Article - “CPA Marketing: A Post-Busy Season Game Plan”

 

CPA Marketing: A Post-Busy Season Game Plan

By Kevin W. Brown, M.B.A.

You know how it is — some busy seasons feel like you just came out from under a rock and can start seeing daylight again!  Have spent three or more months of intense client service, marketing can now come back to the forefront.  Before launching into your efforts, it is important to have effective marketing strategies in place.  So, how should you go about it?

Your Game Plan

What you need is a “game plan.”  Having worked with hundreds of CPAs over the past 20-plus years, I’ve seen that all of them appreciate having realistic and achievable marketing strategies.  They also want to know what are the best practices for each area of marketing.  While this article isn’t mean at all to substitute for personal consultations on strategic planning, here are some steps to consider:

(1) Prepare a Strategic Marketing Plan. Before embarking on a number of programs, develop a plan to achieve your overall objectives.  What marketing activities should you consider?  The answer to that question is unique to each firm, depending upon factors such as sales growth goals, image awareness objectives, and marketing budget. 

One of the challenges with marketing is that there are so many options – it is the most diverse of all business disciplines.  Should you invest heavily in internet marketing?  Does advertising pay off?  How important is publicity for your firm?  How effective are your referral source relationships?  Who will handle all of the many marketing action steps?  These are only a few of the decisions to make.

Further complicating the decision-making process is that every firm is different, even if the services are similar.   When you look closely, the differences can include target markets, culture, personnel, client relations, referral sources, resources available for marketing, etc.  All of these, plus more, make an impact on marketing.

(2)  Establish a committed budget.  For marketing programs to be consistent and objective-oriented, they require an established budget. Discretionary budgets can be devastating to the effectiveness of any marketing program.  This is especially true for CPAs, who are in a relationship business. You don’t know when companies or individuals are willing to switch to a new CPA firm, which normally isn’t an annual change, so you need to market regularly to be front-of-mind when they are ready to switch.

Ask yourself this question: Can you afford not to market your practice effectively?

(3) Identify your target market(s). Targeted marketing is a process of defining and selecting certain market segments, and choosing specific techniques to reach the market and sell your services.  When designed and implemented properly, targeted marketing maximizes your investment in marketing programs, and produces greater results at reduced expenditures. 

While there are several steps to targeted marketing, one of the keys is to specifically define your market according to criteria that matches your marketing objectives.  Further, with the current economic environment, you’ll need to re-evaluate your target market, considering factors such as growth/decline, pricing, profitability, etc.  Work with your marketing professional to establish criteria for your targeted market before going to the next step.

(4) Develop objectives, strategies and action steps.  Many accountants lack a unified, well-planned marketing effort.  Instead of designing a complete program, they try one particular method and then another, experiencing failure after failure.  They lack a plan to tie all of the pieces together.

An effective marketing program will use carefully selected marketing tools, based on your objectives.  With the caveat that we work with firms to develop a marketing plan that is specifically suited to their needs and objectives, here are several options that you should evaluate for your firm:

•  Follow-up with clients.  This is an important step that is overlooked far too often.  Especially in the current economic environment, existing clients are more important than ever for most firms.  To improve retention, consider feedback mechanisms and a range of other techniques tailored for your client base.  Also, set up processes for gaining additional work and obtaining referrals. 

•  Business Development (B.D.) training for referral sources and prospects.  Do your professionals have the “tools” necessary for B.D. success?  Specific techniques can be applied to make your efforts more productive.  Since most CPAs do not have any formal BD training, you have likely wasted many opportunities due to a lack of these crucial skills. 

•  Branding and positioning.  Do you feel that your firm is “no different from any other firm” in your local market?  Do you have trouble setting your firm apart from the crowd?  A key reason for your problems may be branding and positioning.  All marketing communication from a firm must effectively communicate the firm’s differentiating characteristics (i.e., key selling points), culture and ability to serve the firm’s targeted markets.  All of these elements, plus more, are part of developing branding and positioning strategies. 

•  Then, continue to build on your branding!  You can’t just contact a prospect, who is in a relationship with another CPA, on one occasion and then hope that they will be convinced to switch to your firm.  This is obvious — but is commonly done!  You need to commit to a regular program. 

This is where it can be even more tricky in choosing what to do.  You could spend a small fortune investing in marketing programs – that then end up being fruitless because you didn’t engage professional help in the Strategic Marketing Planning process. 

There are a wealth of options, of course, each with their pros/cons but also each that must be evaluated and chosen for your targeted market.  Here are some to consider:

-  Public relations and publicity. Is it important for the business community in your area to be familiar with your firm and its capabilities?  Do you face an image problem that needs to be corrected?  Do you want to be perceived as an expert in your field?  If the answer to any of these questions is “yes,” then you could benefit from an effective publicity program. 

-  Advertising. There are many forms of advertising (i.e., print, internet, radio or TV) and a campaign can be very expensive.  It is critical, therefore, to know which media will bring you the best results for your objectives.  Further, your advertising content must not only reflect a true reflection of your firm but must also be tailored to the needs of your market.  It is obvious that you need to have an advertising agency that understands CPA marketing to help get the most of your investment.

-  Internet Marketing: Internet options are growing by leaps and bounds.  It is also easy to spend a ton of money with little results if you don’t know the clear benefits and limitations of each option.  For example, your website is a critical foundation for internet marketing.  As a corporate image statement, it is crucial that your firm’s website is visually attractive, rich in useful and interesting content, designed with logical navigation, and built around the needs of your target market.   As another example, e-newsletters serve multiple purposes, including informing clients of services, increasing name recognition, enhancing credibility, and creating sales opportunities.  However, they must look and read in a manner that supports a highly professional image.

(5)  Invest in experienced, sophisticated management.  Remember that your marketing efforts should reflect the way you treat clients: high quality services delivered in a professional manner.  Many CPAs fail to recognize this fact and develop shoddy, unprofessional marketing materials and programs, which reflect poorly on the image of the firm. 

Instead, seek the advice of qualified marketing professionals, who are highly educated and experienced in working with CPAs, to develop an appropriate marketing program.  For a firm with sufficient resources, you can hire a top-flight marketing pro as your internal Marketing Director.  However, since the high salary may be prohibitive for many firms, hiring outside marketing professionals is a better option.  In that case, in your interviews, make certain to check credentials and qualifications to verify that the marketing/advertising/PR firm truly understands how to market a CPA firm.  If you don’t, you’ll likely find that you are wasting your marketing investment while the hired firm is learning how to do it – on your dime.

About the author:

Kevin W. Brown, M.B.A. is president of Kevin Brown Marketing & Consulting in Huntington Beach, California.  Prior to starting his own firm, he was Director of Marketing for Deloitte & Touche in Orange County.  His firm specializes in marketing for small to mid-size professional services firms.  Phone: (714) 965-1556 or e-mail at kb@kevinbrownmarketing.com.