Practice Development – Presentation is paramount

Presentation is paramount.

m’s image. How a firm is perceived by the outside world is the secret to its success, says Roy Kemp. Marketing, advertising, public relations and other forms of practice promotion can have a significant impact on the development of any firm, no matter what its size. In 1984, the restrictions that had prevented professional practices from applying modern marketing methods were lifted.

But 15 years on, the vast majority of firms are either doing nothing at all, or restricting themselves to occasional adverts or mailshots.

Initially, there was a significant culture gap between the marketing and accountancy worlds, which was understandable considering the fact that neither had ever dealt with the other before.

In those early days, relationships between the two tended to be short, acrimonious and – for the accountants – expensive, with little in the way of positive results.

Not surprisingly, many practitioners took the attitude that marketing in all its many forms was an expensive waste of time. Things are very different now. Agencies soon realised that they had to understand the culture of the accountancy profession before they could pitch their services successfully, and many have taken the trouble to do so. Unfortunately, having been bitten once, many firms were loath to repeat the experiment, and still firmly believe that an investment in marketing is too costly a risk.

Unfortunately, for many practitioners, this view has become a convenient excuse to do nothing. For the fact is that, as well as having little or no training or experience in marketing, they have no inclination to acquire any. Not only is the whole process a mystery, but the idea of turning themselves into salesmen is a complete anathema.

This attitude is foolhardy and unwarranted. It is perfectly possible to sell accountancy services in a professional manner, and those firms that choose not to do so are going to lose business to the practices that are prepared to set their prejudices aside and approach promotion with an open mind. Much marketing is straightforward common sense, along with the willingness to make an effort.

Marketing can basically be defined as creating the right impression for the right people at the right time, no matter whether that impression is gained from a newspaper advertisement, a letter, a glossy brochure, or a meeting at the firm’s offices. Unless you know that clients and potential clients are going to gain a favourable impression of the firm and its abilities from every aspect of your operation, there is little point in investing in grandiose promotional exercises. If you are looking to launch an effective campaign, you can make a start by promoting your services to a captive audience – existing clients.

Encouraging input from all

All but the smallest firms need to appoint a partner with responsibility for marketing. Although everyone should be encouraged to put forward ideas, there must be someone who can rationalise them, develop a marketing strategy and ensure that work is carried out on a timely basis.

This should be viewed as a key appointment, and although many firms will not necessarily have individuals with marketing experience on hand, enthusiasm is important, so there is no point in bullying the least assertive or most junior partner into taking on the job, and then expecting them to make a success of it.

The marketing partner’s first task should be to take a long hard look at the firm’s corporate image, and consider whether it accurately reflects both the services it provides and the image it wishes to convey. If the firm has already conducted a survey of client attitudes, this will be a simple exercise. If not, a few calls to clients who can be relied upon for an honest opinion should prove enlightening.

All the firm’s literature needs a thorough overhaul on a regular basis to ensure that it is up to date and accurately reflects both its chosen image and range of services. Corporate brochures do not have to be the length of a small novel. The text should be clear and concise, and it should be informative rather than overtly promotional.

Before commencing any marketing exercise, the marketing partner should also consider how visitors to the office are treated, and what kind of impression they carry away with them. Do they find attractive offices and are they given a warm welcome? Are they made to feel important? Do they a leave feeling that their business is in good hands? The reception area should have comfortable seating, and why not hang a couple of testimonials from satisfied clients on the wall to impress potential clients while they wait? Always ensure you have plenty of time to deal with any unforeseen problems. The client should never get the impression that you are in a hurry to rush off and deal with more important matters.

Now we come to what is every firm’s biggest source of new business: its own client database. Rarely can any practitioner honestly say that every single client is already taking full advantage of all those of the firm’s services that are relevant to his/her affairs, so there must be enormous potential here for generating additional fee income.

Unfortunately, much as clients may need additional services, they seldom ask, but wait for them to be offered. And if you don’t offer them, someone else will. Where additional requirements can be identified from the database, it is easy to approach clients and suggest a meeting to discuss how the firm can help. Remember to emphasise that you will not be charging them for any preliminary discussion.

No matter how extensive your client database, there will still be many opportunities that cannot be identified from the computer screen. It is therefore important to communicate with all your clients on a regular basis. For many firms, the easiest way to do this is through a client newsletter.

This does not need to be an expensive, glossy publication. With the right software, almost anyone can produce a professional-looking newsletter on their office PC.

Use it to disseminate news about the firm’s activities, to promote new or existing services, to review legislation that may affect them: the list of possible topics is endless. In fact, as a promotional tool, the newsletter is hard to beat. Send it to clients to demonstrate your skills and experience; send it to banks, solicitors and other potential business providers to remind them of what you can do for their clients.

As well as generating additional fee income itself, the firm’s existing clients are also the best possible source of new business. After all, what could be more effective than a personal recommendation? This is the point at which most practitioners first have to confront the image of themselves as ‘salesmen’ – for many, an almost impossible leap of imagination. But what could be simpler or more natural than asking a satisfied client to recommend your services?

The worst they can do is refuse.

A client who feels important and valued is more likely to stick with your firm and be receptive to the idea of recommending your services, so it is well worth investing a little time and money in a client entertainment programme. It is not necessary to spend fortunes dragging them off to Wimbledon, Twickenham or Ascot. A lunch or evening reception in the office can have an equally beneficial effect. It is well worth investigating local sporting venues which may offer attractive corporate entertainment packages. And don’t make the mistake of assuming that it is only worth entertaining your major revenue generators. A more modest client’s best friend could be the decision-maker in a major corporation.

There are a number of other ways in which firms can promote their services to existing clients, which are equally relevant to attracting new clients. These will be discussed in a second feature on marketing your practice, to appear in an upcoming issue of Accountancy Age.

Roy Kemp is managing partner of Accountants Consultancy & Training Co.

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