It’s one thing to take the time and effort to create a well-conceived marketing program designed to grow your accounting firm and it can be quite another to get critical stakeholder buy-in.

Why is that? What is it about marketing campaigns that causes them to run into roadblocks with the very people who should realize their importance and be eager to implement them?

It has a lot to do with fear, suspicion and plain old inertia.

Before you throw up your hands in disgust, let’s take a closer look at the reasons why so many professional services stakeholders resist the idea of greenlighting marketing programs. Once you understand the stumbling blocks, you can address them effectively and get your initiatives OKed and on-track.

In our research at Hinge, we have uncovered several fundamental marketing objections offered by professional services stakeholders. We found they often believe:

  • Marketing can’t make a difference. Stakeholders generally hold the purse strings and resist spending money on things that to them are intangible. Often, they simply don’t have confidence that marketing really works.
  • Why do something that makes me personally uncomfortable? Many C-level executives in accounting have no marketing background and are suspicious of it. Because they have no experience in it, they may be afraid of messing up if they’re asked to play a role in the marketing effort.
  • My priorities take precedence. Senior management can have a set of priorities unknown to others. It may have something to do with their invested role in the firm, their compensation agreement that might favor billable hours over non-billable, or even an approaching retirement.
  • Why change something I don’t think is broken? Inertia can be hard to overcome. Some stakeholders have entrenched opinions such as “we’ve always gotten new clients through personal contacts and word-of-mouth,” or “our kind of clients aren’t swayed by things they see on the web.” Anything new or different simply cannot work better than the way things have always been done.

As depressing as all this may sound, there is hope. Now that you know the major reasons for stakeholder rejection, you can put that knowledge to work to change their behavior.

Overcoming opposition to buy-in

Overcoming opposition to stakeholder buy-in may involve one or more strategies designed to ease fears, reduce risk, and provide the confidence and peace of mind that makes it easier for naysayers to say yes to your marketing initiatives.

These strategies break down into several major categories. Depending on the level of opposition at your firm, you may need to use only one type of strategy or combine several categories for a more powerful punch.

Influence through education

Knowledge is power, and sometimes a little enlightening goes a long way. For example, we’ve found that many marketers in accounting firms don’t support their recommendations with data. But, as we often hear in the news today, facts matter, and many C-level executives pride themselves on basing their decisions on facts and research. Build a compelling case for your marketing program with real data and the chances of them seeing things your way will improve considerably.

For an even more compelling argument, use your research skills to uncover what your own clients and referral sources think about your firm, your competitors and how you fit in the marketplace. Be specific, objective and thorough in your research to reveal how you do — or do not — satisfy their needs and you’ll have some powerful data to sway stakeholder opinions.

Or, turn the lens around, and examine another accounting firm. If it’s a competitor, the knowledge that they have a successful marketing program may spur your firm to employ countermeasures. If it’s not a competitor, their campaign may provide peace-of-mind that your initiative is not as risky as the stakeholders may think.

If, for any number of reasons, you do not have much personal influence over decision-making, then bring in an outside expert to educate stakeholders. Be sure it’s someone they’ll respect and trust. Viewed as coming from an impartial outsider and an expert, their opinion will carry more weight — even if they’re making the very same points as you.

Harness internal resources

Sometimes “repurposing” internal resources and systems can create powerful tools to accomplish new things. For example, build a more effective marketing team by utilizing current employees in new, part-time roles. Our research has shown that younger workers such as millennials highly value learning new skills and taking on new responsibilities, such as representing their firms on social media.

Most accounting firms have incentive and compensation systems based on billable hours. This can be counterproductive for growth if you need billable executives for marketing and business development activities. However, those very same stakeholders have a stake in the firm’s growth and profitability, so change is in their best interest, and revising the compensation system may be easier than you think — especially if there is a current or pending turnover in firm leadership.

Less is more

Perhaps your stakeholders see your program as too aggressive, so break it into more bite-sized pieces for easier consumption. If your accounting firm specializes in several areas, try to get buy-in for one area of practice. Measure the results and use them to expand your initiative to other practices.

Or simply do fewer things better. For example, get approval for one new marketing channel instead of a multimedia approach and build credibility there first.

Obtaining stakeholder buy-in can be a real challenge, especially for professional services such as accounting. But by understanding the sources of resistance, you can employ one or more of the strategies presented above to successfully overcome them. It may mean turning to outside resources for help in both winning program approval and implementing it, but if you stick with it, you can turn the biggest naysayers into the most ardent marketing fans.

Lee Frederiksen

Lee Frederiksen

Lee Frederiksen, PhD, is managing partner of Hinge, a branding and marketing firm for professional services.