No potential clients on the radar? Try these sure-fire methods to zero in on quality customers and land the new business that’s right for your firm
By Lisa van de Geyn
Illustration: Blair Kelly
At 31, Will Henderson is all about the digital world. And like most people his age, he spends a good chunk of time surfing the Internet. “Anytime I need anything, I first check the web,” he says.
It makes sense, then, that his Calgary-based firm’s No. 1 source for new clients is its website and online presence, with about 25% of the firm’s growth to date coming through the site. He and his partner, Paul Campeau, have done away with the old-school methods of promoting Henderson Campeau Chartered Accountants’ specialties and offerings. “I know how my generation operates, and it generally isn’t by reading the morning paper in paper form or looking for phone numbers in the phone book,” he says.
While Henderson and Campeau have figured out how to increase their client base, not all practitioners have mastered the skill. In fact, a CICA survey conducted in 2011 found a definite disconnect between the ways accountants market their firms and what’s actually effective in drumming up new quality business. For example, of the 664 accountants surveyed, only half (52%) ask current clients for referrals, yet they rated this method the most successful way to land new customers. Conversely, 60% said they attend functions at local businesses or community organizations to attract clients, but just 28% rated this approach as effective.
These stats speak volumes: while you’re out there hunting for customers to add to your roster, your efforts could use a little direction. Here are some of the top dos and don’ts from marketing pros and accountants who’ve seen increases to their bottom lines.
DON’T take a cookie-cutter approach
You can’t find lasting, quality clients if you don’t know who you’re looking for and where to look. “All marketing needs to be centred around your ideal prospects; a cookie-cutter approach won’t work,” says Sue Clement, a marketing and referral expert and the owner of Success Coaching in Vancouver. Once you know your niche market, you can find better ways to sign new business. “Ask yourself what works for your clientele. If your ideal prospects are avid Facebook users, it’s a great indication that you need to be there too. If they attend specific networking events around town, attend the same ones,” she suggests.
A well-balanced marketing plan that focuses on your core audience is like a well-balanced meal, says Clement. Speaking at industry events, hosting seminars, blogging and writing newsletters, for example, are great ways to build visibility and credibility. “Networking and developing referral relationships will bring you in contact with more prospects and get your name out. Each strategy has a slightly different benefit, and it’s key to know which ones work best for you and for attracting your specific prospects,” she says.
DO make word of mouth, referrals and networking priorities
It might seem obvious, but word-of-mouth marketing still reigns supreme. Still, there are ways to make this quintessential method work harder for your firm.
“Word of mouth is effective if you give the market something to talk about,” says Jean Caragher, president of Capstone Marketing in San Diego. “Be sure you and your team know how to tell the firm’s story, and ensure that you are delivering superior services to clients so they have positive things to say about you.” Caragher says it costs about 400% more (and double the time) to sign a client who isn’t referred than one who is.
John Flaim, partner at Flaim Wolsey Chartered Accountants in Halifax, says his firm has obtained most of its clients by referrals. “My partner, Donald, and I listen to our clients, provide competitive prices for our services and respond immediately to phone calls and emails. For this high level of service, our clients reward the firm by referring us to their colleagues,” he says. “The new prospects we get are clients who we want, as they’re not outside our niche.”
Similar to referrals, networking continues to be a solid way for accountants to generate leads, says Caragher, who suggests attending functions and joining committees in your niche market. “Hosting seminars is also an excellent way to get in front of clients, prospects and referral sources to share information and demonstrate expertise,” she says, adding that 15 to 20 attendees is a good number to have so there’s enough time to spend with each guest.
Flaim’s firm has had success with this method — for example, giving annual presentations to medical residents explaining the advantages and disadvantages of incorporating. The firm also meets regularly with influencers, such as investment advisers and bankers, to “instil the importance of having a team of advisers that communicate together on behalf of the client,” he says.
A note on networking and events: don’t sponsor something you don’t plan to attend. “And, when you do attend, don’t fill your table with members of your firm,” says Caragher. “Events can be a wonderful opportunity for both networking and client entertainment.”
DO embrace social networking and social media
This is about fishing where the fish are, says Toronto social media expert Randall Craig, author of a number of books including the Online PR & Social Media series, and president of consulting firm 108 Ideaspace.
“The world has changed. With the advent of social media and web 2.0, successful promotion today is about ‘pull marketing,’ which means attracting clients to you — gaining visibility through content, creating a community and attracting prospects — instead of ‘pushing’ information out,” Clement adds. “Consider your website and social media presence your main advertising, and invest the time and energy into making it the kind of winning presence that attracts and engages your prospects.”
It’s pull marketing that pushed Calgary accountant Dorin Mihalache to quit his job in September 2011 and start his own practice. By the beginning of 2012, his website, www.taxclinic.ca, was up and running, and since then he’s picked up enough clients to contract four part-time staff.
He attributes his success to promoting the business online. “I’m a true believer in the power of the Internet,” he says. “People like flexibility and online interaction, and this is what I’m giving them.” Besides being present on Facebook, Twitter and Google+, Mihalache says he’s branded his firm around his website’s name, which does well in Google searches.
As for making the most of social media, Craig says it’s all about showing your know-how. “Accountants are experts in their field. Expose that knowledge through meaningful and appropriate blogging, newsletters and tweeting,” he says. For example, if your expertise is in tax planning, blog about tax tips, then tweet that you’ve rounded up your top planning ideas and link to the post. Then include this information in a newsletter that you send via traditional email.
DO ditch out-of-date marketing methods
“I’ve tried targeted flyer distribution, but didn’t get good results,” Mihalache says. “My mailbox is full of flyers every day and I dispose of them right away. I guess the same happened with my campaign.” He also tried a direct-call campaign by purchasing a list of contacts for businesses in his area, but didn’t find it worth the effort. “I had a specialized service calling all of them. We had some results, but it’s very time consuming and the followup is a daunting task.”
As for promotional material (folders, brochures, etc.), while firms should have a package that represents the brand, a brochure never closes a sale, Caragher says. “Your promotional package is a tangible leave-behind; you still need the questioning and listening skills necessary to uncover the needs and challenges of your prospects to demonstrate how your firm can help.”
DO try CRM systems
“It’s surprising that for professionals who spend their careers tracking and analyzing data, not everyone uses the same vigour for tracking new business opportunities,” Craig says. Customer relationship management (CRM) is a great tool for maintaining personal contact with potential clients, and keeping in touch with current and former clients.
Using a CRM system allows you to keep data and information about contacts in one place, and you can send personalized (and automated) notes, so that when a prospective customer is ready to look for a new accountant, they’ll remember you — and your expertise — based on the value-added content you sent, says Craig.
DO ask for business
“Let’s not forget that accountants need to continue to ask for business,” Caragher says. “They need to be able to describe the types of new business they want, and to ask their clients and referral sources for leads.”
If you’re not being proactive and verbalizing what you need, you’re doing yourself and your firm a disservice, she says. “Accountants don’t ask for leads because they feel it’s unprofessional or they’re intimidated. However, this is a normal part of business and should be a regular activity for practitioners.”
Lisa van de Geyn is a freelance writer based in Toronto