How new CPAs can build a book of business

Building strong, genuine relationships is one of the best ways to drive business.
By Courtney L. Vien

Bryan Carpenter, CPA, CGMA, an audit manager for LevitZacks in San Diego, has developed a brand as the Craft Beer CPA to attract clients.
Bryan Carpenter, CPA, CGMA, an audit manager for LevitZacks in San Diego, has developed a brand as the Craft Beer CPA to attract clients. (Photo by Zach Cordner/AP Images)

Young CPAs at public accounting firms look forward to climbing the career ladder. But with career advancement often comes a daunting new responsibility: bringing in business.

At many firms, business development is essential to promotion, especially for CPAs who want to become partners. But bringing in new clients can seem like a strange new world to many young CPAs. After all, most accountants are trained to be technical experts first, managers second, and businesspeople third, and not all firms provide training in business development.

Creating a book of business can be less intimidating than new CPAs realize, however. At its core, business development is all about building relationships and demonstrating expertise—skills that can be acquired with time and practice.

What's more, younger CPAs have a secret weapon when it comes to business development: their affinity for technology. Many Millennial CPAs combine traditional methods of business development—in-person networking and referrals—with newer ones that rely on branding, content marketing, and social media.

Bryan Carpenter, CPA, CGMA, is a case in point. An avid home brewer who works as an audit manager for LevitZacks, a firm located in the craft beer hub of San Diego, Carpenter has developed a brand as the Craft Beer CPA. He created a logo and slogan for himself ("Expanding your palate to include the bottom line") and promotes his expertise on Instagram, LinkedIn, and Twitter. But he has also established an in-person presence in his niche by taking classes in the business of craft beer at San Diego State University and serving as treasurer of the San Diego Brewers Guild. And he has recently become vice president of the San Diego chapter of the California Society of CPAs.

"My approach is planting the seeds—setting myself up for the future," he said. "You never know who you'll meet and where they'll be within five to 10 years."

NETWORKING DOESN'T HAVE TO FEEL FORCED

Some young CPAs are wary of networking because they view it as artificial and forced, even manipulative. In reality, though, seasoned CPAs say, taking a coldly businesslike approach to networking isn't effective. Good networking is about building genuine relationships.

That's something Caleb Bullock, CPA, CGMA, learned when he brought in his first client. He became friends with a banker he met while serving on the board of a young professionals group. Later, he got a call from the CFO of a local sports team who said the team needed a CPA firm and wanted to talk. The CFO had gotten Bullock's name from the banker.

"If, the first time I had met this banker, I had given him my business card and asked what clients he'd refer, if I'd done something more aggressive, we'd never have this client," said Bullock, a business development manager at Somerset CPAs in Indianapolis. "We would have had a relationship totally predicated on driving business and not getting to know one another."

In fact, Bullock said that he typically goes into networking settings "without the expectation of bringing in business." His goal is simply to meet people and see what develops from there—a mindset that has the added benefit of taking the pressure off him.

Don't feel that you have to be someone you're not when you're networking, said Kari Hipsak, CPA, CGMA, manager—Firm Services with the AICPA, who previously was an audit senior associate with Anchin, Block & Anchin in New York City. "Present yourself in a way that reflects who you are," she said. "People notice when you're authentic. They will have a connection with you just because they can tell you're real."

Caleb Bullock, CPA, CGMA, a business development manager at Somerset CPAs in Indianapolis, says good networking is about building genuine relationships.
Caleb Bullock, CPA, CGMA, a business development manager at Somerset CPAs in Indianapolis, says good networking is about building genuine relationships. (Photo by AJ Mast/AP Images)


CHARACTER AND COMPETENCE: THE 2 MUST-HAVES

While getting to know contacts, be sure to showcase two things: your "character and competence," said Lynne Waymon, CEO and co-founder of international training and consulting firm Contacts Count LLC. You demonstrate character by being courteous, keeping your promises, and "showing people you like them," she said.

Another way to show character is to do something to help your contacts. "Identify the needs of the people you're networking with, and connect them with other people who can help them," Carpenter said. "People will remember you as a connector."

