|BRIAN M. FALONY is director of marketing services for Associated Regional Accounting Firms, Lawrenceville, Georgia.|
T he partners in Bills CPA firm wanted to boost their earnings by developing several industry niches over five years. Their client base included 22 construction clients, 14 of which were Bills. Several construction companies were located in the firms market area and most were doing fairly well. The firms decision seemed easy enoughit would develop its first niche marketing program in the construction business, building on its existing client base and Bills industry knowledge. The firm then would pursue other niches based on its experience with the construction industry. Bill was asked to develop the business plan.
Bill was concerned about his assignment because the firm recently had lost two construction clients to a local competitor with a strong reputation in the construction industryand furthermore, the firm had not won a new construction client in two years. But he had a plan.
To make himself better known in the industry, Bill joined the local chapter of the construction trade association and became its treasurer. Meanwhile, the firm developed a database of construction client prospects and added their names to a mailing list to receive the firms quarterly construction newsletter. Bill told prospects and area bonding agentswho finance construction projectsthat his firm was looking to expand its services to contractors. He published an article on multistate taxation and organized two seminars for bonding agents and construction company owners.
After two years, however, the firm did not see a major increase in its construction client base: The number of proposals had risen by approximately 40%, but Bill was able to add only five new construction clientsand the firm continued to lose bids and clients to the competition.
Bill had never been able to convince the industry that he was the niche championthe one go-to guy for construction companies in his market areabecause he had not successfully unseated the competition from that position. Being the go-to person is the key to success when you decide to concentrate your services on a special area of practice or a specific industry. Having a great deal of knowledge and experience in a niche certainly can help, but its not enough if you want to make that niche your bread and butter. You need clients to consider you the one and only most knowledgeable expert in the field.
BECOMING FAMOUS FOR YOUR EXPERTISE
The road to such stardom is not easy. To start off, you need a broad knowledge of the industrynot just the technical compliance-related detailsto help you communicate with industry decision makers. You need to talk their talk.
|THE "GO-TO" PERSON CHECKLIST|
Here are some questions to consider before you try to become a go-to person in a niche.
Do I find the niche fascinating?
Do I really want to become well-known for my expertise in the niche?
Do I want to work full-time in the niche?
Am I willing to bet my career on the successful development of the niche?
Is the market big enough to keep me busy full-time?
Is there currently a go-to person or firm in the market? What is its unique selling proposition?
Can I differentiate myself from my competition?
Can I displace the competition?
How can I get information about my services out to the market?
If you want to succeed as a go-to person you have to develop industry-specific knowledge. Long-term on-the-job training may be all you need for certain industries; however, additional certification is always a plus. For example, if you are working with manufacturers, you may want to become certified in production and inventory management (CPIM) through the American Production and Inventory Control Society (APICS). Industry trade associations are a good source of information on what certifications are best. For service niches, additional certifications are a must. If you plan to help clients prepare for retirement, you should consider earning a personal financial specialist designation. Litigation support providers often become certified fraud examiners. There are many ways to build credentials for information technology niches. For example, you can get training and earn certificates for general network installation knowledge as well as for the knowledge of certain brands of software. The AICPA licenses members with the proper education and training to perform WebTrust engagements. Always look at what certificates your competition is touting.
RESEARCH YOUR INDUSTRY NICHE
To expand your niche practice, focus on an industry in which you already have a concentration of clients. Leverage your existing client relationships by
- Meeting with clients to identify what more you must know about their needs. Pay heed to all your clients concerns.
- Looking for concerns clients share in order to develop services that address common problems.
- Finding out the services other firms provide so you can provide them as well.
Are you alone? Find out if there already is a go-to person or firm in the area which is making it difficult to win more business. In our case study, this was Bills biggest problem. While it can be difficult to displace an existing famous person, it can be doneespecially if the incumbent is resting on his or her laurels. The key is to make yourself more visible by providing better information and more services to the industry.
Search out the decision makers. When deciding who you should market to, concentrate on the people who actually purchase the services or products you have to sell, but dont discount people with significant influence who are not the key decision makers. For example, in the construction industry, the primary market is the construction company owners themselves. However, a secondary marketand one not to be ignoredis the bonding agent community.
Find good networking venues. Determine whether there is an industry trade association and if it has a local chapter in your market area. Become active in the association either at the national or local level. Get on the board of directors or on committees. Dont do what Bill did and simply become the treasurerthe typical accountants roleunless there is absolutely no way to avoid it. Think big; think president.
Do You Have What It Takes?
A passion for the business. A niche leader finds the work (either in a particular industry or a service area) both fascinating and fun because it offers intellectual stimulation and the opportunity to grow.
A desire to become a famous person. A person passionate about a particular service or industry might still not be viewed as the go-to person. Niche leaders need to actively seek out opportunities to become known for their expertise. (This is not an area for those who want to avoid the spotlight.)
