The recent IFAC Global SMP Survey identified key challenges many small- and medium-sized practices (SMPs) face. This article is one in a series that breaks down the data from the survey and provides information, ideas, and tips to help SMPs address these challenges as well as best practice examples from IFAC SMP Committee members, together with the range of other tools and resources available.
Attracting New Clients
Attracting new clients is the top global challenge facing SMPs, and is one of the top two challenges for Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Asia regions.
A number of strategies can be implemented to acquire new clients but real success comes when multiple strategies are used simultaneously. This harnesses the momentum of marketing efforts and is more likely to bring attention to your practice. In addition, since most businesses already have an accountant, growing your practice usually means enticing clients away from other firms. To achieve this, a compelling reason to change must be part of your pitch.
External growth strategies include:
- building a brand;
- social media marketing; and
- joining a network, association, or alliance.
Each approach needs to be considered in relation to jurisdictional laws and/ or professional regulations.
Advertising is one of the most powerful ways of getting your firm’s name and message out in the market. Helpful tips to get the best value from advertising spending include:
- identifying a target audience or market segment for your advertising;
- making it clear how the service will benefit clients;
- creating messages that are credible, sincere, and avoid exaggerated or unsubstantiated claims;
- using a headline that captures the readers’ attention; and
- including a “call to action” where the reader is told to call or visit the website.
In addition, search engine optimization (SEO) and marketing (SEM) can bring your firm website to the top of search results when specific words or phrases are searched (this usually includes a charge when a user clicks on an ad and goes to your website; many different vendors can help identify key words to target).
Seminars can be an effective form of marketing. A number of formats can be used.
- Organize a seminar with senior firm representatives deliver presentations. This provides a reason to advertise, promote your practice, and establish brand and name recognition for your firm as a recognized expert. Existing clients can be invited and encouraged to bring non-client business associates.
- Speak at seminars hosted by others, such as financial institutions or business associations, which may hold breakfast meetings and can often be free of charge. This could include a specific session that requires technical knowledge.
Seminars also offer an opportunity to follow up with an article for your website or local media on key points.
“Word of mouth” is often one of the best forms of marketing and is effectively achieved through networking. Networking is not about trying to make a “sale” to each person at an event; instead, your objective is met people who can refer others to your practice.
Creating a networking plan and measure success in relation to time invested is useful. Encouraging firm representatives to attend events and not feel that they have to impress people through charm or technical knowledge is important. As in most things, you and your representatives should be yourselves to build connections with people. This takes the pressure off and you can just relax and chat normally. It also gives people a greater chance to get to know staff and feel comfortable. If they are, they are more likely to refer others to your practice.
The best time to ask a client for a referral is when your firm has just successfully completed an engagement or project as it’s easier to say, “If you know of anyone else who may appreciate our work, we’re always happy to take on referrals.” This lets your client know that your firms is open for referrals, and looking for new clients.
Another option is to work through a structured program of meetings with potential referrers. Often referred to as “people of influence,” these contacts include bank managers, lawyers, and others in complementary businesses, such as financial planning or finance broking. Firms that successfully follow a structured, formal approach set aside a regular time to meet with potential referrers. For example, they arrange lunch meetings with a different bank manager every Wednesday in a month. The next month they may meet with a different lawyer each Wednesday. The following month it might be financial planners or finance brokers. Then the cycle starts all over again with the bank managers. This allows for a systematic approach to working through a contact list and also allows relationships to be built from which referrals will come.
Existing and past staff can also be a source of new clients. Encourage staff to connect with their own networks and consider offering incentives for recruiting new clients. An “alumni” network of past employees could be created to keep them in contact with your practice. Past employees may progress into management positions and can be a valuable source of contacts. Consider staying in touch though newsletters or emails, seminar invitations, or an annual gathering—all of which ensure regular contact.
Building a Brand
Branding is an important area of marketing. To make marketing as effective as possible, your brand needs to send out clear messages that encompass your firm’s brand. Marketing messages should not only build on your brand but leverage it as well. Done well, branding can:
- lower the cost of acquiring new clients;
- create business opportunities based on market perceptions;
- reinforce confidence and comfort levels of existing clients; and
- build the value of your practice’s goodwill.
Your brand is the message your firm wants to convey to the market. It pervades all areas of your firm, and goes beyond the logo and letterhead. It covers the services offered, the way it deals with clients, and the image of your firm it wants to present. It becomes the banner that your firm markets and sits over all the services offered. Specifically, it means the way the website looks, graphic design, and logos used in the communications and presentations. It also includes the way your firm interacts with clients and staff, even down to the words used.
By building and promoting a brand, your practice establishes expectations at a high level in the market. When the actual service is delivered—for instance, the financial statements or tax returns—the accuracy, presentation, and look and feel of the material needs to be consistent with the expectations that have been set.
Social Media Marketing
Successful practices are embracing social media and using it to engage with clients, attract new clients, promote their services, and attract staff. Social media is about building a community. Successful social media strategies reinforce that people like to deal with people, rather than businesses, to create relationships. While successful strategies are often built around the individuals, it is the business that reaps the benefits. Engaging partners and staff in social media is a great starting point.
Firms can use LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter to invite their clients to receive updates, participate in discussions, share case studies and experiences, post testimonials, establish discussion group, and allow clients to connect with each other. Blogging is another way of sharing timely updates with clients; it can also drive new clients to your website. All social media should include links back to your firm’s website to drive traffic to your business.
Social media should complement, but not totally replace, traditional marketing techniques. Remember, before new clients contact your firm, they typically check out social media sites or search for your practice online.
Networks, Associations, and Alliances
The 2015 Global SMP Survey found that attracting new clients was the top benefit of joining a network, association, or alliance, followed by broadening your client experience and branding and marketing. Only 28% of respondents reported their SMP belonged to a network (11%), association (10%), or alliance (7%), but 24% indicated that their practice was considering joining one. Joining provides your firm the opportunity for referrals from non-competitor firms, as well as broadens the range of services offered without the fear of losing them to national or international firms.
Additional information is available in the Guide to Practice Management for Small- and Medium-Sized Practices, which includes the section “Building and Growing Your Firm” on identifying target clients and new service opportunities, building a brand, marketing and developing a social media strategy.
The Global Knowledge Gateway includes a number of articles, videos, and resources on the topics addressed in this article.
- Top 3 Accounting Marketing Tactics for 2016
- Is Social Media Marketing the Key to Practice Profitability?
- How CPAs can Maximize Social Media Marketing
- New Services for Accounting Firms: It’s about Reliance, Not Compliance
- Tapping into Pop Culture to Market Your Accounting Firm
- How Accounting Firms Can Maximize Marketing in the Digital Age
- How Can SMPs Brand Themselves More Effectively?
- Perspectives on Strengthening Small- and Medium-Sized Practices (SMPs): Part Four
Networks, Associations, and Alliances