of their networks through a good scrub of LinkedIn, or other social tools. You can then review and prioritize who you would like introductions to or from your key client. A good and trustful working relationship will be an invaluable way to open more windows to new opportunities.

Consider this scenario: Imagine that your West Coast firm has a new health care practice and your firm has identified a sweet spot with “smaller” health care companies (under $500 million in revenue). Being able to quickly identify them, and then build out an effective marketing outreach campaign, is a must if you want to expand this practice, and a robust research effort can help you do just that.

Here’s another: Your New England-based firm just won a new audit engagement for a 401(k) plan. The plan is attached to a bank and currently has 375 participants. Your firm wants to identify similar opportunities. Being able to quickly identify all 401(k) plans in New England in the banking industry with 300–500 participants will significantly speed up your business development efforts.

3. Referral sources. Professional service firms live and die by referral sources. These key players are what make or break your standing in the marketplace— and appreciation is key. Many firms do, or should, host referral appreciation events, as they generate a significant return on investment. They offer thanks, a set time for referral sources to connect with key partners and contacts, a place for you to gain critical insights to changes and growth, and a way to gain access to their valued networks.

There are two ways to optimize these relationships. One is by gaining insight to your referral sources’ trusted network, similar to the key client approach. Who within your referral sources’ network would you like an introduction to? Where do the opportunities lie for an introduction? How can you leverage your referral appreciation event for expanded introductions? Before sending out the invites, research the network (again, LinkedIn is a great tool) and reach out to your referral sources to facilitate an invitation. Secondly, and perhaps obviously, it is a way for you to connect one-on-one with your referral sources — while researching new opportunities — to present a more genuine (rather than opportunistic) relationship.

4. Tracking. Finally, the most important piece of your strategic plan’s puzzle is tracking business development opportunities. Without a good, measured and consistent tracking method, your research and business development efforts will be as fruitful as spitting into the wind. A lot of effort and no direction. It is imperative that the partner and/or business development group have a monthly status report on all new opportunities that include date initiated, status (active, pending, lost, dead), size of opportunity, notes on research and relevant dates. With information changing and people constantly on the move, keeping track will be critical to closing.

Bottom line: Research + Strategy = Money

When you shift the way you think about your research potential and benefits to your strategic plan, you will find it easier to accept that committing to a well-thought-out approach can create greater potential for business development opportunities that close. Period.