[IMGCAP(1)] Our clients have credentials and degrees and experience that would put nearly every other profession to shame. But whether they have in-house marketers or hire outside people, they can still miss the boat on differentiating themselves from the competition.

If the biggest marketing quibble in your firm is about color or fonts or what to say on the holiday card, you are paying too much and missing the real opportunities.

Be different 
A logo is only a tiny bit of a strong brand. The real genius in branding your firm is discovering why your clients count on you and what you promise to deliver. You need to have everyone in the firm on the same page about the unique way you deliver value to clients.

It is not an easy conversation to uncover, much less articulate in a way that seems fresh and memorable.  Too many firms have mission statements like “excellent client service” or visions about “being the premier firm in the region...” It’s about as unique as chewing gum. 

Professional quality work and client service are the basics of client expectations. Expressing that next level of difference is only possible by surveying clients, surveying leadership and defining why clients stay and what your people do best.

Once this is defined, these differences must be taught to everyone in your firm. Share with the backroom people why clients value their work. Inspire the front-end people with the results they create. Get them talking! Then let your marketing talent integrate your differentiating themes — what really makes your service experience unique — into your website, your advertising, your proposals and every other marketing message you send. 

Avoid the commodity trap
Nothing beats the joy out of the profession like being treated like a mere commodity in the RFP nation. The only way to break out of that trap is to be able to clearly articulate your differences and make sure the world knows about them. Without a clearly defined competitive edge and without the talents of bringing it to the attention of the world, you might as well just fill in the spreadsheets with your best price and compete with professionals from Iowa to India.

Few clients will balk at price if they truly believe that you are delivering great value…if they trust your advice. To avoid the commodity trap, you need a combination of proactive client service and a marketing strategy that consistently communicates the strengths of your firm in the market. Your clients need to see you and hear from you. Your prospects also need to see you — in the media and at associations — and hear from you through marketing and regular correspondence.

Dominate a niche
Whether you have defined your niches or aspire to do so, your people as well as your marketing and business strategies need to be laser focused on the messages you share about each niche and how you participate in that world. Being a generalist is very expensive today…the world is too huge for one firm to master.

Having two or three clients in one SIC code is not dominating a niche. You need to commit to it and own it. Know your subject and the players, show up at all meetings and trade shows, write, speak and schmooze. Most of the professionals we know are not born salespeople, so you need the support of marketing and business development to tee up the opportunities. Coaching and individual marketing plans aligned with strengths can help your partners and managers shine in niche marketing.

Close deals
If building your practice is job one at your firm, sign up for sales training right now. This is not a skill that you or your people can ignore. Bring your marketing people and technical people along to sales calls and watch your close ratios increase as they ask the more basic and “naïve” questions about the prospect’s business, goals, family or hobbies. The prospect is not only measuring you on skills, but also culture and personality match.

Hold people accountable to your process. The days of service partners are rapidly disappearing — everyone has to help generate new business. Consider individual business development incentive plans for partners and managers.

Know how to keep them
Every A client of a CPA firm is getting bombarded with sales pitches from your competitors. They get e-blasts, phone calls and newsletters. They see media coverage and advertising. Often, what keeps them from shopping around is your knowledge, attention and service promises.

Keep tabs on your client pains and trends that may affect them down the road. Add helpful information to your website and newsletter to address those pains. Speak and write about it in some public setting. Yes, this is often nonbillable work. And it’s vitally important to keep tabs on the mindset of your clients — and to let them know that you anticipate their next need.

If your marketing person is spending loads of time on proposals, ads and trinket purchases for trade shows, there is little time left for client strategy. Support this strategy as a firm-wide effort — or keep struggling as a firm to supplement lost business.

Wendy Nemitz speaks and writes frequently about competitive difference for CPA firms and other professionals as the founding principal of Ingenuity Marketing Group, 651-690-3358, wendy@ingenuitymarketing.com, www.ingenuitymarketing.com