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Marketing your way to the top.

Marketing Your Way to the Top

Gone are the days when clients just pick up the phone and ask for service. Most professions, from legal to medical, have experienced a shift toward a more aggressive marketing stance to solicit new customers and new business, and the accounting profession should be no different.

Because the U.S. business climate is constantly changing, accounting firms, once able to rely solely on referrals for business, are now finding they must become increasingly competitive. More time must be spent on keeping current clients happy and fully serviced or in new client development.

Accountants are beginning to realize that they must do more than wait for the telephone to ring to increase their client base. As the profession becomes more and more competitive, accountants will be forced to actively look for business and solicit it through marketing vehicles.

The Marketing Bandwagon

Why have accountants been slow to jump on the marketing bandwagon? The profession has historically been extremely conservative in this area. Most young accountants have been taught that practice development occurs by shaking hands and, perhaps, producing a newsletter (if affordable). In addition, until just a few years ago, the professional codes of ethics prohibited advertising. Marketing, then, is relatively new to the profession, and many accountants still resist it because it was formerly branded as "unethical" or "unprofessional".

The marketing field itself has been a deterrent to accountants effectively using its principles to garner new clients. Accountants are technicians; the work they do is based on facts. Marketing and advertising, on the other hand, use emotions, "guesstimating", attitudes and relationships to convey messages to specific audiences. And marketing takes risks. The accountant and the marketing world are in bi-polar positions. However, as accountants become more and more aware of the inevitability (and the advantage) of marketing, this great gap is narrowing. As a result, marketing is becoming a real and present force in the profession.

At first, partners with no formal or practical knowledge or training in the area were in charge of marketing. Only recently have firms begun to hire marketing professionals to promote their business and services.

Give 'Em a WIIFM

If an accounting firm has made the commitment (both dollars and staffing) to begin a marketing program, what exactly is the first step? Before anything is done, a written marketing plan should be developed. A marketing plan provides a road map to follow and should include goals, objectives, costs and benefits and a timetable. Whatever the size of your firm, a specific mix of marketing tools should be included in the marketing plan to help the practice grow.

Direct Mail

Direct mail can be a powerful vehicle to target specific groups and promote specific products, i.e., using a new homeowners list to sell tax services. New homeowners may not be aware of the tax saving benefits to which they're entitled. This is a perfect time to send a direct mail piece to those people and offer your services.

The right combination of elements is crucial to the effectiveness of the successful direct mail campaign. Clearly state goals and objectives for the campaign. You'll never be able to measure the effectiveness of a campaign if you just mail out 2,000 pieces in the hope of "getting more business" -- that's too vague of an objective. Target the type of new business you want -- salesmen with an annual salary of over $50,000? Attorney's? New homeowner's in a particular zip code? Identified goals will make monitoring leads easier.

Preparing or buying an accurate list is very important. Is your list broker reliable? How often is the list updated or "cleaned"? There's nothing more frustrating than preparing an eye-catching direct mail piece and having it mailed to names that are three years old.

Of course, creative (copy and artwork) is the package in which the message is sent. Does the copy have a user-benefit headline? Is there a hook or an offer to respond now? Do you give them a reason for taking the time to read your message and respond? You must give your target audience a WIIFM ("What's In It For Me?"). Think of WIIFM as a radio station we're all tuned in to. Every headline, advertisement and even envelope teaser should contain a WIIFM.

Timeliness of when you mail affects your response as well. There's only one tax season each year, so capitalize upon it! Target tax planning from August to December and stress tax preparation at the end of January through March 15th.

Planning, writing (or having someone else write), printing and mailing of direct mail pieces is time consuming. Plan far in advance of your mailing date and keep on schedule.

Print Advertising

Advertising in trade journals allows you to reach specific professionals -- bankers, lawyers, real estate agents -- all potential networking groups for referral business. But don't ever place an ad only once. Frequency is the name of the game in advertising. It's better to place a smaller ad more often than a large, costly ad only once.

Radio Advertising

While less targeted than direct mail or print advertising, radio buys can be made to a specific profile group, i.e., men and women 25 to 39 years of age listening to a specific format such as talk radio. This medium helps position your firm to the marketplace, helps build image and has a high-reach capability. It's absolutely necessary to manage your image, as you never get a second chance to make a positive first impression. Again, a radio advertisement should contain a WIIFM within the first 10 seconds of air time, and give the company phone number several times.

Dialing for Dollars

Telemarketing (phone calling prospects to follow up a mailing) may nearly double your direct mail response rate. Direct mail and telemarketing work hand-in-hand, but telemarketing is time consuming and expensive. Telemarketers must also be prepared for a high rate of rejection. The rewards, however, can be great, as telemarketing most often reaches the decision-maker sooner (and in person). In one of our recent campaigns, our telemarketing staff was able to schedule one appointment per each hour of calling. Telemarketing has proven more cost effective than direct mail in our firm. This may be because a call from an accountant is unexpected.

