The Normal Accounting Sales Model No Longer Works
Once upon a time, I sent snail mail to prospective clients. I would download the free list provided by the state of Florida and send solicitation letters to people that formed a corporation or LLC.
There was this CPA in my community who did the same thing, and we always got his postcards. Lo and behold, you will never guess what I got in my mailbox the other day. One of these postcards came from the same CPA.
The problem is that it’s 2017, and mailers, as I figured out about ten years ago, don’t work anymore.
Traditionally, accounting firms are set up pretty much the same way. You have a receptionist, staff accountants, and then the accountants, who are usually the owners or partners of the business. A potential client meets with the main accountant, and when the account is sold, the client is then passed off to a staff accountant who does the bookkeeping and possibly the tax returns under the watchful eye of the main accountant. That account is basically managed by the staff accountant, with the main accountant stepping in to assist when needed.
This sales model has been turned upside down in the last few years by accountants leaving their brick-and-mortar offices, obtaining a virtual office for an address, and spending time in one of the virtual office’s meeting rooms. Most work is now done at home.
Clients will get a virtual phone service that will ring to any phone programmed to it, and the illusion is that you are sitting in your office when that important client calls. They might think you’re in a suit, when you could very well be working at home in your PJs. If additional help is needed, then work is outsourced by companies that will handle most of the tasks of an accounting firm, either in the U.S. or offshore.
If you Google, “How to start an accounting practice,” you will get all kinds of tips on offices, staffing help, etc. You will also get tons of advice telling you to specialize in a certain industry and get clients that way. To advertise, you are told to mail letters, buy Google Ads, and nonsense like that. I even saw someone recommend a Yellow Pages Ad, as if this was 1985.
When was the last time you looked at the Yellow Pages?
To add to this madness, we are inundated with ads for programs that guarantee we’ll make $35,000 in billing per month, even during the offseason.
These Google searches on starting an accounting practice are dated with the articles being best suited for the late 1990s. Not to mention buying this person’s program to success, and that person’s program to success. If these people were so successful, they wouldn’t have the time or desire to tell you their “secrets of success.”
In my career, I have done pretty much everything within the norm to attract clients, position myself as an expert of this or that, and I’ve made several mistakes. I realize that accounting is a very conservative industry, but all I am asking you to do is have an open mind.
Stop Mailing Letters
This is just a basic function. Think about yourself for a second. Everything that is important, outside of IRS letters, is electronic. My bills are electronically sent to me. Most bills are on autopay. At the office, our intern checks the mail and scans any IRS notices and emails them to me. At home I never check the mail because it is just junk.
I would venture to say that 80 percent of people are the same way. Letters are expensive, even postcards are pricy. As an aside, a good response rate from a mailer is 1 percent. If you send 1,000 letters and you get ten responses, that is considered good.
I am very blessed. I went into business with my wife, and she handles most of the marketing, which boils down to a website and heavy search engine optimization (SEO). We don’t buy Google Ads or Facebook Ads. Instead we rely heavily on Google searches, and she is a pro at getting my name listed first. I’m not telling you to pay large sums of money to someone to create a website or to do SEO. A lot of this you can do for yourself in the beginning.
In short, with marketing, think of what you respond to and use the same tactics.
I specialize in taxation. That doesn’t mean that I only receive income during tax time. I diversified my knowledge base and earn income all year long, not just at tax time.
When I was a partner, I had all of these ideas that I wanted to implement. They were all shot down by my partners. When I went on my own I decided to learn all that I could about what I was interested in. I got my master’s in taxation, became a Certified Estate Planner and also a Certified Tax Resolution Specialist. I learned that I liked to take complex tax situations and solve them. The Internal Revenue Code is so vast, that I homed in on a few things. I studied every single morning. In fact, I still study in the mornings for a couple of hours learning about all the new tax laws, Tax Court Cases, etc. Just because I am not using it today doesn’t mean that I won’t need the knowledge tomorrow.
When I see an under-serviced industry that interests me, I immerse myself in it and learn all there is to know about it so that I can become indispensable to my clients. I told my oldest son, who is interning with us, that it isn’t the number of zeroes behind your check, it is when you become indispensable to your clients that matter. When that happens, you can pretty much charge what you want.
In short, don’t be pigeonholed by what you are “supposed” to do, and do what you want to do, have fun with it.
A Word About Virtual Offices and Outsourcing
I was fired from the partnership that I worked for in the middle of tax season. I was tasked with creating a new office for myself. Without missing a beat, I set up a virtual office where I could use a service’s address and receive a set number of hours to use the office meeting rooms. I saw my clients at the office and worked from home.
In the beginning, I did all the work myself. Then eventually, I had to outsource bookkeeping. What I came to realize was that the bookkeeping I was doing was subpar and I spent more time fixing things than the time I saved from having someone else do the work. I did this for a year, and we grew so fast, I determined we needed an office, and I needed my staff in-house.
I meet with all of the clients myself. My staff accountants do what I call the grunt work. I am the only one who has contact with the clients, and I do all of the entity structuring, tax planning, tax returns, and anything else.
The only people who are allowed to contact my clients are my intern, which is my oldest son, my wife, and I, and I do this for several reasons. The first is that clients want to have a personal relationship with you, and if they are forging a personal relationship with your staff accountants, what would be stopping your employees from stealing your clients? The other reason is because I want to be the person my clients come to for answers.
Set Yourself Apart
There are a ton of accountants out there. In the free market, clients have choices. Why should someone pick you over anyone else in the business?
For me, I do a lot of writing for different publications. That work has led to media requests, which then led to speaking engagements across the country. I tend to think differently about things, and my articles usually contain a unique angle on any given topic.
Most accounting firms are interested in compliance, but what drives me is the client’s tax situation. My sweet spot of clients involves those who have had an accountant in the past and have paid more money than they were supposed to in taxes.
This is where all of your studying comes into play. When I meet with a client I get the last three years of tax returns for their business and personal. I then meet with the client and ask specific questions. After the appointment, I send the client a tax analysis, tax advice and proposal for services. I am more expensive than most accountants, but the client figures that I am charging less than what I am saving them in taxes.
In closing, I would like to reiterate the point that the normal accounting sales model no longer works. You don’t need to spend thousands of dollars for someone to tell you what works. Not only that, you don’t need to turn the industry upside down, like I did.
Just stick to what you like, and go from there.
Craig W. Smalley, MST, EA, has been in practice since 1994. He has been admitted to practice before the IRS as an enrolled agent and has a master's in taxation. He is well-versed in US tax law and US Tax Court cases. He specializes in taxation, entity structuring and restructuring, corporations, partnerships, and individual taxation, as well as...