Tell it BIG

Are you missing a trick?  Failing to establish a cogent sales and marketing strategy is as limiting for the long-term strength of your practice as not having a business development plan, says Liz Loxton.

Accountants are new to the world of advertising.  It was just over 20 years ago that the ICAEW allowed firms to turn to advertising as a means of drumming up business.  And while bigger firms have taken to the disciplines of advertising, marketing, and – whisper it – selling, with a will, for many others this watershed may as well not have occurred at all.

The fact is that many small firms still shy away from sales and marketing activities.  Others have taken only the first steps on the ladder – tentative steps towards a full-blown marketing strategy, often in practice doing little more that taking out an ad in Yellow Pages or having a directory entry website for local businesses.

They are missing a trick.  Failing to establish a cogent sales and marketing strategy is as limiting in terms of the long-term strength of the practice as not having a succession strategy or business development plan.  Then again there are plenty of sole practitioners and small practices that don’t run to those either.

More than advertising

However, advertising on its own is often of limited use.  Cliff Ferguson, Partner at professional services marketing consultancy The PACE Partnership, says that many small and even medium-sized firms have become too reliant on it.  ‘Some have approached advertising activities with a certain amount of naiveté,’ he says.  Advertising in Yellow Pages may get your name known, but it won’t set you apart from the herd.  ‘Sales and marketing is about building momentum,’ he continues.  ‘It might be 12 to 18 months before you start to see some successes.’

Many small firms may well balk at putting in effort over that length of time without any return.  The fact is that a comprehensive marketing plan is closer to business development, but does involve committing to the different elements of selling, advertising and marketing.  The good news is that for firms prepared to put in the forward planning, marketing can be every bit as intellectually satisfying as accountancy.  The bad news is that it does require a commitment of both time and personnel.  Ferguson says that a very common response from smaller firms to the question, how do you approach sales and marketing is: ‘I fit in business development when I can.’  That’s simply not enough, he says.

Big Four firms, Group A and their international networks have systemised marketing in a very visible way.  Marketing partners, business development managers with targets, brand identified and web presences have trickled down to most forward-looking practices.  Identifying target markets, developing services to meet their needs meant they have developed a more client-focused approach.

Numerica has full-time sales people, says Ferguson, who are there to make relationships and identify opportunities.  That’s much more of a commercial model than is commonplace within the accountancy profession. 

The next step in this evolution is the actual selling.  In the accountancy profession, marketing may have become quite an acceptable discipline but selling is a harder idea to accept.  Denis Kaye, director of Firm Ideas, a practice and business consultancy, says that while firms set great store by being invited to pitch for work, they often don’t make the most of such opportunities.  ‘Where we have tended to go wrong is we don’t stop to think about what the client wants and needs.  We assume we know,’ he says.

Afraid to push

Ferguson believes that it is the caricatures around selling that stops people in their tracks.  Many accountants don’t wish to appear pushy.  The personality types drawn to accountancy may be polar opposites to those drawn to the world of sales. 

And then there are issues around professionalism affecting selling.  In its seminars to professional services firms, The PACE Partnership’s consultants tell the story of a family man who needs to buy an MPV to ferry his growing family around.  His emotional needs meanwhile would be better met by buying a sports car.  The salesman and he settle on a compromise – the 4×4, a vehicle that goes some way to meeting the practicalities of the situation with a nod to his aspirations.

Kaye says aligning needs, and wants in this way is something accountants must grapple with if they are to sell ethically and professionally.  ‘Clients want proactive advisers, and proactivity requires selling them something.’  But it has to be a service that they genuinely need.  Banks, for instance, have in the past tainted their reputation all too readily by cross-selling regardless of their customers’ needs.  They have lost esteem and trust as a result,’ he says.  Accountants need to avoid being tarred with that particular brush.

The balancing act between being proactive and over-selling is a difficult one to get right.  Counter-intuitively the answer will sometimes be to do nothing.  Changes in the Budget or other legislation, for example, may give proactive firms an opportunity to get in touch with an owner-manager client, not to suggest changes in the way the company is run, but to demonstrate that the adviser has thought through whether changes would be appropriate or not.  ‘Quite often you have to put something up for the client only to shoot it down again.  A lot of what you need to do with clients is defensive.  You’ve got to keep your client appraised of different options,’ says Kaye.  Changes in company car legislation for instance represent a classic opportunity to sell to clients or lose them to more proactive firms.

Disciplined approach

Firms that have designated a marketing or business development partner are moving in the right direction, but it is crucial that the strategy is trickled down to everyone in the organisations.  PACE’s Ferguson says he is seeing more and more organisations setting up targets for billable hours and targets for time invested in business development.  Those that apply this rationale, he says, become more disciplined in their approach to growing the firm’s client base and see dividends further down the line.  That still doesn’t get away from the fact that individual members of the firm have to be able to build relationships.  Too many fall into the trap of thinking that if the client likes them, they will buy other services.  ‘They’ve got to trust you to buy from you,’ he says.

Ferguson believes that accountants in practice can take advantage of the collegiate culture within accountancy.  They must, he says, remember to devote time and effort to meeting people and developing contacts.  ‘In a lot of partnerships, there is still a lot of sole trader mentality.  “As long as I’m busy now, that’s fine” rather than looking at how the firm could be developed.’

He readily admits that the first steps are difficult, but believes that marketing and business development ideas are more generally accepted among the next generation of newly qualified accountants.  So a good succession plan in tandem with business development and marketing processes should give long life and health to small practices.

Managing marketing

  • Have a clearly defined model for making contact and building relationships.  There is no short cut to this process.
  • ‘Just in time’ training is not enough.  Make sure everyone understands the firm’s marketing strategy and its service lines.
  • Make sure there is an agreed process for monitoring and managing new contacts and prospects.

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