Lead Tracking -- The Numbers Game

The positive results from any campaign are in direct proportion to how well you have planned it. If a direct mail campaign is highly targeted with a good user benefit (WIIFM) in the copy and contains an offer or give-away for response, you can expect anywhere from a to 2% response rate. Business to consumer campaign response rates generally run a little higher, from 2 to 3%. Although these percentages may look small, they are standard and generally accepted in the industry. They also mean a lot of new business when doing thousands and thousands of mailings.

Keep in mind that return rates can be distorted if leads and responses are not monitored properly. Every card or call that comes in should be tracked to its lead-generating source. This will help you analyze your advertising effectiveness.

Lead tracking can provide valuable information about your sales cycle. We've seen some bookkeeping leads come in which take 90 days to close. It's important to know when revenue will be generated from any marketing tool to compare it against expenses. Be aware that a lead generated from a direct mail piece can cost from $20 to $100.

What this really means is that everyone in the firm, from partner to administrative staff, must support the marketing effort. Leads come in a variety of ways -- phone calls, reply cards and coupons. The success (or failure) of a campaign depends on everyone turning in lead sheets to the marketing department and the receptionist asking new callers where they heard of the firm. Progression of the direct mail process (mailings, cost per lead, appointments, cost per sale, revenue per sale, etc.) must be managed. This chain is only as good as its weakest link. Full participation from all staff is required to track response and its source.

What Piece of the Pie?

How much does all this marketing cost your firm? An annual marketing budget is absolutely necessary for allocating funds, staff and other resources. Most accounting firms take a percentage of 1 to 2% of gross annual revenues to spend on their marketing effort. Unfortunately, this type of budget is based on "where we are" vs. "where we want to be".

To determine a reasonable budget, specific goals must be made. For example, GOAL: Increase our bookkeeping practice by 30%. To bring in more bookkeeping clients we need X amount of leads which will turn into Y amount of revenue. To generate these leads, we must spend Z dollars, knowing that response will be from to 2%. This type of formula will work, and you can budget each area of the marketing plan accordingly.

For smaller firms or those on a limited budget, test a smaller number of your direct mail pieces or cut down the size of your ad. Make sure ads use coupons or give-aways so you know who read them. Coupons are attention-getting and create the all-important WIIFM. Avoid corporate image ads or campaigns that may look nice but don't make the telephone ring. Also consider running ads in publications with smaller yet more defined circulations. But whatever you do, keep on course with the predetermined goals and objectives set forth in your marketing plan.

Other marketing ideas can be successful beyond direct mail and advertising. Speaking engagements, client luncheons and charitable work or contributions can all bring about leads and possibly new business. It's a matter of taking a pro-active stance instead of a reactive one.

Your Most Important Audience

Your present client base is your most useful resource for selling new products. They are a prequalified source already sold on your firm, so keep in close contact with them. Call them often -- and not just when they need you. Take them to lunch or breakfast and don't be shy to ask them for referrals. This should be an on-going process because word of mouth advertising is still a strong selling tool.

Because existing clients are so important, keep them informed of all the services you have available. A company newsletter is a good communication vehicle for this and can be very valuable for cross-selling services. One large accounting firm nearly doubled its annual billings just by cross-selling to existing customers. Give value and benefits to the reader of your newsletter; don't just cover internal company news.

Don't hesitate to go beyond the norm. Send your clients referral and birthday cards. Prepare client surveys to find out what your firm is doing right (or wrong). Then go the real step further by implementing one or all of their suggestions. It's to your advantage to have your company name cross your client's lips as many times each year as possible.

Marketing not only sells services to prospective clients, it also provides current clients the means to communicate desired changes in services, fees and quality. Professionals need client feedback as much as anyone else. Marketing provides the all-important forum for this.

We've Got A Long Way To Go...

Marketing, indeed, has come only a small way in the accounting profession. But what does the future hold? Because the industry approaches marketing so cautiously, we will not see any dramatic change until the mid 1990s. But over time accountants will begin to do things differently.

More and more accounting firms will hire professionally trained marketing people to perform these tasks. Eventually, as competition gets even tighter, all professionals will need sales training (something many firms are already doing) so that they not only do the work, but actually sell the services.

Because the profession lacks marketing skills and avoids risk, the accounting industry is years behind other professions in marketing savvy. But with further testing, research and education, accounting firms can benefit, and benefit greatly, from implementing marketing principles and using its tools.

Colleen A. Laub is vice president of marketing for Corbin & Wertz, a certified professional accounting and business consulting firm, headquartered in Irvine, CA. Corbin & Wertz offers traditional services such as tax planning, bookkeeping, financial statements, corporate and individual tax preparation and audits as well as computer and software consulting, litigation support and general business management services.
COPYRIGHT 1990 National Society of Public Accountants
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1990 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:accountants
Author:Laub, Colleen A.
Publication:The National Public Accountant
Date:Jul 1, 1990
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