Marketing Tips to Make Your Firm Stand Out From the Crowd

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Cliff BrownsteinMarketing Tips to Make Your Firm Stand Out From the Crowd
Presented by Cliff Brownstein
Prinicipal of Practical Strategies
Contact Cliff at [email protected]

Wednesday, April 25, 2001

Visit the AccountingWEB Workshop Calendar for upcoming sessions.


The workshop addressed the following topics:

  • Marketing is Positioning, Sales is Selling
  • What is Your Firm Good At?
  • What is a Realistic Marketing Effort for Your Firm?
  • Unified Looks and Messages Help Create a Brand
  • How Do You Keep the Effort Alive

Read the complete transcript of the workshop.

April 25, 2001 Session Sponsored by Macola


Workshop Transcript

Session Moderator: Welcome everyone, and thank you for coming today! Today we are joined by Cliff Brownstein, who is going to share his ideas on marketing your firm.

Cliff Brownstein, Principal in Practical Strategies, a management and marketing consulting firm specializing in professional service firms and not-for-profit organizations, has worked in and around the public accounting profession since 1977.

After serving as Assistant Executive Director of Associated Accounting Firms International (now Moore Stephens, North America), he joined the CPA firm of Aronson, Greene, Fisher & Co., in Bethesda, Maryland as the firm's first administrator. During that time, he co-founded the Association for Accounting Administration and served as its Executive Director for ten years. Cliff formed C.M. Brownstein & Associates, Inc., a marketing and management company, where in addition to managing the Accounting Administration group, he also served as Executive Director of the Association of Practicing CPAs, and as a marketing consultant to a number of small to mid-sized accounting firms.

He is a contributing author to the AICPA's MAP Handbook, and also to its publication, "The Marketing Advantage." Mr. Brownstein has also been a featured speaker at numerous state society meetings as well as the AICPA's MAP Conference. We would like to offer a special thanks to Macola, who is sponsoring our workshop today - you can find out more about Macola by clicking on the banner above.

Session Moderator: Welcome, Cliff! The floor is yours!

Clifford Brownstein: Thank you very much. I appreciate the opportunity to take part in this workshop. I hope I can keep up with everyone. Let's start off with a question. Who can tell me what the major reason is for marketing failure among CPA firms? I'll give you a few seconds to type in your answers.

Jerry Weisenfeld: Expecting immediate results from marketing efforts.

Julie Pollard: Accounting is a referral-based business, not advertising.

Kyle South: Lack of knowledge and effort.

Lisa Huston: Don't see the immediate value in marketing. Lack of strategy

Clifford Brownstein: The chief culprit of marketing failure, at least among the many CPA firms I've come in contact with, is simply a lack of effort. You would be amazed at how many firms really aren't marketing in any concerted way. They may have a firm brochure or perhaps some industry-specific brochures, but they don't utilize them in any concerted, directed way.

Or, they have devised some sort of marketing plan but don't stick to it for very long. CPA firms are notorious for having very short attention spans-almost as short as law firms.

Tomas McMillan: Too many heads making decisions.

Clifford Brownstein: That's because they confuse marketing with sales. They are two very distinct functions.

Kyle South: I agree with that.

Lisa Huston: Absolutely agree with that.

Tomas McMillan: They have seen fads come and go and believe that Internet is another fad and want to wait until it truly becomes urgent in the meantime they have an old site which is 5 years old and are reluctant to adopt new ways of marketing through new technology.

Clifford Brownstein: Simply put--Marketing is positioning your firm.

Jerry Weisenfeld: But most CPA's want that positioning to end up contributing directly to the bottom line.

Clifford Brownstein: Positioning means telling the right message to the right audience at the right time.

The most common mistake that firms make is thinking that marketing and sales are, essentially, the same. Then, when their marketing efforts bear little or no fruit in the short run, they conclude that marketing isn't working and they junk the whole effort. That is the chief reason why there is such a high turnover rate among marketing directors in CPA firms. There is little long-term commitment by the partners. They see money going out the door immediately but don't see a quick return.

