When I was a consultant a few years ago, it always amazed me how much impressive information a CPA firm had about its clients and customers.
Since CPAs had multiple clients and years of experience working with them, my consulting strategy was to talk with a firm’s CPA at the very beginning of any consulting engagement. While a good consultant is effective at trying not to reach any conclusions before all data has been gathered and reviewed, it was a rare occasion when my conclusions from any month-long consulting assignment conflicted with the intelligence I would gather in just a 30-minute meeting with a company’s accountant. If this intelligence is inherently innate, why then, are accounting professionals so scattered when it comes to focusing on their strengths and marketing their own skills? I believe there are three reasons:
1. Accounting professionals are horrible marketing people. They are generally very ineffective at marketing their services. I used to joke that CPAs are all substance and no form!
2. Accountants are “local.” Unfortunately, most people think that “prophets” must come from outside a given area, or from a bigger, more prestigious firm. This biased thinking (which happens to be wrong in most cases) hurts a CPA’s ability to sell services.
3. Accountants have not changed their thinking about their role in our economic system. While there is much talk about how CPAs need to elevate their role to that of “trusted business advisor” I think many accountants still have not re-framed their view of how to better help their clients.
There are five specific ways to overcome these three challenges by taking a simple, yet effective approach to the situation.
1. Hire a marketing professional. You seriously should consider hiring or outsourcing this function to someone who has the specific task of developing and implementing a marketing plan; someone who has done it before and with measurable results. It is optimistic at best to recommend that CPAs change from accomplished finance professionals to accomplished marketing professionals. This is a classic example using a better division of labor resources. You may say that you cannot afford such a person/department for this effort. Any reasonable ROI analysis will show that adding only a few sizable client engagements per year (all recurring revenue, if clients are serviced well) will pay off quickly.
2. Write a mission statement. You need to change how you perceive your own role. This can be accomplished by writing a practical mission statement focusing on your core value. A statement -- such as "XYZ CPA Service is in the business of helping clients increase profits" -- works fairly well in many cases. If accountants can take a good mission statement and develop a specific plan to manifest that statement, all the better.
3. Develop a strategic relationship with a professional firm outside the geographic area. Many times, firms can swap expertise and overcome local bias by leveraging relationships with professional service firms outside the area. If marketed properly, this can be a great way for you to differentiate your practice. Any firm already in an CPA association already has a leg up on the competition.
4. Use technology to provide value-added services. There are outstanding technologies that can quickly help you differentiate your service offering from others. Today, there is no excuse for a CPA to not have tangible value-added services that are apparent to clients. For example, find out what companies like Intuit, Creative Solutions, and BNA have, and look for technologies that can be provided or adapted to your own clients.
5. Think better of yourself. You are more than an simply an accountant; you have vast domain knowledge that can really help your clients. However, only you can change your thinking. So don’t pigeon-hole yourself in the process. If you resign yourself to a less important role, you will convey this to your client, who will treat you this way (and, coincidentally, pay you this way). There are extremely effective training firms that can have a huge impact on how you view yourself and how you can build your business. My favorite is Nightingale-Conant, a firm which sells audio cassette training tapes. In addition, try Brian Tracy and Wayne Dyer -- two of the best. Following these five steps isn’t a panacea, but it’s a good start. The most important task you can accomplish is honing in on what differentiates yourself from others in the marketplace. Only then can you begin to concentrate more on building your practice and less on overcoming the obstacles.