Referrals are a major source of new business for CPA firms, but they aren't the only way new clients find their next CPA. Finding out how clients found your firm can help you develop strategies to ensure your firm remains an attractive option.
Here's what CPAs need to know about what brings clients to firms and important factors in deciding to hire a firm.
Inquire how clients learned about the firm. The best way to determine how clients found your firm is to ask. You can learn valuable information, for example, by having firm members ask new clients how they heard about the firm when they come on board. Analyze that information to spot overall trends, as well as particular lines of business or types of clients, so you can then better focus networking or marketing efforts.
CPAs should be aware of the different sources of information used by prospects from different generations, according to Sarah Dobek, president and founder of Inovautus Consulting, a Boulder, Colo., firm that works with CPA firms on marketing and business strategies.
Baby Boomers generally prefer to ask friends or business contacts for referrals when seeking a CPA, while Millennials and Generation X prospects tend to rely on their social or digital networks, she said. Millennials and Gen Xers might post requests for recommendations on Facebook or LinkedIn. Younger potential clients spend time doing online research, including reading reviews for service providers, she said.
To reach the widest range of potential clients, firms should use alternative avenues such as social media for attracting prospects while continuing email newsletters or traditional mailings if they suit some of their intended client base.
Make a plan to reach prospective clients. A marketing plan should identify target clients, clarify who they are and what they are seeking, and pinpoint ways the firm can highlight its attributes in its marketing to attract those clients. "You can't speak to them if you don't know who they are," Dobek said. "All your marketing efforts should center around that."
To be most effective, the plan should examine which service areas have the highest profitability and consider which marketing efforts the firm's team members most enjoy and do most successfully, according to Bonnie Buol Ruszczyk of bbr companies in Atlanta, which does marketing consulting for professional service firms. This approach allows firms to shift their marketing efforts from reactive to proactive methods, she said.
When considering which keywords might bring clients to their website, Dobek recommends firms do research on the issues that are important to clients — the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) is one recent example — and update this information regularly. When attending events for practice development, choose events that will attract the people you want to meet, such as executives at businesses in a certain industry. Do encourage clients to spread the word about your firm, but focus on your best clients — the most profitable and pleasant to work with — in hopes they will help you meet similar prospects, she said.
Show clients what you know. When checking out your website, LinkedIn, or other social media, prospective clients are trying to gauge the level of professionalism as well as the experience of the people they would be working with. "The bio pages are typically the most viewed page outside of the home page," said Ruszczyk.
The bio page should feature expertise, training, and years of practical experience. If the information runs long, summarize the details in concise bullet points, she advised. Use links to other areas on your site that offer more details on related services you offer or industries you serve. To make the information relatable, she recommended adding a mini case study on a recent successful project.
"This allows you to share your expertise in story form, which will resonate with readers on a much more personal level," she said.
Regular updates on LinkedIn and other social media platforms along with timely blog posts and news alerts can highlight your knowledge of changing tax, business, and financial trends.
Make your value clear. When Derrick Sandwick's family-owned construction and general engineering contractor company was looking for a CPA, he received a referral from a client. In choosing San Bernardino CPA Matthew Wilson, he appreciated the fact that Wilson stays current on taxes and regulations that affect his clients' businesses. "Matt calls us proactively to tell us about new legislation," Sandwick said.
Jerome Paige, a business consultant, wanted a CPA for his business and personal taxes. He got a referral to Robert Allen, CPA, from the accountant who handles his Washington, D.C., company's accounting. He liked Allen's clear expertise in current tax issues. Allen proactively keeps him up to date on new tax developments that will affect his business, for example.
"The value of a CPA who focuses on taxes is they are current with the implications of the tax laws. The value of a CPA who focuses on accounting is that they offer perspectives on how well my business is doing and the direction it should be headed," Paige said.
Make it personal. While clients care about competency, they are also seeking more than just a list of degrees and credentials. "They want to make a connection with someone they'll enjoy working with," Ruszczyk said.
She recommended including details on your firm website or social media profiles about your hobbies or other personal interests that will help prospects gain a closer connection with who you are as a person as well your identity as a professional. Glimpses into your life outside of work are particularly of interest to younger business owners, who are used to seeing friends' everyday activities in their social media feeds, she said.
"All things being equal, people will choose to work with someone they like or feel like they have a personal connection to," Ruszczyk said.
In writing bios for clients, she has learned about CPAs who have competed in the Olympics, hiked the entire Appalachian Trail, or played in interesting bands. Another client starting a new firm decided to share his interest in his hobby of "Scotch nosing" — the act of carefully smelling the whisky to help pick out nuances that would be missed through sipping alone — and received numerous invitations to meet over a glass of Scotch from people who ultimately became clients.
"It was that point of connection that appealed to them and made him stand out from the other CPAs they were considering," Ruszczyk said. On the other hand, avoid oversharing, including posting the names and ages of children.
Be the firm that listens to client needs. In initial client contacts, "don't get stuck talking about yourself or how long you've been in business," Dobek said. As the emphasis for many firms moves from compliance work to advisory services, the best approach is to learn about the client's pain points, then explain how your services can help address them, she said. Having this client-first approach can set you apart and show prospective clients what you would do for them.
That kind of attention was important to Sandwick. "He listens intently when we talk," he said of Wilson. Most entrepreneurs are used to making decisions on their own, he said, and are not seeking general advice on how to run a business. Instead, they want personalized insights on what's best for their company, Sandwick said.
Paige appreciates the accessibility of Allen, his tax CPA: "He's always been there when I needed him."
Following these best practices can help ensure that clients find your firm and decide that it's the one that can best meet their needs.
— Anita Dennis is a New Jersey-based freelance writer. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Chris Baysden, a JofA associate director, at Chris.Baysden@aicpa-cima.com.