The partners will tell you that theirs is still a word-of-mouth referral business and marketing doesn't really work for them. That's baloney and rationalization. They are no different from the other CPA firms who are using marketing effectively, except that the successful firms are showing patience and commitment. If you think that mailing out some brochures and doing a speech or two will have the business rolling in the door, think again. Otherwise, don't waste your time or money.

Let's get back to positioning. Again, positioning is putting your firm in the best possible situation to enhance your chances of making a sale. Positioning includes a host of components such as analysis of firm strengths, competition, present market penetration, financial resources, external market factors, and others. Positioning means taking the best of what you have available to you and placing yourself before your desired markets in ways that are financially feasible, cost effective, and will create the maximum visibility for your firm. But positioning alone will not get you sales. Thus, a strategy for sales is just as important as one for positioning. And sales, let alone marketing, is not something that is taught in accounting school.

Strategies for sales can include pricing (value billing or hourly rates with an estimate for a particular engagement), timing, and success stories with other clients, who will work on the engagement, and others. Bear in mind that even with compliance work, prospective clients are seeking a firm that will provide them with value. Accuracy is a given. You wouldn't be in business if you weren't accurate in your work. But value -- getting the most for their money, even getting more for their money than they had a right to expect -- is what potential clients are looking for. And this concept ought to be emphasized in your marketing and sales efforts.

Let me provide you with a good example of positioning. I have a client that does exemplary work in the health care field, but nobody except the firm's present clients knew it. They have been in business for about 18 years. We analyzed the areas in which the firm was strongest as it pertained to health care. We also analyzed the firm's ability to take on more business in a tight job market. We concluded that compliance work, which formerly had been the mainstay of its health care businesses, was not work that the firm wanted to emphasize. Instead, it was decided that the firm should emphasize its MIS capabilities. If tax and audit work resulted from the marketing efforts, fine, but this was not the direction the firm really wanted to be proactively engaged in.

After making this determination, we then began to identify those sub-markets within health care that made the most sense and had the most potential for the CPA firm. We then identified the specific businesses within those sub-markets. We developed collateral material targeted to those sub-markets, and structured a direct mail, email and telephone campaign to make those companies aware of the firm's existence and its expertise.

At the same time, we developed an ad that was placed in several trade publications that we knew these companies generally read. And, we also were able to procure a few speaking engagements for several partners and staff with local chapters of associations that we knew many of the players belonged to.

Through these measures, we developed a very targeted, precise campaign directed to specific companies, while at the same time utilizing more general media to provide credibility within the profession as a whole. So far, after about eight months, the firm has picked up about $80,000 in additional billings. Not a huge amount, but momentum is building as they continue to refine their marketing and positioning. But they are committed to continuing this process.

Charlotte DiCarlo: What amount of marketing dollars did the firm target for this campaign?

Clifford Brownstein: Approximately $50,000, so they're already ahead of the game.

Ron Friedman: I find many times clients say, "How many hours did it take and how can your rate be so much/hour?" How do you JUSTIFY value on a bill? Do you have to estimate the value before starting the engagement or do you "value bill" when you are done?

Clifford Brownstein: I believe you estimate the value before the engagement. Otherwise, your price can be open-ended. I don't know too many clients who want that.

Let's talk about some considerations regarding the determination of marketing efforts.

The first one is "what is your firm good at?" This is tougher than you might think. The obvious answer oftentimes is the path of least resistance. But forcing your partners and upper-level staff to really consider where they want to be, and the expertise needed to get there, is crucial to successful marketing. In other words, what you are good at isn't necessarily the kind of work you want to continue doing in the future. It is a matter of directing your destiny rather than allowing external forces determine it for you.

Charlotte DiCarlo: I think one consideration in any marketing campaign is what kind of company are you going to target.

Clifford Brownstein: Charlotte, I agree. But that target company has to make sense for your firm, and not just be a company that you target because you feel comfortable there. It may not really represent the kind of business you want.

If what you are good at does not match up well with your desire for future business, one of two things (or both) must happen. You must hire people with the expertise that matches your marketing objectives, or you must change your marketing objectives to meet the skill level of your partners and staff. I would submit that a combination of both is the best of all worlds, unless you are lucky enough to already have an abundance of solid staff in the marketing areas of your choice.