You can establish your competence by telling brief stories about your accomplishments or the way you solved problems for your clients, said Waymon, who is also the co-author of the book Strategic Connections: The New Face of Networking in a Collaborative World. Another way is to prove that you're well-informed. Come to networking events prepared with subjects to talk about. Hipsak, who focused on the food and beverage industry when she worked for Anchin, Block & Anchin, said she would read up on food trends before events and brainstorm hot topics to discuss with vendors, such as why gluten-free foods have become popular.

Brian Nuzio, CPA, a senior manager at Friedman LLP in New York City, recommended using Google Alerts to stay informed. "You can set up a Google Alert for a topic related to your niche area," he said. "And you'll get a notification on your phone when Google finds new content on that topic."

You can also demonstrate competence by "showing that you're constantly improving yourself," Waymon said. Tell contacts about a course you took recently, or share a book or article you read that aligns with their interests.

At some point during your relationship with contacts, however, you are going to need to ask them for their business. Making that pitch can be intimidating—but laying the proper groundwork can help. "You go 90% of the way by building a relationship and getting to know their business," Bullock said.

It can help to rehearse what you're going to say and to couch your "pitch" in terms of how you can help the other party solve problems. "I say something like, 'You have needs. I think we can help you out. We know your company really well. Can we put in a proposal?' " Bullock said.

WHICH GROUPS SHOULD YOU JOIN?

It's easier to build relationships with people you see regularly, which is why joining groups can be a key part of your networking strategy. Waymon recommended becoming a member of three groups (if time permits): a broad-based professional group such as your state CPA society or a chamber of commerce; a professional group that serves the same niche you're targeting; and an alumni group.

"All those people from your school who didn't become CPAs became something else," Waymon said. "Once you've been out of school for four to seven years, they'll likely have reached a point in their careers where they can hire you."

Bullock recommended that young CPAs join a young professionals group—even if it's one that's not accounting-related, like a young attorneys group. Often, he said, "you'll be the only CPA there," increasing your chances of making connections and getting referrals. Or you may choose to join a group that aligns with your interests outside of work, as Carpenter did by becoming part of a brewers guild.

And don't overlook other CPAs as referral sources. Andy Alves, CPA, a senior tax manager at Frank, Rimerman + Co. in San José, Calif., said his firm has relationships with CPAs who serve clients in industries his firm doesn't cover. "We give some work to other CPAs who would be a better fit and vice versa," he said.

You can even "network" within your own firm if it's large enough. Reach out to different areas of your firm, and exchange ideas for prospects. (See the sidebar, "Tips for Networking Events," for practical ways to feel comfortable and make the most of opportunities.)

YOU'RE NEVER TOO NEW TO NETWORK

Perhaps you've been licensed for only a couple of years, and your firm doesn't expect you to start bringing in business until your next promotion. Is it safe to put off networking for a while?

That's generally not the best move. You can still start building connections that will pay off later in your career when you are ready to develop a book of business. Also, if you're younger, chances are many of the professionals you meet will be around your age. In several years' time, they will likely have advanced in their careers and will be at the point where they need your service.

"You can't think of networking as something with a short-term return," said Carpenter, who said he's just now getting referrals from people he first met three or four years ago. "It's great to see people thinking of me when they identify opportunities."

NETWORKING THROUGH SOCIAL MEDIA AND CONTENT MARKETING

Though there's no substitute for in-person networking, many CPAs have found success by networking through social media. In fact, companies that emphasize online marketing may have an edge over those that don't, said Lee Frederiksen, managing partner of professional services branding and marketing firm Hinge. "What the research shows is that firms that grow the fastest place less emphasis on traditional marketing techniques like referral marketing, and more on online techniques like blogging and social media," he said.

Social media and content marketing—using content you've created such as blog posts, articles, videos, and speeches to raise your profile—can be a way of getting leads from people you've never even met, Frederiksen said. "Many people who are not your clients can learn about you and your expertise through speaking engagements, blog posts and articles, and social media," he said.

