Just as no ship would sail without navigational tools, no successful professional services firm would attempt to grow their business without a solid sales and marketing strategy.

Any accounting firm without a well-thought-out plan in hand will likely founder and fail, but an accounting firm with a solid idea of how to go about developing and converting leads will be well on their way to growth and profitability.

Before we go any further, let’s make sure that we’re all on the same page regarding the definitions of sales and marketing. Often they’re used interchangeably and that can lead to confusion. Marketing is about offering the right services with the right benefits to the right prospects. It’s about creating demand. Sales is about convincing your prospects to buy your services. It’s about closing business opportunities.

Developing a smart accounting sales and marketing plan is a process and requires strong marketing leadership. Why marketing and not sales? Because marketing is where information is turned into knowledge through research and analysis. To be a little more precise in our definition of marketing, I should point out that marketing is all about understanding your marketplace and competitors, defining appropriate positioning and services, promoting the firm to your target audience and explaining how they might benefit by working with your firm.

If you don’t have experienced marketing talent on your staff, that’s OK. There are plenty of outside marketing consultants and firms who can provide the know-how. Either way, accounting sales and marketing strategy development, done correctly, includes five steps, starting with research, to create a plan that is then implemented:

1. Research your ideal client and what value your firm can provide

Be objective—what is it your perfect client really wants and needs? What can your firm provide to satisfy that need? It’s important to start with what your potential client requires, not necessarily what you offer (or want to offer) or the way your firm is organized.

The best strategies are reality-based, not starry-eyed conjecture. It’s vital that you align what you’re willing and able to provide with what the market and your target clients really want and need. However, once you’ve done your research and established market and prospect preferences, your work is not over. It’s important to conduct regular research to avoid missing shifting requirements and developing trends. Studies have shown that firms doing regular, periodic research grow faster and more profitably.

Thorough, proper research will help you develop a better picture of client needs and priorities, service purchasing preferences, competitors’ strategies and activities, even how your own firm is perceived in the marketplace. All of this knowledge will help reduce risk, produce opportunities, and provide you with the vital information you need to make ongoing improvements to your strategy.

2. Use your research findings to inform your business strategy

Once you’ve gathered all this market and prospect intelligence and analyzed it, use it to examine and compare it your general business goals. That means asking and answering some fundamental questions such as:

• Will your current sales and marketing strategy allow your firm to accomplish what it wants to?

• Are you interested in organic or acquisition growth, or both? How much?

• Are you contemplating a major leadership change?

How you answer these questions will establish what your strategy needs to accomplish and how you can measure its effectiveness.

3. Take a look at your available resources

What you can accomplish is limited by the available resources so you’ll need to ask a few more questions:

• What internal resources are available to execute a strategy?

• What sort of talent is already on board?

• What level of training do they have?

• Do the doers understand sales?

• Does the marketing staff understand the services you offer?

• Do you have the marketing infrastructure you need to pull off an inbound strategy?

• How about sales tools such as marketing collateral or case study videos?

Answers to these questions will provide an understanding as to what you can reasonably expect to accomplish internally, without outside help. The information gleaned from this exercise will also reveal strengths and weaknesses that you can exploit or address as you begin crafting your accounting sales and marketing strategy.

4. Develop a comprehensive strategy

Perhaps you already have some kind of strategy in place that has not achieved the success you had hoped it would (which is why you may be reading this right now). If you’ve followed Steps 1 through 3, you’ll be in a position to fix all that. It may mean adjusting your sales and marketing model to better align with your organizational structure—are you a seller/doer or seller/expert model? Do you have the thought leadership and valuable content developed to engage in inbound/outbound marketing? Once again, alignment is key—matching resources and capabilities to business and sales and marketing goals.

5. Putting your plan to work

Once you’ve established your accounting sales and marketing strategy and are ready to pull the trigger, double-check your resources and requirements:

• Do you have the right sales and marketing tools?

• Is the right infrastructure in place, such as a customer relationship management or marketing automation system?

• Is there any talent that needs to be hired or outsourced?

• Any additional training required?

• Have you established a marketing calendar to schedule and manage activities?

• Have you developed metrics that will enable you to evaluate and adjust the strategy?

• Is there an official implementation schedule, budget, and responsibilities list?

Researching and developing an accounting sales and marketing strategy is two-thirds of the battle. The final—and most critical—third is implementation. Without focused, consistent implementation, no strategy will succeed. Just a little more effort is all it takes to make the difference between success and failure.

Lee Frederiksen

Lee Frederiksen

Lee Frederiksen, PhD, is managing partner of Hinge, a branding and marketing firm for professional services. Hinge conducts research into high-growth firms and offers services for firms that want to become more visible and grow.