Charlotte DiCarlo: I completely agree. You must first determine what direction you want the firm to go before any campaign is launched.

Clifford Brownstein: Another consideration is determining relative profitability of certain service/market segments.

Maybe you do a lot of work in a particular market niche, but for some reason, it is not as profitable as you might want it. It may not be an area to expand if you cannot change the profit margins.

Another consideration is your budget for marketing.

At minimum, I would recommend that five percent of your overall budget be devoted to marketing. Anything less and you cannot do justice to the effort and you will waste your money. The more you can handle above five percent, the greater your opportunities for success will be. Another way to approach it is by taking a percentage of any billings derived from marketing efforts and reinvesting them in more marketing. This should be done over and above the five percent, however.

A vital consideration is what amount of human resources you can devote to marketing in a meaningful way.

How many of you have marketing directors for your firm, either full-time or part-time?

Obviously, it is easier to stay on target and keep the ball rolling when you have a marketing director, whose only purpose (at least stated, anyway) is to oversee and implement the marketing efforts of your firm. But for those of you who don't have marketing directors, and even for those of you who do, you are still dependent upon the partners and other staff to keep the marketing effort moving forward. This can be a challenge and this is where most firms fall down on the job. All too often, marketing will take a back seat because it is not billable. There will always be something that comes up that gets in the way of the marketing effort. When this happens enough times, the marketing effort falls apart.

If it is to be successful, the marketing effort must be taken as seriously as billable work. This is really what separates the successful firms from the less successful ones, marketing-wise. The firms that give it a high priority, don't let go of it, and direct it in a targeted, proactive fashion, are the ones who ultimately have the greatest marketing success.

However, marketing can be done on different levels, depending upon the resources available to you and the objectives that you establish. The main point is that whatever degree of marketing you engage in, it must be adhered to over a protracted period of time, with no “instant gratification” expectations.

Another key consideration is the roles that various people within your firm will play in the marketing process.

It is important to assess each person's relative strengths and weaknesses and determine the most appropriate marketing role for each. An obvious example is someone who is not a particularly good public speaker accepting a speaking engagement. They may think they are good, but in fact, they may not be representing your firm in the manner in which you'd like to be represented. There is a role in marketing for everyone in your firm, from the receptionist to the managing partner. Very few accountants, for example, have been trained in public speaking, yet those are some of the best opportunities for exposure.

The same is true of writing. There are opportunities to write articles on various topics, yet accountants haven't necessarily been trained in good business writing techniques, either.

Session Moderator: May I just mention that we at AccountingWEB are always receptive to articles that members of the accounting profession would like to have published on our site. You can contact [email protected] for additional information.

Clifford Brownstein: Assessing the skills of each staff member and matching them up with the various contemplated marketing roles is a key element of successful marketing.

Have any of the firms represented here today put any of your partners or staff through public speaking courses or business writing courses?

Session Moderator: When I was in public accounting I was required to attend a two-day public speaking course as part of my CPE.

Julie Pollard: We have a week-long event every summer with writing courses. The staff earn CPE credits for part of that week.

Clifford Brownstein: Julie, your firm is to be commended for that. Very few CPA firms will go to the time and trouble. That certainly is a motivator for getting them there.

It is also important to match up people's interests with their marketing roles. This may seem obvious, but you'd be surprised as to how often this is overlooked. For example, someone who is really into sports may be utilized as a speaker for a group of sports agents or sporting goods manufacturers. Or someone with a keen interest in music may write an article for a trade publication of a music schools association, or perhaps an entertainment-booking agency. Their enthusiasm for that particular area of interest will show through and oftentimes result in a more interesting and thought-provoking presentation.

Let's talk a bit about what is a realistic marketing effort for your firm.

Obviously, each and every firm is different and no generic marketing program will work for everyone. By the same token, you don't necessarily have to do everything from scratch. It all starts with the development of a marketing strategy based upon the various elements we have already touched upon. Once those analyses have been completed, then it is much easier to lay out a plan of action.

