By Michael Alter
Websites, which initially served as "glorified business brochures", are no longer acceptable as such. Today, visitors and clients expect much more. Websites have evolved into central information hubs: information about services is still present, but sites are enhanced with web portals, hyperlinks to state and federal sites, and a variety of free tools.
Accountants must scrutinize their websites to review how they are serving clients and visitors beyond the glorified brochure, while also polishing the presentation and delivery of information using the web. Ongoing improvements to a website will keep it fresh for new prospects and continually interesting for existing clients.
Tips for Improving a Website
- Easy navigation: Being able to quickly navigate a website to locate answers to common questions will keep visitors on the website longer. Keep the thirty-second rule in mind; people will only stay on the website for an average of thirty seconds unless they find what they are looking for.
- Ask "Why us and not them?": Imagine shopping for accounting services by visiting a handful of your competitors' websites. After exploring competitors' sites, ask",Why would anyone buy services from us and not them?" If the answer to that question is not apparent, visitors may feel the same way.
- Information rich: Visitors come to a website looking for information, answers, and help. Tools, such as tax calculators, tax forms, and links to state and federal tax sites, put answers at visitors' fingertips and give them a reason to stay longer and return often.
- Visual appeal: Creating a professional-looking website has become infinitely easier and affordable. There are online service providers that make building a website easy as well as providers that specialize in building websites specifically for the accounting industry.
Features Worth Talking About
- Secure file sharing: To save time and lower postage expense, many accounting firms are opting to subscribe to online technology (e.g., web portals, ShareFile, or LeapFile) that allows files of all sizes to efficiently be transferred between the accountant and client.
- Content: Articles, tax advice, and newsletters can be interesting reads for visitors. Keep content current and refresh it often. If writing fresh content is not feasible, consider snipping article titles (with hyperlinks to read the full-length articles) from industry websites and sending a monthly e-mail as a "recommended read" to clients and prospects.
- Collection of e-mail addresses: Communicating with clients and prospects using e-mail is efficient and cost-effective. Asking clients for their preferred e-mail address should be part of a standard process when clients call or when client meetings occur. Some collect e-mail addresses using a form on a website where they offer coupons or a free e-newsletter.
- Videos add variety: YouTube makes video sharing easy. Set up a YouTube account and have staff record how-to presentations, tax tips, and payroll advice. Share YouTube videos using Facebook, e-mail, e-newsletters, or publish them on your website.
Overlooked Website Basics
- Browser and mobile devices: Have you ever looked at your website in a different browser? Do you know how your website looks in Windows Explorer versus Google Chrome or on an iPad? Have you tried viewing your website using an android or iPhone? If your site is not built with browser and mobile device compatibility in mind, you may be turning visitors away.
- Say "NO" to Flash design: Flash is a style of animation used to design websites before the advent of mobile devices like the iPhone. Flash may not load on mobile devices and may slow how quickly your website loads for visitors.
- Links, contact information, photos, and bios: Check all links on your website to make sure they are working. Keep contact information current and make sure photos and bios of key staff and partners are current.
- Thirty-second rule: As mentioned above, on average, most visitors will spend less than thirty seconds on any page of your website, unless they are reading an article or newsletter. Keep your website copy brief, avoid large blocks of text, and avoid using small illegible graphics like spreadsheets.
- Free tools and advice: Clients and visitors have come to expect a certain arsenal of tools from firms' websites. For example, some offer calculators for finances, time cards, and links to the IRS website.
- Analysts predict that smartphones, tablets, and other handheld devices will outnumber PCs in use in a few years. Websites should be optimized to be easily viewed and navigated using smaller screens. They will need smaller graphics that load faster, coupled with shorter blocks of content.
About the author:
Michael Alter, payroll expert with an MBA from Harvard Business School, is a nationally recognized spokesperson providing thought-leadership and sensible advice to help accounting and payroll professionals build deeper more profitable relationships with clients. Alter, President of SurePayroll, writes the Managing People column on INC.com and is frequently published in Bloomberg TV, Wall Street Journal, and Entrepreneur magazine.