Thursday, July 30, 2009

Pressure To Lower Fees

Al, who has a practice in North Carolina, contacted me to ask about how he might deal with a local competitor who has begun promoting their practice by offering clients a, “… low, realistic price structure during difficult economic times.”

Sure enough, when Al checked it out he learned this individual has reduced his fee structure (when compared to average fees in the community) approximately 25%. You can guess how this came to Al’s attention: a client essentially told him that for cost savings of that magnitude he would switch to the other accountant unless Al matched the reduction.

Al is anticipating this may not be the first time this happens, so he wants to have a strategy in mind should the situation present itself. What should he do?

Like so many things, there are a lot of variables. How important is the client who is agitating for a discount? How much is the prospective reduction? How is your practice doing … can it afford to offer meaningful discounts for its services? Aside from profitability, how is the cash situation? How about AR? Are we talking short-term reduction or will the impact extend well into the future? And, are we considering discounts for all or just some clients?

In the short term, Al may, for example, simply ignore this one accountant’s potential negative impact to Al’s client base. If he loses a couple of smaller clients, so what? But, what if he is faced with a situation where other accountants in his trading area also begin lowering fees and the threat of losing existing clients as well as signing up new clients becomes meaningful. If Al’s cash flow and/or margins begin to falter, he may need to do take some steps in response. He could reduce costs (e.g. layoff staff), or lower his fees to some extent. Or both. Of course, if he has the balance sheet to pull it off, he may simply do nothing for the present and reassess the situation periodically as the year plays out.

Some long term considerations might include competitive positioning, i.e. is your practice a full service firm with a strong client list sitting on one of the top rungs of the local pecking order? Do you lose some of that status if you reduce fees or services? And, once you lower fees, no matter who your clients are, how difficult will it be to restore fees in the future to the present level?

Generally speaking, I believe an effective strategy might include these two major elements:

a) It isn’t an option to lose your “A” level clients. They contribute too much to your practice (revenue, profitability, quality referrals, potential for growth, etc.) and they are too hard to replace. If you are experiencing downward fee pressure, or sensing it is approaching, I recommend you immediately adopt a defensive strategy with these most desirable clients. Give them more attention and deepen the personal connection. Take them to lunch, a baseball game, or golfing. Thank them, inquire about their business and how things are going in today’s potentially difficult times, pass on some ideas, be helpful, stay in touch, and the like. You can forward a CCH article that is relevant to their business, warn them about a potential IRS ruling that may affect their operations, etc. The greater the level of personal involvement you have with these clients, the less likely it is they will leave because of fees.

Don’t unilaterally offer to reduce fees. Instead, increase the level of service and attention you provide these most desirable clients. A related defensive tactic might be to tell them that as an accommodation to your most important clients during this period of economic difficulty you are freezing their rates. If, at the end of the day, you are forced to make a significant reduction it is very helpful to have a strong personal relationship because you can then say, “Bill, I’m willing to provide this help for you because we’re in the boat together, but can we agree that when things turn around we can get back to where I can actually realize some margin for my efforts on your behalf?” If you and Bill have a reasonably good connection he should have no problem agreeing to this request and that permits you to raise the issue (and the fees) at a later time. I’ve even heard of a firm that has given a written offer of fee reduction for, say, six months; at which point the fees return to the present level. Both the partner and client sign the document to memorialize their agreement.

b) if you do make the decision to lower fees; do so selectively. Your clients don’t typically talk with one another, so if you reduce your fees for client A, it would be unusual for client B to know of it. I’d first consider reducing fees for your less desirable clients (“less desirable” being defined as those clients who are typically smaller, less profitable, provide fewer referrals, don’t offer much potential for future fee growth, require more hand holding, are slow pay, or any combination of these factors); ones that are perhaps more susceptible to being swayed by your competitor’s lower fee structure. And, they may be highly resistant to later efforts to return fees to earlier levels. The loss of these clients if their demands become excessive doesn’t, in the final analysis, negatively impact the long-term success of your practice.

I encourage your feedback on this issue. It may be on the table for many more months to come and if you have experience you think others might benefit from, please let me know.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Can Social Networking Help Build My Accounting Practice?

