Low-cost plan of action for developing a marketing program
By Finola McManus, owner of Practice Perfect 
Small accounting firms might think they can’t afford to fund a marketing campaign like the larger players, but they would be wrong.
Based on talking with successful firms this year and on personal experience, below is an easy to use list to help you with a plan of action which is proven to be successful and involves minimal cost outlay. The list is merely an overview and is by no means exhaustive.
- First of all, do you have an ideal client profile of whom you actually want to win as a new client? You need to know whom you are going to target before you start contacting people. Otherwise, you can end up winning the wrong type of new business client at the wrong margin.
- Compile a list to include e-mail addresses of all those you would like to have as new clients. Most practitioners can readily collate such a target list from businesses they have quoted for before (what I call “near misses”), good referral contacts and databases which have previously been bought in and edited for telemarketing purposes or similar. Look at local industrial estates and business parks and collate data on those firms you think you would like to look after.
- Decide what makes you special as an accountant and advisor. The offering of ‘giving excellent service’ or being ‘proactive’ is now past its sell-by date. These terms are often bandied around without being clearly defined, and prospect clients don’t really know what they mean. What exactly do you mean by excellent client service? It needs to be more than, “We get accounts filed on time”. Surely this is essential for any accountant to deliver as a basic offering. Also, it should be a given that every accountant will be proactive and give excellent service - why would a client seek out an advisor who is merely average?
- Businesses are in dire need of better management information and meetings to discuss business strategy and planning. Cashflow management is also key for many businesses in these times. Make sure your service offering asks what they really need and how you can help. No one is really interested in how well you can complete a set of accounts or tax returns - once again this is a given.
- When you meet a potential client, listen more and talk less. Business owners will be more impressed by your interest in listening to their issues and learning about their business. Accountants who drone on about how wonderful they are and tell clients what they think they need can be a real turn off to many potential clients.
- Have a clear and visible pricing strategy. Offer fixed fees; this is now standard for the more successful firms, as is payment by standing order or direct debit. This approach is a winner for both client and accountant and manages both parties’ cashflow.
- Make sure your menu of services is up to date and written in simple language so the prospective client can understand what you can actually help with. Test the menu this on your team and make sure everyone working for you also knows everything you do as a firm.
- Look at your Web site. This is your brochure to the outside world. Is it up to date? Do you have a system of inviting people to register on it so you can capture their data and send them regular updates and free newsletters, etc.?
- Telemarketing can be effective for those wanting to win new clients at the smaller range of the spectrum. However, if you ideal client profile is for larger clients than this then it may prove more cost effective to have your own marketing campaign. Telemarketing is very cost effective in the current market and it is worth considering as a supplement to your marketing plan - particularly if you haven’t tried it before and are looking to win a higher volume of clients a lower fee level. A word of caution: Many clients who are attracted to the cheap, “low balling” accountant will have little loyalty. They need little more than a basic compliance service and they change their accountants frequently. Ask yourself if this is the type of business model you want to build for your firm in the long term?
- Look to raise your profile in the local community to get your name known. Every area has business publications which will accept contributions and inexpensive “advertorial” articles. These won’t win you new business leads on their own, but will get people used to your face and name.
- Set up your e-mail system so that you can send out short “sound bite” e-mails to your target list as a minimum every month. People respond better to e-mails as opposed to hard copy these days. Remember, people do not usually read further than the first couple of lines, so simply write a couple of sentences to whet their appetites and create curiosity about you. E-mail campaigns always work best if they are followed up with a personal call to ask, “Did you read the recent e-mail and did it strike a chord with you?”
- If you don’t have the resources internally to make follow up calls, which can seem like a thankless and time consuming task, numerous providers will do this for your and gain appointments for you (with briefing notes on the conversation) for a daily rate. The objective is to get you through the door at prospects on your target list.
- Nurture your professional contacts. bank managers in particular. Keep them copied on all your marketing e-mails and call them regularly. Many firms report that referrals from banks are still a major source of new business for them.
- Consider running a small regular seminar. The thought of this may fill you with dread! There are many excellent tools available to help you systematize this process and provide you with a topic and script and a step-by-step guide on how to run an event. I have met many practitioners (including myself in years gone by!) who believed public speaking was the stuff of nightmares. I have since seen the opposite to be true. Regular small seminars are an excellent way to court potential clients and give them the opportunity to talk to existing clients who come along too. Seminars are an ideal way to win extra work from existing clients and again serve to raise your profile in your area.
- The real secret to success is a gentle, “drip drip” approach. In today's economic climate, businesses are reluctant to change advisors and take the time to make the move. Consistent and regular contact is therefore the key. It can take more than a year to win an appointment with someone on your target list and then another year to convert them. Don’t be disheartened - this is simply the way of the world of smaller practitioners.
- Implement a simple system so you can set a target for new business, and monitor what is successful together with conversion rates. You need this system in place so you can see what works best and replicate it.
- On average, a partner responsible for the marketing plan should allow an average of one day a week for marketing and business development and a further day a week for seeing potential new clients. If this looks like an unrealistic target for you to achieve, then that poses a raft of different questions about how you are running your business and what is your role as owner. There may be issues to be addressed first in this area alone.
I cannot write about winning new clients without mentioning winning additional work from existing clients. Many practitioners fail to realize fee income potential by not using a “windows of opportunity” system with their existing clients' bases. This is essential.
The above list is a very basic, simple start guide. I realize there are a wealth of marketing tools, resources, and software available on the market - many of which work well and are cost effective. My intention with this article is to provide those with no marketing plan with a little inspiration. It may also be time for those who have a plan in place to review and update it.
Recent research amongst smaller firms of practitioners shows that many are winning new business and fee income as a result of offering something different and being more accessible and personal in their approach to servicing clients. I hope that you too can capitalize on this!
About the author:
Finola McManus is a chartered accountant and former senior partner, who now runs her own consultancy service, Practice Perfect . You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org  or via www.practice-perfect.net  if you have a specific question.
Reprinted from our sister site, AccountingWEB.co.uk .