By Lee W. Frederiksen
Accountants are accustomed to educating clients on a wide range of financial issues. But when it comes to expanding your business, it’s time to let consumers be the teachers. Here at Hinge, we think it’s important to listen to consumers. How do buyers choose accounting firms? What makes them come back for more services? To answer these questions, we conducted a major study of buying behavior for our new book, Inside the Buyer’s Brain. In the process, we learned some critical lessons that go to the root of growing an accounting firm. Here are two of the most important:
1. Specialization and knowing your clients
As we compiled our data for the book, we observed a large perception gap between buyers and sellers of professional services. In the chart below, you’ll notice that buyers list an array of different challenges. What’s consistent, though, is the pattern of sellers misunderstanding buyers’ challenges. In fact, in all categories except technology, sellers badly underestimated buyers’ most important business challenges.
This is a critical divide. If sellers do not understand the extent and nature of their clients’ business challenges it will be hard for them to communicate their value, show how their services can help, or adjust their services—if necessary—to better align with client need.
The next survey question asked buyers and sellers to rate the importance of the seller’s services to solving the buyer’s challenges. The chart below shows the results for the accounting industry.
The good news is that here, the gap between buyer and seller is fairly small. But the bad news is that only 18 percent of accounting and finance buyers believe their vendors are doing a great job helping them solve business challenges.
The takeaway from these two charts is that accounting firms consistently underestimate their clients’ business needs, and their clients do not understand how firms’ services will help solve those challenges. What can be done?
First, realize that it’s impossible to be everything to everyone. Firms that spread themselves too thin by offering a wide spectrum of services often end up not serving anyone well. And it’s much harder to get noticed. If you specialize in one area, or focus on a handful of services that you perform very well, it is easier to differentiate yourself from the crowd and create strong messaging. So step one is to do a better job of specializing by focusing your efforts on your area of expertise.
Second, choose a target audience that fits your specialization. The sharper your focus, the more likely you are to understand your clients’ challenges, and the more resources you will have to commit to them.
Third, conduct systematic research on your target client group. This will allow you to offer more relevant services based on a better understanding of client needs and perceptions.
And fourth, do a better job of communicating how your services address key organizational challenges. This approach is most helpful when your service has a greater impact than your client appreciates.
- 2. Increase your visibility
When it comes to attracting new business, there is a common problem shared by accounting firms and other professional services companies. While many firms offer quality services that tend to bring back repeat clients, they are not well known outside their circle of clients. The chart below illustrates this problem: while nearly 60 percent of all buyers gave their vendors high marks for reputation, only about 23 percent of buyers thought that their vendors were well known.
It turns out that a great reputation does not, on its own, translate into high marketplace visibility. We call this problem the visibility gap. To accelerate growth, firms must figure out how to narrow the gap between reputation and marketplace visibility. One of the most effective ways is through content marketing.
Content marketing is a strategy that revolves around producing a steady stream of valuable information that is free and accessible your target audience. Ideally, this content should include a mixture of shorter pieces—blog posts, guides, video clips, and reports—and longer pieces—white papers, webinars, and ebooks. Accounting firms can take advantage of content marketing by providing easy-to-understand updates on accounting practices, regulations, and best practices to keep clients’ businesses running smoothly.
How does content marketing work to attract new business? The strategy has a number of advantages. Content marketing:
- Attracts highly qualified leads, as only buyers interested in your specific area of expertise will consume your content
- Continues to engage your audience, as they return to read more of your content and become more educated
- Positions you as an expert, building your credibility and authority on a certain subject
- Reaches more prospects, as your content is available on your website 24/7, in any location
All of these benefits serve to increase both your visibility and your reputation. If you commit to the practice of content marketing, over time you will build up an audience of highly qualified prospects. When these prospects need help in your area of expertise, they will call you first.
Don’t get caught on a one-way street
For accountants, the day-to-day work of providing quality services makes it far too easy to get stuck on a one-way street—constant output with little-to-no feedback. But ignoring your consumer is a costly mistake. The most successful firms are those that cultivate flow going in both directions—from vendor to consumer, and vice-versa. Examining client needs and realigning both your services and your message accordingly will position your firm for efficiency, growth, and profitability.
About the Author: Lee W. Frederiksen, Ph.D., is Managing Partner at Hinge, a marketing firm that specializes in branding and marketing for professional services. Hinge is a leader in rebranding firms to help them grow faster and maximize value. Lee can be reached at LFrederiksen@hingemarketing.com or 703-391-8870.