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March 1990

CPA marketing: getting new clients to find you. (certified public accountant) (Management of an Accounting Practice)

by Mostad, Arvid

    Abstract- Small Certified Public Accountants (CPA) firms must use if they are to compete with larger CPA firms. Small firms should take a number of steps including creating their own special niches in the market; portraying themselves as business consultants; and developing lists of key prospects. To effectively market services, firms must: ensure marketing plans are consistent; make adequate use of advertising; and communicate competence and uniqueness in all marketing media.

Even though large CPA firms have become more aggressive in marketing their services to prospective clients, many firms with one to four professionals continue down the old road. These practitioners spend time on the golf course and get themselves appointed to the boards of local not-for-profit organizations. They fill their calendars with meetings of the local chambers of commerce, the Rotary Club, and the hospital. By rubbing shoulders with local business and civic leaders, they hope some new business will rub off on them.

Getting involved with service and civic organizations can be enjoyable and worthwhile, affording you the opportunity to make a much-needed contribution to the community. But don't fall into the trap of thinking that what you're doing is marketing. It isn't.

Meanwhile, the active, large CPA firms are beginning to chip away at the client base of the smaller firms. By emphasizing their capabilities, experience, and prestige, these interlopers make their presence known. The once-secure, loyal clients then say, "Maybe it's time to look around." These are the early warning signs of trouble.

Most smaller firms do not feel they have the time or money to pursue contemporary marketing techniques. They become almost resigned to serving small clients and doing tax returns.

Although it is important for CPAs to be visible, many accountants have learned that the "being-active-in-the-community" approach to developing a practice is both inefficient and ineffective today. It is marketing by accident. It is client development by chance. Missing are clear objectives and a well-enunciated marketing plan.

Far more than others in the field, small-firm practitioners have failed to grasp the reality that the marketing role is just as essential to their business success as keeping up with annual changes in the tax code!

Seven Marketing Guidelines

The basic issue for the small CPA firm is to compete successfully with larger firms by taking charge of its practice development with these seven marketing guidelines.

1. Create your own special niche. Although a broad client base helps to provide a sense of security for any CPA firm, developing a specialty can go a long way to attracting more substantial clients. A good approach is to do a careful review of your market area. How many real estate firms are there? What about restaurants? Local retailers? Light manufacturers? Physicians? Focus on one or two and concentrate your efforts in attracting clients from these businesses. Become proficient in those fields.

Being known as the "expert" in a particular field gives you the opportunity to stand out from the crowd. This is the "edge" that will tend to draw prospective clients to you.

2. Present yourself as a business consultant. The large CPA firms have taken the lead in portraying themselves as "business consultants." They know the danger of being viewed as "number crunchers" wearing green eyeshades and shirt garters. Why have they changed their approach? Simple. Experience shows that today's business owners need and want both guidance and direction. And CPAs are well-suited for this role. Changes in technology and the economy are making survival dependent upon expert advice. For many businesses, the CPA can become, in effect, the CFO, giving a business the benefits of a financial expert.

The business consultant role is very different from the CPA who shows up quarterly to "do the books" and prepare the tax returns.

There is another factor here that should not be ignored, particularly by small firm practitioners. It is not in your best interests to be viewed as an "expense," as overhead. Today's CPA must offer the value added by serving as a consultant in order to secure the client- practitioner relationship. You must be able to communicate this message to an owner: "These are the ways I am enhancing your business."

3. Develop a key prospect list. At all costs, remember this principle: "You cannot expect to be successful in building a profitable practice if you are not continually focusing on actual prospects." Even a one-practitioner firm should have an up-to-date list of at least 100 key prospects--companies you would like to work with given the opportunity.

This list should grow as your expertise in specialized areas increases, as new possibilities arise, and as your marketing efforts progress. Indefinite and indiscriminate marketing is useless and a waste of time. Actual prospects are what count.

4. Position yourself in the marketplace. It is your job to shape and fashion the perception which prospects have of you and your firm. If you assume that "every one knows what a CPA does," you're in trouble-- big trouble. It is your job to determine, define, present, and then control the way you are perceived.

Here are a few basic, but very important, elements in controlling perception: What's the message conveyed by your business card, your letterhead, and your proposals? Remember, people want to do business with successful firms. The image you convey determines how prospects think of you. When it comes to proposals, are they dull and dry, or do they speak the language of the business person? Even more important, does the proposal focus on you and what you're going to do or does it focus on ways you are going to benefit your client? If the client's needs are not foremost in your proposals, take the time to prepare the proposals right!

5. Make your marketing consistent. Effective marketing means implementing a program that is ongoing and consistent. Why is this important? You don't know which companies are in the market for a new CPA firm and your goal is to be there at the right time. Any effective marketing program should include an interesting, attractive, and client- oriented newsletter. You may not have the time or the desire to prepare your own newsletter. However, this shouldn't deter you. Choose a publishing company, or ready-made, personalized newsletters (available with your firm's logo) which can provide you with an attractive, client- oriented publication. Before choosing a newsletter, ask yourself these questions: Will this newsletter be of interest to my clients? Does it cover topics of interest to them? Just because you may like a newsletter does not mean it will be read by clients and prospects. Finally, make sure everyone on your key prospect list receives the newsletter each time it is published, not just on a one-shot deal.

6. Advertise your message. More and more CPA firms are advertising, particularly in business publications and local newspapers. Unfortunately, many of these ads are worthless because they fall into the so-called "tombstone" category. They feature the name, address, and telephone number of the firm--and little more--other than a heavy, black border. Such advertising is a waste of money! Effective advertising must carry a reader-oriented message, and be attractive so people will want to stop long enough to read it.

When it comes to advertising, too many CPA firms fall into a dangerous trap. They choose to run ads during the tax season. IF the goal is to pick up tax teturn business, there is justification for such advertising. Your goal is to increase awareness of your firm and its special benefits to a particular business. When an owner has a problem, you want your firm's name to come to mind. This will happen only if you have excellent, consistent visibility. Advertise year-round.

7. Communicate your competence. As a CPA, you have valuable knowledge and expertise that can benefit both individuals and businesses. Why not use this information to your advantage? Every business publication and many local newspapers welcome brief articles on subjects which will be of interest to readers. If you don't have the time or the ability to write this type of article, there are services available which prepare "editor-tested" articles for you.

Take time to get acquainted with business editors. Find out what topics they are interested in publishing for their readers. Indicate that they are welcome to call you when a tax, financial planning, or related story arises. Every editor wants to get "the local angle" to regional, national, and even international issues. You can be that "expert" in your community if your invest a little time getting acquainted with editors and reporters.

If you are interested in developing a highly profitable practice, marketing isn't an option--it's an absolute necessity. CPA firms follow the same pattern as other businesses. If you have a marketing plan and know where you are going with it, the result will be a highly successful practice.

You may find that you are comfortable with doing your own marketing. Or, you may feel you need help. If this is the situation, get the assistance you need to get the job done which will give you the edge in your community.

In effect, marketing allows your practice development to proceed in a unified way. It puts you in charge of your practice. Most important, it lets you take direct aim at where you want to be five years from today.

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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