Facebook, MySpace, YouTube and Twitter are certainly hot right now. How hot? YouTube has almost twice as many page views as Google! If you have teens and twenties around you have probably seen them utilizing one or more of these networks to do, well, whatever it is they do.

If they aren’t familiar, let’s begin with a capsule description of each.

Facebook and MySpace are designed to make it fun and easy for people to keep in touch. They are direct competitors. You have a page dedicated to you and you can create a network of people who connect with you. The idea is you interact by sending and receiving messages, blogs, music, videos, photos, etc. with one or more members of the group.

YouTube is a video sharing website on which users can view, upload and share videos. The number of videos available is in the tens of millions. If you care about almost anything, you will find it there. Music? Entering “Elvis Presley” produces 15,900 videos! Or, something less known: Don McLean’s “American Pie” has 627 videos.

Twitter is a free social messaging utility for staying connected in real-time. Each message is limited to 140 characters, so each “tweet” is short (and hopefully sweet).

A lot of marketing gurus are trying various approaches designed to translate the popularity of these sites into a competitive advantage for their business clients.

How can you use social media to promote your practice? The nature of what accountants do for their clients falls into two basic categories. One is financial, accounting & tax documents. The other is advice, consulting and planning. The former is a “hard” deliverable and doesn’t lend itself to social media. Of course, you could use Twitter to tell a client their tax return is ready, but why? Just pick up the phone or email them.

Advice, consulting and planning requires precise communication. To obtain this you rely upon not just words, but body language, tone of voice, etc. to ensure both parties are really achieving an accurate mutual understanding. Again, I don’t believe this activity directly lends itself to social media.

However, there is an indirect use you might consider.

To explain – it is well accepted that professional service web sites (legal, accounting, engineering services, etc.) are more effective if they have a strong personal component. For example, in your bio you might consider not just the traditional “head shot” photo, but also one of you river rafting, holding a bunch of your prize roses, attending your daughter’s graduation from college, etc. These more personal photos help both present and prospective clients get a feeling for you as a person, not only a provider of accounting services. It enhances the connection by humanizing you.

Ditto in the write up accompanying your bio. You talk about your education, professional accomplishments and the like, but you also mention your love of raising Arabian horses, trip to Sturgis with your son on your Harleys, or other personal interests and experiences.

With this “personalizing” of your practice in mind, one thing you can do is create links to and from your web site to social media.

A recent post was about “branding” your practice and the example was a CPA in California who is in the process of becoming the go-to accountant in her area for all manner of green-related tax deductions, strategies, credits, etc. She will almost certainly use social media to try and augment the buzz she hopes to create with her new branding. Links to green groups, events and activities, announcing where and when she is giving a presentation, a green-related blog she will initiate, photos and/or video of a new green building one of her clients is building, etc. are all candidates for social media.

The bottom line is I think social media is most useful as a means to communicate within a given community or interest group. Your practice really doesn’t have those characteristics. However, as seen in the prior paragraph, you can use social media to attach your practice and its web site to a community or interest group you are part of. In the example above, that would be the “green” community.

Another example might be that you are a member of a “No Value Added Tax In America” advocacy group. Your loathing of this European tax mechanism won’t directly bring business to your practice, but it will raise your profile among those with similar beliefs and social media would be a great way to stay in touch with this group. Links would connect to and from your practice’s web site, blog, etc. and no doubt some members of the group will become your clients and/or source of referrals.

If you wish to learn more about these most modern of all communication mediums, Wikipedia has several entries that are current and succinct. See and enter Twitter, MySpace, etc. in the search box.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Website Blahs

Because my professional niche is helping accountants enhance their business development skills, inevitably some of what we talk about touches upon marketing. With the exception of a couple of a couple out-of-the-box marketing techniques I’ve touched upon in this blog, I believe the vast majority of practices can effectively utilize mainstream marketing methods to generate a suitable pool of prospects.

One of today’s marketing tools is a web site. And, most of the owners I’ve spoken with are not exactly thrilled with their web site. It is technology they don’t understand, it requires expensive outside help, it needs frequent updating when changes occur (e.g. personnel come and go), and the majority don’t think their site really adds anything positive to the practice. It’s there, the complaint goes, because everyone else has one, so we’d better have one too or appear to be not “with it.”