The marketing plan should include all aspects of the marketing activities, from staff and partner involvement to targeted markets to budgets and timetables and to methods for measuring results.

If any of you out there have written marketing plans in place, would you step forward and describe how it was devised and how it is working?

Jerry Weisenfeld: We started with a strategic plan and then customized our marketing efforts to meet those goals.

Clifford Brownstein: That's a good way for ensuring that the marketing efforts dovetail with the overall objectives of the firm.

Jerry Weisenfeld: It's working well so far but I've found in our environment that the planning was easier than the execution.

Clifford Brownstein: Jerry, that's very common. Do you have someone in your firm honchoing the marketing effort?

Jerry Weisenfeld: Me, the marketing director...working closely with our managing partner.

Charlotte DiCarlo: We actually run two concurrent marketing calendars. One for new business and one for our existing clients.

Clifford Brownstein: Charlotte, that's an interesting structure. How do you separate them, staff-wise?

Jerry Weisenfeld: How do you separate them time-wise? Which gets priority?

Charlotte DiCarlo: We are not a CPA firm but an accounting software reseller. Staff allocation has been the toughest but we do try and devote approximately 50-50 time split.

Clifford Brownstein: A common mistake that many firms make in developing a marketing plan is getting too ambitious. That is why it is so crucial to do the up-front analyses. They will tell you what is feasible and what is not. They will show you the degree of your human and financial resources and when and how often to utilize them. Obviously, one firm may have $10,000 a year to devote to marketing and another may have $100,000. For smaller firms particularly, but for all firms, you want to get the most value out of your marketing dollar, whatever the amount. Every firm has its limitations, regardless of size.

So you want to develop a very targeted, very selective approach to marketing to get the most out of your efforts. So my advice is, be ambitious but not overly so. Otherwise you set yourself up for failure.

Establish goals for marketing meetings with various potential, targeted clients and industries/professions.

Establish goals for speaking engagements and written articles.

Establish goals for direct mail pieces.

Establish goals for developing partnerships with other businesses to position your firm in certain areas.

Don't establish goals for how much more money you hope to earn in a given time period based upon your marketing efforts. Remember, it will take time and it won't happen overnight.

But do establish tracking methods so that you have a clear picture of how much the effort is costing your firm and what the results are in a given time period.

Do establish some reasonable goals for acquiring clients.

An example might be: let's say you are the CPA firm for ten auto dealerships and that is an area you have targeted for expansion by your firm. You might establish a goal of adding ten more dealerships to your practice within a year. This is a measurable goal, which even if you don't achieve in total, you are likely to achieve to a large extent, which will still place you light years ahead of where you were at the start of the year.

Or, let's say you wish to attract more medical practices to your firm. So a possible goal might be to partner with two companies that provide administrative support to medical practices in order to gain access to a wider range of prospective clients.

Whatever your goals are, be sure that they are measurable, reachable with stretch, precise, and explicit. If they are too loose, they will be hard to measure.

Jerry Weisenfeld: The problem I find is that marketing for our CPA's is so new that they don't know specifically what their goals are...they just know they want more clients now!

Clifford Brownstein: Let's turn our attention now to some very tangible aspects of marketing. We're talking now about marketing materials.

There is a virtually unlimited array of marketing materials available to CPA firms. You can go the custom-made route, or the generic-but-personalized route, or any combination of the two. Nothing is right and nothing is wrong. It depends upon what works for your firm. But one mistake I see many firms making time and again is not having a unified look and message among all of their materials.

Clifford Brownstein: Let's face it, by and large, most CPA firms are pretty similar. If I line up 20 CPA firms of roughly the same size, regardless of geographical area, probably four-fifths of their services will be virtually identical.

So what makes them stand out from the crowd?

It's not service. They all say they provide high-quality, customized, personalized, homogenized, digitized, revitalized service.

It's not necessarily industries or professions served.

A solid, general practice will service a wide array of business types.

It had better not be price.

So what is it?

There is a term that is being used a lot these days. It's an old term that has been rediscovered of late. It has to do with name recognition. It's called branding. It's been used in advertising for decades. It means making your name or other representations so recognizable that people know who you are and what you do at the mere mention of your name.

