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By Andrew D. Schiff, Allen B. Bostrom, and Reed Hellman

Most accountants approach the task of marketing with the same enthusiasm that they reserve for a root canal. In fact, efforts to acquire new clients can be delayed or even defeated by fears associated with the marketing process. However, there are many small business accountants who have learned that they can overcome these fears and reap the resulting benefits of a bigger practice. These successful small business accountants have learned that it is possible to adopt an effective strategy for acquiring clients that is relatively stress-free. We have developed this strategy over our 20 years of collective experience. It is based on an understanding of how to combat the fears associated with the marketing process, how to promote professional services to small businesses, and how to develop techniques and an attitude that will maximize the odds of success. This approach has worked in a variety of contexts, and it is particularly helpful for individuals who are just beginning a structured way to acquire clients.

Overcoming Two Primary Fears

We have found that many small business accountants, particularly those in the early stages of developing a practice, have two primary fears. The first is a concern that, after obtaining one or more clients, they will not have sufficient technical knowledge to serve them in every area.

CPAs can quickly overcome this fear in two ways. The first is by remembering that they already know a great deal more about most, if not all, of the above areas than the prospective client. The small business owner or manager automatically views the CPA as an expert, and studies have shown that CPAs are widely respected by the business community as trusted financial advisors. Second, if the small business accountant feels that there is a gap in his/her background, an efficient way to bridge this is by establishing professional relationships with other individuals or organizations with the needed proficiencies. Examples include a payroll processing organization, a computer network installer, or an experienced loan package preparer. A network of individuals and organizations which can offer support, or to which specific tasks can be subcontracted, enables an accountant to offer complete services in less familiar areas. Many individuals and organizations with complementary skills are happy to share ideas and obtain referrals, and will refer their clients to the CPA in return when accounting services are needed.

The second primary fear, and one which stops many small business accountants from achieving their full potential, is the fear of rejection during a marketing effort. There are, however, a number of ways of approaching marketing that can make this activity less intimidating. First, CPAs should gain some confidence by recognizing that selling accounting services is easier than selling other types of professional services. Every prospective client knows that an accounting system is something they need, if only to complete an annual tax return. More sophisticated small business owners and managers also have some understanding of the additional benefits they can obtain from such a system, such as improved cash flow and profitability. Consequently, accounting services are at least partially pre-sold.

Second, to be effective, it is important to concentrate marketing efforts on techniques that are effective. Nothing boosts confidence more than one or two successful campaigns. Our experience has shown that marketing efforts can be grouped into three general success-level categories. We have found that the lowest response tends to come from advertising through newspapers, the yellow pages, and through telemarketing. A better response comes from personal contact in the form of personalized letters accompanied by a brochure mailed to local businesses and cold ("walk-in") calls. The highest level of response comes from referrals from existing clients and from formal presentations to small businesses that have responded to other marketing efforts. Not in any specific category, but of indirect value, are marketing activities such as speeches and newsletters. Obviously, these activities are not mutually exclusive, and over time can reinforce each other.

Taking the Chill Out of Cold Calls

Cold-calling prospective clients (unannounced walk-in visits) is typically one of the most intimidating marketing experiences. However, a knowledge of several tactics can significantly reduce the level of stress and increase the rate of success on these calls and on related marketing activities. They include the following:

    * Emphasize the benefits of the services being offered. Virtually all prospective clients are interested in increasing their cash flow and profits. Capture and sustain their interest by describing the many ways in which accounting services can help generate more cash flow and greater profits. Use plain English as much as possible. Communicating the benefits in language that a small business owner or manager can readily understand substantially increases the probability of success.

    * Stress a personal touch. Many small business owners and managers regard financial statements as a necessary evil for tax return preparation and bank credit purposes. They are intimidated by financial information, but still would like to understand how to use it to improve their bottom line. The CPA should take the time to explain the financial statements and related reports and how the information in them can be used to increase control over sales, costs, expenses, and operations. Small business owners and managers appreciate receiving this type of information.

    * Don't try to beat the competition on the basis of price. With the possible exceptions of payroll processing and simple cash-basis compilations and tax returns, most small business owners and managers do not view accounting services as commodities. Consequently, the majority of prospective clients are not terribly price-sensitive for the greater value-added services that CPAs offer. If a prospective client is convinced that he/she can benefit from the services offered, their interest will not be diminished by the amount of the fee as long as it is reasonable.

    * Use props to help the prospective client visualize the benefits of the services offered. An example would be a binder containing samples of reports produced by the accounting software in use. We have found that many small business owners, upon viewing this binder, focus on one or more sample reports and comment that these reports are just what they've been looking for. It is not a good idea, however, to demonstrate the software you will be using. A demonstration can lead prospective clients to conclude, usually erroneously, that they can do it themselves.

    * Offer a free consultation on issues that are of concern to the small business owner or manager. This can help CPAs feel more comfortable about marketing, because they are providing something of value to the prospective client rather than simply asking to be engaged. We have found that most small business owners and managers are grateful to receive such an offer.

    * Leave a brochure restating the benefits of the services and emphasizing that these benefits can be obtained immediately by calling today for a formal presentation. Send follow-up brochures every two or three months for a year. Many business owners and managers have to think for a while about making a commitment to a professional service. A lack of commitment following the first marketing effort does not always mean a lack of interest. The second or third contact may arrive at a time when the owner or manager is prepared to engage accounting services.

    * Consider specializing in a particular industry. By directing marketing efforts toward an industry, the CPA is more likely to become known as an expert, which can help generate new clients and engagements.

Developing a Confident Outlook

Marketing accounting services is fundamentally a "numbers game." The more contacts a CPA makes, the more clients he or she is likely to acquire. In fact, it is less important to worry about whether the marketing plan is perfectly executed than it is to make a sufficient number of contacts to find those small business owners and managers who are at or near a decision to engage an accountant.

We have counseled many small business accountants not to get discouraged if their first few marketing attempts (or even the next few!) are unsuccessful. Every marketing activity produces insights that will be of benefit during those which follow. Every "no" from a small business owner or manager brings the CPA one step closer to a "yes."

All businesses have to commit at least some of their resources to selling. While accountants must promote their services in a manner that is consistent with the code of conduct of the profession, it is still necessary to inform the small business market on a regular basis about the services that are available. Moreover, each new client can generate monthly fees for many years, which makes such efforts all the more worthwhile. Small business accountants who emphasize the benefits of their services, communicate in a manner that the small business owner or manager can understand, are sensitive to the needs of the prospective client, and patiently play the "numbers game," will reap the rewards of a growing practice. *

Andrew D. Schiff, PhD, CPA, is president of the Center for Small Business Accounting in Baltimore, Md. and an associate professor of accounting at the University of Baltimore (aschiff@mindspring.com). Allen B. Bostrom, CPA, is president of the Universal Accounting Center in Salt Lake City, Utah (bostrout@aol.com). Reed Hellman, MS, operates a consulting practice in Baltimore, Md.

Michael Goldstein, CPA
The CPA Journal

The CPA Journal is broadly recognized as an outstanding, technical-refereed publication aimed at public practitioners, management, educators, and other accounting professionals. It is edited by CPAs for CPAs. Our goal is to provide CPAs and other accounting professionals with the information and news to enable them to be successful accountants, managers, and executives in today's practice environments.

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