Filling your client acquisition funnel is a marathon
At the onset of every client acquisition program, we all run into the proverbial funnel (or pipeline) and have to push clients through different phase gates of the process. Despite various gentle nudges, love taps and tactics to shorten the cycle time, all experienced marketers and rainmakers acknowledge that this process is too slow and the lag time is painful.
Many books have been written on the subject of the funnel or pipeline, and graphic artists have drawn the classic funnel to conceptually explain the process required to move someone from being in your target audience to ultimately becoming a client of your firm.
At the top of your funnel is your target audience. This pool is extremely wide because there are many businesses in your target audience. The challenge is to make them aware of your firm and inform them of what services you offer. Marketers refer to this phase as branding. For each phase of the vetting process, the funnel gets much narrower. At the bottom of the funnel is a tiny hole where new clients sign on the dotted line and become a client of yours.
The top of the funnel is very wide and focused on creating brand awareness for your firm, along with interest in your services. During this process, you are introducing your firm and educating the business owner that you can alleviate their pain in some fashion. When done successfully, branding can create a visual imprint in their mind about what your firm does, how much it costs and how you are different than other firms.
Building brand awareness is more than just getting prospects to remember your firm name. It's about creating associations that reinforce what your firm stands for. To use a car example, it's not about becoming a household name like Chevy or Oldsmobile and having no favorable associations. It's about becoming a Volvo and owning the safety positioning, a benefit for which people are willing to pay a premium price.
Target marketing and lead generation
Because your goal is not to become the Walmart of Accounting, the next stage in your funnel is to focus your marketing message toward businesses in your sweet spot. And only those businesses in your sweet spot. This requires your commitment to stay on strategy and occasionally say thanks, but no thanks.
Occasionally, I receive inquiries from businesses outside of our firm’s sweet spot and have to politely decline those requests because they are outside of our sweet spot. For example, I received a call last month from a partner at a very large forensic accounting firm with 15 offices that was planning a retreat for all of the partners in the firm. While the engagement sounded attractive, I politely said thanks, but no thanks. While we clearly could have developed a customized program around their needs, it's not our cup of tea and is off strategy. Instead, I listened to their needs and recommended two firms that focus on larger accounting firms ($3 million or more). While the partner was stunned by my response, he was appreciative that I recommended two firms and saved him time.
By establishing a clear target market and sticking to your knitting, your cost per acquired client will decline if you are efficient in the vetting process and can succinctly separate the wheat from the chaff.
Essentially, both the accountant and the business owner are trying to determine if a fit exists and if it is worthwhile to meet.
Needs assessment and client consultation
The funnel is now getting narrower and we're getting into the opportunity phase. Your marketing program is generating good leads and you've agreed to dance with the prospect for a free consultation.
At this phase, it's time to ask many probative questions, truly determine if a fit exists and illustrate how you'll solve the business owner's problems.
Client evaluation phase (objections, negotiations and stalling)
At this stage in the funnel, the ball bounces back and forth. The hunt is essentially over, and it's time to fish or cut bait. Some clients will pull the trigger and others will become fence sitters. In this phase, it often takes a few gentle nudges and reassurance to push them through the funnel to become a client. Some land, and others take the path of least resistance.
One final thought
The client acquisition process is like preparing for a marathon: It takes a couple of months of preparation before you hit your stride. Sure, some clients will sign immediately, but most will take weeks. Once your funnel is full and you are in peak shape, you will want to get into maintenance mode to ensure your funnel is always full and new clients fall through the bottom regularly.
Recognizing that the client acquisition process ultimately takes time and the business owner controls the pace, I recommend that you start this process two to three months prior to when you want more business clients. This allows you time to gradually fill up your funnel with plenty of prospects and acquire a steady flow of new clients when you need them most.