Like every other profession, the cream rises to the top, and there are web designers who really know how to construct an effective site. Seminars are held, papers published, interviews printed, etc. and from these some “best practices” have emerged. Here are three for you to consider.

1. Know what people are doing on your site. You can use site analytics (i.e. Google Analytics, Web Trends, Site Catalyst, Coremetrics) to find out what pages visitors look at, how long they stay, etc. What this does is tell you what they want to look at. You can then decide whether you wish to enhance these areas or stay with what you have. Measure the results from the ongoing changes and optimize your site over the following months. If you have a number of pages no one cares about, then get rid of them. You site designer can fix you up with one of these analytic sites in a matter of minutes, and there is little to no expense.

2. Keep it simple. Your site needs only to intrigue the visitor to the point where they contact you. Or, a prospect may look at your site to verify you are “real.” Yes, they will develop some opinions of you based upon your web site, so keep it simple, well done – even elegant, use mainstream colors (a site emphasizing various shades of bright orange is probably NOT a good choice), everyday neutral fonts such as Arial or Verdana, and leave some white on the pages, that is to say don’t make the content so dense that it becomes a sort of visual mush. Lower the barriers. Describe clearly how to contact everyone.

3. Personalize your site. It doesn’t need a big Wow! factor. Its purpose is to describe an accounting firm – who the people are and what they do. The most highly rated sites include a good bit of personal information. What this means in practical terms is that in addition to a photo of the partners and staff, there is an accompanying bio that touches upon education and professional accomplishments but really focuses upon humanizing the members of the firm. It might mention, for example, two sons currently attending University of Ohio, she shares the house with three cocker spaniels, husband owns a landscaping company, finished 5th in this year’s Founder’s 5K race, etc., etc. If it is suitable, an innovative option is to include a link to a video. One site’s bios included a statement that the individual was learning how to ski and that it was a slow process. The reader was invited to click a link and see how he was progressing. The humorous video showed him falling (several times) on his backside on the bunny hill. He later reported that almost every new client he obtained in the next year mentioned the video. To him, this was anecdotal evidence people were in fact looking at his firm’s site.

Regarding photos, you can opt for studio head shots, but consider something more intimate. For example, a photo showing you kneeling by an inflated child’s pool in the backyard with your daughter splashing away tells a much more compelling visual story about you than a mug shot.

An Easy Promotional Tool To Use With Your Site:

There is no cost to list your practice in Google Local. This is a passive, free, 24 hour a day addition to your marketing effort. For example, if you are located in Eugene, Oregon, there are 76 listings in the Yellow Pages for “accountant.” But, if you list your Eugene practice in Google Local, a search reveals you would be the 11th listing. So, you’ve scrubbed off 65 potential competitors, and it also shows your location on Eugene’s Google map.

If you open your Google Search box, type in “google local” and click enter. When the screen opens up, click “Local Business Center” to find out how you can register your practice. Amazingly enough, It is quite straightforward and manageable.

The listing can contain a link to your website, a brief description of your services, and you can include a picture if you wish.

Check it out in your area: go to Google. Click Maps, then type in, e.g. “accountant Newark, CA” or “accountant des moines, IA” and see if this is something that can raise your visibility.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Getting People To Say “Yes”

Accountants are often involved in situations where they are attempting to obtain agreement. Examples include negotiating terms, reaching compromises and a host of other instances where you, “as the keeper of the numbers,” are seeking to persuade one or more people to adopt/accept your (or your client’s) viewpoint.

We begin with the assumption that the negotiation isn’t a scorched earth situation. In other words, you’re hoping to obtain the “yes” without use of undue pressure and/or destruction of the relationship.

While experts will disagree about how to classify the basic elements, there is a generally agreed upon series of negotiating best practices if you are attempting to get others to say “yes.” What follows is a quick hit on each.

#1 – respond with your brain, not your emotions.