Arthur Andersen is capitalizing on branding with their new name of simply “Andersen.”

By the same token, there was some confusion between "Arthur Andersen" and "Andersen Consulting" so they renamed the consulting firm "Accenture" and broke it off from the mainstream accounting firm.

How do you achieve a recognizable brand? Anyone?

Charlotte DiCarlo: How do suggest a small firm "brand" their name?

Clifford Brownstein: By doing something unique. By having a unique look. By being different.

The first step, particularly for small to mid-size firms, is to have a unified message and appearance.

Charlotte DiCarlo: Advertising.

Jerry Weisenfeld: By specializing in areas of accounting?

Clifford Brownstein: Sure, specialization and letting people know about it will get their attention.

You might be surprised, or maybe you wouldn't, by the number of CPA firms who have mix-and-match promotional pieces. There is very little cohesiveness about them. Some are written and designed specifically for them, while others are purchased generically. They don't look like they are from the same firm and they don't sound like they are from the same firm.

Charlotte DiCarlo: A recognizable brand requires penetration to your particular market place.

Clifford Brownstein: There are relatively few consistent messages contained within each. Therefore, when your recipients receive them, you are forcing them to learn about your firm all over again, rather than building upon the previous information. Thus, in every promotional piece there should be some standard language describing who you are and what you do.

If your firm doesn't have a logo, have one designed, or at least design your letterhead in a unique way so that it is recognizable.

If your firm has been steeped in some particular specialty areas for a long time, play that up.

If you have a more generalized practice, with clients in a wide array of industries and professions, you might wish to approach branding from a service or functional standpoint rather than from an industry standpoint.

Catch phrases or tag lines are good ways to achieve this.

The same principles hold true with other representations of your firm.

For example, if someone is making a PowerPoint presentation, or even one that simply employs overhead transparencies, they should have a consistent look and feel to them.

The appearance of the firm's name, the typeface used in the presentations, the colors chosen for the presentation, and many of the messages all combine to provide the recipient of these communications with either a clear, concise portrait of your firm, or a murky, discombobulated one.

There is an interesting test I'd love to put a CPA firm through some day. I would ask five partners from the same firm to each make a five-minute presentation about their firm, without disclosing the name of the firm. I would be willing to bet that their presentations could easily represent five different firms rather than the same one. And that is the antithesis of branding.

Jerry Weisenfeld: That would be an interesting test

Clifford Brownstein: Try it sometime and please let me know the results.

Let's take a few moments to discuss Internet marketing, or in another sense, electronic marketing.

Banner ads are interesting but they've lost much of their initial attraction. That doesn't mean you shouldn't consider them, however. Just be very judicious in their use.

If, for example, you wish to promote your firm to auto dealers in your area, there may be a local association of auto dealers with a website. It might be worth looking into that for possible advertising or sponsorship considerations.

Developing a solid database, including email addresses, is of course, critical. Sending emails to prospective clients is another relatively effective communication avenue. However, don't spam prospects. You can send 100 companies the same email, but send them individually or make them look that way.

Directing prospects to your own website, where they can peruse your service offerings, is another effective means. This can be done by indicating so in an email, or in a promotional letter to a prospect.

There are also other services that can help drive prospects to your website or to your email.

One new service that I've heard of recently that seems to do an effective job of this, at least conceptually, is something called BizActions. It's an electronic newsletter service for clients of CPA firms with a great deal of flexibility and marketing potential.

Okay, so now you have assessed your firm's relative strengths and weaknesses, identified target markets, developed a written plan, revamped your collateral materials and refined your messages so that they are cohesive and recognizable. You can rest easy now, right?

I don't think so. You have to keep the effort alive. Even for firms with marketing directors, it's the toughest part of marketing. Why? Essentially, because its not a billable activity and doesn't produce immediate results. Another reason is that in most cases, firms do not have anyone, either inside or outside the firm, whose primary responsibility it is to oversee the implementation and continuation of the marketing efforts.