Devotion to the niche. A go-to person is the one people turn to for answers to complex or difficult business problems in the niche area. As a leader you must be willing to devote the time required to become a specialist; that means realigning your existing client base so you can spend most of your time in an industry or service niche.
An entrepreneurial attitude. Building a successful niche is not for the faint of heart. A niche leader, in essence, takes the same risks an entrepreneur takes to build a new business. As with any entrepreneur, niche leaders also need the marketing and sales skills that allow them to successfully close business. If you dont like selling and other high-risk activities, developing a niche is not for you.
If the association has a speakers list, get on it. Develop one or two programs you can present annually. Provide plenty of information to association members on how they can improve their businesses. Write a regular column for the association newsletter and, above all, network like mad at association meetings. Also, submit articles to trade publications that focus on the industry.
Attend industry trade shows with a well-thought-out strategy on networking with prospective clients. Become a regular speaker on the program. Know who will be attending by calling early for a registrants list. Set goals for how many contacts you will make, and assign special roles for the staff who are attending with you. Even consider setting up an exhibit booth to showcase your firms capabilities. Most important, follow upby letter, phone call or personal visitwith all of your contacts within two weeks of meeting them.
Create a bulletin, newsletter or periodic update letter to use as a mailer or handout at events. You can write your own newsletter or purchase an industry-focused newsletter and write a cover letter dealing with an issue pertinent to your market.
Once you really know the industry and are providing value-added services to clients in the niche, dont be afraid to let them know you are looking to expand your client base. Be up-front about it. Let clients know that the more time you spend serving others in their niche, the better youll be at doing their type of work. Often clients just assume youre not looking for more business and so dont bother passing on referrals. Tell them a good referral is always welcome.
GOING AFTER SERVICE NICHES
Some firms choose to specialize by service area, including traditional services (such as tax and audit) and nontraditional services (such as computer consulting or pension plan administration). The approach to becoming a go-to person or firm in a service area is different from that in an industrythe number of potential clients usually is much larger but there are fewer communications channels that reach the target market.
Zero in on your target market. Referrals can build a practice. Start with your own partners who can refer business from their clients. Spend time educating your partners not only on the benefits of your service but also on how to recognize the opportunities to bring you in for a proposal. Once you have served a client, make sure to let him or her know you would like a referral if the client knows of other people who may need your services. Write articles in your firms client newsletter about the solutions your services provide.
Develop relationships with other regional accounting firms in your area that do not provide this service. At first they may think youre trying to steal their clients, but once you explain the benefits of an alliance and are willing to refer your own clients to them for specialty services, you have created a winwin situation.
Read all about it! Many firms find advertising in local newspapers and other publications an effective way to develop a go-to image. The key to advertising is repeating a strong message thats of interest to readers over a long period of time. If you decide to travel the advertising route, dont be afraid to engage a professional ad agency and follow its direction.
Do-it-yourself seminars. Because your target market for a service is much larger than for an industry, try to work with other service providers in your area, such as lawyers, bankers or doctors, to develop a multitopic seminar targeted to a special group, such as small business owners. This will allow you to get in front of more prospects and also to share your marketing costs with the other professionals.
Seminars can also become part of your service delivery strategy, and help to differentiate your firm from the competition. For example, a firm providing pension plan administration services can conduct retirement planning seminars for its clients employees as part of the total service package.
ON THE INSIDE
Of course, you cant always be the go-to person for every industry or service area. If your firm wants to expand to two or more niches, you will have to find an enthusiastic leader who considers developing a niche an exciting challenge. You cant simply assign this role. Successful go-to persons usually volunteer for the assignment and often are instrumental in selling their fellow partners on developing the niche. Without a passion for the business, the niche leader may be easily distracted by other issues within the firm and not devote full time and energy to developing the area.
To support a new niche leader, consider transferring all his or her nonniche clients to other partners in the firm. This full-time focus will do three things:
- Free up the leaders time to concentrate on marketing and business development.
- Pressure the leader to get new clients since he or she will have to replace the revenue lost through the client transfer.
- Position the leader to become a true specialist in his or her area of expertise.
If there is not enough potential business to keep at least one person busy full-time, its not the right niche for your firm. As the niche grows, assign other staff to it full-time as well. This will allow the firm to develop additional experts, provide younger staff with exciting career opportunities and help staff retention.
MONITOR YOUR SUCCESS
Although you may not realize an actual return on your investment for two or more years, it still is important to carefully monitor your success rate. Set interim goals for the number of new clients, revenues and profitability. If you see that you are not meeting your goals, you may need to change your marketing strategy. You may even have to reevaluate your firms commitment to the niche if you miss your goals consistently.
Periodically examine the health of the niche you have targeted. For example, new products or discoveries can render an industry or service obsolete. Do your homework and your niche development likely will provide your firm with long-term growth and profitability.