Voices

Marketing is not a four-letter word

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When some CPAs hear the word marketing, it sends a shiver down their spine. It’s clear that many CPAs are not good marketers, but the firm that has no marketing will have lower growth than their peers and less value to their stakeholders. But don’t confuse marketing with sales.

According to Investopedia, marketing refers to activities undertaken by a company to promote the buying of a product or a service. Selling may be a part of the marketing process, but if all you do is sales, as opposed to some more tasteful marketing, you will indeed begin to look like a peddler of stuff. You will be no different than the product-pushing financial planners that high-net-worth America has learned to avoid. Think “Ghostbusters,” with Rick Moranis asking, “Who does your taxes?” That is sales … and pretty bad sales at that.

Most CPAs (at least at the partner level) are actually pretty good at sales. You may not think so, but try teaching a seller of tangible products to sell the intangible of CPA services. For decades CPAs have been able to convince clients to pay large sums of money for services. The best CPAs are selling their value, not time and materials.

So for those who say, “I did not get into financial planning to become a salesman” — cheers! I understand and I agree with you. I’ll have more on that later. But for now, let’s dive into some of the subtle things that you can ask your firm to do. Utilizing these techniques is likely to improve your marketing, visibility, and ultimately your value to your clients and business partners.


Best foot forward

The first marketing things to work on may be those all-important first impressions. These include your phone greeting, office appearance, website, social media, print materials, electronic communications and anything that is mailed or emailed to a client or prospect.

I have worked with many CPAs in my life as a consultant and mentor in financial planning. Many of these firms had the most awful phone greeting. You could almost hear through the other end of the phone that they are bothered, and maybe too busy to pick up the phone. Nothing says “I don’t want your business” more than an unwelcoming phone-answerer at your firm.

For anyone answering the phones, script exactly what you want that phone greeting to be and enforce its utilization. I also think that having anyone who is available pick up the phones is a major disruption to their day. This also increases the possibility that the caller will wonder why an accountant picked up the phone, whether the firm can afford to have some administrative help, and who taught that person how to answer a phone. Even after training, I’ve worked with CPA firms who have the absolute worst protocol for phone answering. This little matter is more important than you think, and positively a good first step at cleaning up your marketing.

If your office looks like a CPA office when someone walks through the front door … change it! Seeing your CPA isn’t as nerve-racking as showing up for a root canal … but it is probably a close second. Walking into an office with piles of paper, files stacked upon files and staff working behind 10-year-old monitors does not set a good first impression. Outdated furniture and fixtures are another deal-killer. Good clients will wonder what you are really like if you can hang your hat for 60 hours each week in something that looks like it came out of a box store 20 years ago.

I believe your office should be an expression of who you are, individually or culturally. It may be common for senior citizens to think that their 40-year-old kitchen still works — but what would a prospective homebuyer think? They’d be thinking tear down or extensive renovation. Don’t give them the opportunity to blemish your first meeting with them thinking about all the work that your office needs to look modern and clean. You want them to feel comfortable and right at home.

If, on the other hand, you are cheap, want clients that are cheap, and find others like you who relish a low overhead and older environment — then leave it alone. Your marketing may be done simply by letting your office age in place.

Some simple ideas to spruce up what may be a tired look: fresh flowers, new paint and carpet, decluttering, new signage, artwork or sculptures, modern-looking technology and a person up front who can greet your clients with a friendly and familiar smile.

Migrating over to your website, most CPA firms now see why having a website is important in the first place. But many still miss the need to keep it fresh, relevant and useful for clients and prospects. The fact is that a prospective client tries to check you out many, many times before they call. While your website may not be a new-client generator, it is one of the first places that a prospective client will look to get a feel for the firm.

When updating your website, try to be as authentic as possible. Do not try to be like other firms. You may find other firms that are like you or where you aspire to be, and their websites may provide some guidance. But you need to articulate your unique value promise for clients, in your own words. The website doesn’t have to be a financial encyclopedia of information. It should be simple and clear who your target client is and what your value is to those you currently serve.

I recall the days when CPAs would look me in the eye and say they didn’t need any social media presence. Even today I meet practitioners who think that I’m crazy for suggesting that they share their brilliance with the world, for free. Social media is an ever-growing medium from which people get their information — like it or not.

LinkedIn, Twitter and even Facebook may be important depending on your target market. These all start with a profile, followers and something good to say. If you have nothing good to say, you’ll get nothing good out of social media.

Get help with your profile. It doesn’t have to be pages long, but long enough to show your experience and why someone may consider you the right person for the job. Most of us received help with our first resume, and since entering the workforce, we think that we’re now smart enough to do this on our own. But the real smart ones are the ones who are too busy serving clients and hire someone to professionally prepare their social media presence.

Staying relevant

Key to having people finding you a valuable resource online is the creation of content. This frequently scares many professionals, as they feel that they don’t have the time or the ability to do this well. Remember authenticity … your style is your style, so go with it. People will either like it or they won’t. Those who do will seek you out, while those who don’t will keep looking. What a great natural selection process. Remember that your content does not have to be long. Most people are not as detailed as CPAs and less interested than you are in reading something as long as this article. Make your social media content short, direct and valuable.

A good example is this: Recently, I’ve seen many posts regarding the technical content behind the SECURE Act. In my opinion, this is horrible content if it is all you do. I just performed a simple Google search of “SECURE Act summary,” and 678,000,000 hits came up in 0.54 of a second! How easy will it be for someone to find you there? You’d be better off playing lottery tickets than tossing your name into a hat with almost 700 million posts.

Sharing some other firm or publication’s content is OK, but it should not be your primary source of information sharing. Supportive, yes. But as your sole source of content, not very helpful.

Your content has to be relevant to your audience. For example, I believe that your best clients would love to read a 200-word article about how CPAs (especially you and those in your firm) spend their weekends when under the pressure of tax season. They want to know that their staff accountant just had a baby, or bought a house, or attended an educational conference. They want to know more about you and your associates. They are hoping for a deeper relationship with you, and yet most CPAs keep telling their clients how busy they are. The interpretation of the “I’m busy” line is that your clients feel like you don’t have time for them.

Anything that you send a client deserves to be a part of the marketing conversation. This may be in the mail or electronic. Pay attention to how it looks going out the door. The look should be consistent, whether the message is electronic or old-fashioned print.

Newsletters, for example, are still a mainstay of CPA firm marketing. Canned newsletters are passé … maybe relevant and important in the snail-mail days, but not at all important today, especially if it is a canned electronic newsletter. I don’t know about you, but I often go from the mailbox to the recycle bin to toss out all of the non-urgent matter received. I’m afraid that your old snail-mail newsletter may find the same fate. Especially if your content is about some dumb tax form or something that your best clients pay you dearly to be on top of for them.

And last, your personal communications. Devote some time to listening to your message and seeing if there is a way to upgrade it. Ask others to listen, and offer constructive and objective feedback. You want the people in your firm to deliver a consistent message to the world about who you are and who benefits most from your services. This is where marketing and sales intersect. You may be the best marketer in the world, but when you get the opportunity to speak to someone one-on-one about what you do and what’s in it for them, you better be good.

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