Even firms that do have marketing directors have a tendency to assign projects to that person that pull him or her away from the reason they were hired in the first place. The very first marketing plan I ever developed for a CPA firm, 17 years ago, failed miserably because I let the managing partner convince me that he would oversee the effort and keep it moving forward. It was a very valuable lesson for me, and for the managing partner. And, oftentimes, a marketing director or anyone else outside of the firm partnership is not assigned sufficient authority to "kick a**" and make sure that everyone is doing what they are supposed to be doing.

So, first and foremost, there needs to be someone assigned to oversee the marketing activity implementation, be they internal or external to the firm, who has sufficient clout to push, cajole, prod and shame people into doing what they committed to do. And, if you use an external person, they still require an internal “set of eyes and ears,” a contact, who serves as their liaison to the firm.

The marketing person will generally report to the managing partner. The managing partners should play a pivotal role in the marketing process. He or she should know what is going on at all times and should be involved in the development of marketing strategy. The problem is, in small to mid-size firms, the managing partner has a lot of other stuff to worry about, plus they typically still have their own clients to worry about as well. So while pivotal, they can oftentimes bog the process down if they don't respect the function and accord it the time and effort necessary.

Once a marketing director, internal or external, is chosen, it is vital that the partners and others in the firm having significant roles in the marketing effort be kept apprised as to developments and achievements.

Monthly reports are quite useful to keep everyone up to date on how things are going.

Marketing meetings should be held quarterly, as well, to update everyone, compare results to the objectives established in the plan, and make any necessary revisions.

Finally, at the end of the year, an annual report to the firm regarding the relative success of its marketing initiatives should be presented.

The marketing plan is not written once. It is a living, breathing document that is malleable as circumstances change, outside influences impact the firm, priorities shift, and resources vary. It doesn't mean that every quarter you re-do the plan. It simply means that nothing is static, and the plan should reflect the changes and progress the firm experiences over time. Regularly reviewing the plan also results in greater adherence to it. And the more communication there is within the firm regarding marketing successes, the more people will be inclined to adhere to the plan, and in fact, ratchet up their efforts when they see the benefits. In the final analysis, the way a CPA firm can market to stand out from the crowd is by developing a viable plan and working the plan. Most firms simply don't do that. Even a small amount of effort, done regularly and cohesively, will have your firm out ahead of the pack.

Session Moderator: Are there any last questions for Cliff, or any other comments anyone would like to add?

Clifford Brownstein: Thank you very much for your kind attention and participation today. I enjoyed it. If you wish to contact me directly, call me at 301-299-6068 or email me at: [email protected]. Thanks again.

Session Moderator: Cliff - thank you so much for providing a great workshop! We really appreciate the time and effort on your part to prepare this material and present it to us here where we can ask questions!

Clifford Brownstein: You are quite welcome.

Session Moderator: Thank you also, once again, to today's sponsor, Macola.

Session Moderator: Please join us next week for additional workshops. You can always find our workshop schedule at


Cliff Brownstein, Principal of Practical Strategies, a management and marketing consulting firm specializing in professional service firms and not-for-profit organizations, has worked in and around the public accounting profession since 1977.

After serving as Assistant Executive Director of Associated Accounting Firms International (now Moore Stephens, North America), he joined the CPA firm of Aronson, Greene, Fisher & Co., in Bethesda, Maryland as the firm's first administrator. During that time, he co-founded the Association for Accounting Administration and served as its Executive Director for ten years. Mr. Brownstein formed C.M. Brownstein & Associates, Inc., a marketing and management company, where in addition to managing the Accounting Administration group, he also served as Executive Director of the Association of Practicing CPAs, and as a marketing consultant to a number of small to mid-sized accounting firms.

He is a contributing author to the AICPA's MAP Handbook, and also to its publication, "The Marketing Advantage." Mr. Brownstein has also been a featured speaker at numerous state society meetings as well as the AICPA's MAP Conference.

He resides in Potomac, Maryland with his wife Nancy and three (not so young anymore) children. In his spare time, he coaches baseball and softball, works on writing a novel, and rides a motorcycle.

E-mail: [email protected]
Web site:

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