Blogging, Frederiksen said, can be an excellent way to demonstrate your expertise—as long as you follow a few guidelines. Keep your audience's needs foremost in mind, he said. "You're better off writing about the business challenges your clients face rather than technical accounting issues," he said. "The thing that helps you get clients is to make something complicated simpler to them."

Also, be sure to promote any content you create over social media, he said, and use search engine optimization to increase the chances it will be seen. Make sure you have management's approval before you blog or start a social media account that is tied to your professional activities.

Using social networks can be another way of establishing your credibility. Bullock follows both his clients and accounting thought leaders on Twitter. That way, if contacts click on his Twitter feed, they see a wealth of accounting content. "It also helps my credibility if I see something interesting from, say, the Journal of Accountancy and retweet it, and my contacts see it," Bullock said.

But even posting nontechnical content can help you connect with your contacts. Carpenter posts an inspirational quote to LinkedIn and Twitter every day. He said he has been surprised by how many people mention the quotes at networking events. "They'll tell me, 'I really appreciate seeing your quotes,' " he said.

The quotes are more than just a nice gesture, though. "If they log in and see my quote every day, I'll be in the forefront of their mind," Carpenter said. "That increases the possibility that my name will come up when they need a CPA."

The time is ripe for CPAs to use social media, Carpenter said. "Online presence and social media are only going to become more and more ingrained in our lives, especially as the Millennials are taking the helm," he said. "It's important to start now while it's still the Wild West. When it becomes standard practice, starting from scratch will be more difficult."

BUSINESS DEVELOPMENT: WHERE WORK AND LIFE COLLIDE

Business development can seem intimidating at first. But, as Carpenter, Bullock, and many other young CPAs have discovered, it can be a way to bring your work and your outside interests together.

Many Millennials like the thought of combining work and play. It can even incorporate the things you do for fun: joining groups of people who share your interests, having good conversations, reading on topics you're passionate about, sharing your thoughts on social media, and, yes, even enjoying a bottle of craft beer. (Carpenter sometimes meets with potential clients at a local brewery.)

What's more, the relationships you build through these shared interests will likely be stronger than those predicated on business alone—which, counterintuitive as it may sound, will help you bring in more business.


Tips for networking events

Come prepared. Before a networking event, "be prepared to be spontaneous," said Lynne Waymon, CEO and co-founder of Contacts Count LLC. Think of questions to ask others and topics of conversation. Caleb Bullock, CPA, CGMA, prepares for events by studying up on hot topics. "If I mention I read an article on something, nine times out of 10 people will start talking about it," he said. That works even for areas you're not an expert in, Bullock said—for example, he reads about recent legal cases before attending young attorneys events.

Know who's who. When possible, obtain a list of invitees and review their names before the event starts, Waymon suggested. Checking out their LinkedIn pages is also helpful.

Quell anxiety. Paying too much attention to yourself and what you're feeling can make you more anxious, Waymon said. Instead, she said, "focus on making other people comfortable. Introduce people to one another." Another way to calm your nerves, she said, is to find a role for yourself. "Get there early. Put out name tags, find more chairs, hang up signs," she said. "Helping to make the event a success puts your attention on what others need. That shows people how you'd behave as their CPA."

Hide your phone. Turn your phone off and put it away, Waymon said. "Even having the phone on the table is a signal that you'd answer it if you could," she said, which leads other people to think they don't have your full attention.

Don't let a faux pas throw you. If you make a small mistake, like calling someone by the wrong name, fix it, Waymon said. "Don't try to avoid the person afterwards," she said. Instead, "have more contact with them! Pretty soon the mistake will fade into the background."

Fake it till you make it. Not confident? Pretend you are anyway, Waymon said. She recalls one trick she learned from a client who played in a band: He imagined his favorite song was playing as he entered the room. This made him walk taller and feel more comfortable than he really was.


About the author

Courtney L. Vien is a JofA associate editor. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact her at cvien@aicpa.org or 919-402-4125.


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