Just like business development, you need to be deliberate in your responses. Words once said are like toothpaste squeezed from a tube – impossible to take back. Emotionalism breeds emotionalism and you don’t want the discussions to be at the mercy of unfocused passions. If that occurs, you have lost control of the situation. Always respond with thought. Just like business development, you want to understand as quickly as possible what it is the other side really wants, because your negotiating approach will be structured around that reality.

If you find yourself strongly emotionally triggered, it is always OK to request a couple minutes to stretch and walk around, or for an opportunity to talk with your client privately or to take a bathroom break. Collect your thoughts and return to the table.

#2 – eliminate Us and Them

In a real negotiation the other side shouldn’t be your opponent, and it isn’t a war. If you treat it that way, they’ll feel your mindset and respond in kind. Instead, you’ll achieve better results if you can see the situation from the other side’s perspective. Instead of advancing your agenda and seeking to persuade them to your viewpoint, first look for those things you can say “yes” to. Where you can, agree with them, find common ground and build a consensus. To emphasize agreement, highly skilled negotiators eliminate the word “but” and replace it with “and.” There’s a limit to this, of course. The take away here is that many studies have made it clear that emphasizing what you can agree upon will disarm the other side, greatly reduce the typical adversarial nature of many negotiations, and foster an environment that will more frequently result in a successful agreement.

#3 – meet objections head on

The key here is to understand what the other side really wants and cares about. Once you understand this, you can anticipate their objections to your negotiating positions. The question then becomes how to resolve them. The wrong answer is to try and duck objections. The more clever negotiators focus upon reframing each potential objection by phrasing it as a mutual concern for both sides and then offering ideas for addressing the objection.

#4 – make the negotiation a win-win

To the extent you can, it is desirable to include the other side’s ideas into each of your proposed solutions. This evidences good faith, flatters them, brings the two sides closer together and fosters collaboration. At the bottom line, give them some ownership in reaching a successful conclusion to the negotiation.

Additionally, there are typically any number of less important things you can agree to as part of the give and take leading to the eventual deal that is agreed upon. Since the other side doesn’t really know how you value each of these, you have the power to influence their thinking. If you lead them to believe one or more of these is important to you, but you then – in the spirit of compromise – soften or even forego each “important” concern, it can lead to them pulling back on their demands.

Don’t give these up too quickly. The idea is give a little and get a little as you inch along toward an agreement.

# 5 – make it easy for the other side to say “yes”

This is a powerful closing tactic, but can be overdone. I recommend you tread lightly. It has been said that in a successful negotiation you bring the other side to its senses, not its knees.

The tactic is used after both sides have had the opportunity to explore their differences and isolate where the real issues are. You are at that point in the negotiation where the resolution – if it is going to happen – is starting to become apparent. You begin by starting to, a) propose your solution and then, part way through, you, b) shift gears and describe – in neutral terms – the problem (and its real or potential downside) that led you both to enter the current negotiations and then, c) continue and complete the description of your solution. In effect, by doing this you are highlighting both the cost of not reaching agreement and emphasizing the value to both parties of reaching an agreement.


Just like the best practices business development methods discussed in this blog, certain behaviors are especially valuable in conducting successful negotiations. The five elements briefly described above are among the most important.

An interesting publication that gets much further into these tactics is a book by William Ury titled “Getting Past No: Negotiating With Difficult People.” Check it out.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Can You Become A “Brand?”

In marketing-speak, the word “brand” can be defined as an identity that distinguishes one product from another. It can be a logo (think Apple Computers), a name (think IBM, Rolex or Coke), or other identifier (think of a FedEx envelope or a brown UPS truck). How about YOU as a brand?

What can you do to stand out against the noise? In other words, what can distinguish you from the other competing accountants in your trading area?

One of my clients is exploring how she can go “green.” Her idea is to become the go-to accountant in her area when the discussion turns to green practices and the potential tax implications. To do this she is going to explore the myriad of Federal, State (she’s in California) and local laws, regulations, rules and court interpretations that impact personal and business tax exposure.

Her basic promotional tool will be a high quality multi-color handout. The handout will summarize her findings in a graphic matrix organized by jurisdiction. It will be, in effect, a, “one or more of these factors could apply to your situation and are you anticipating the potential effect?” teaser. Her contact information will be prominently featured on the handout.

The marketing plan will focus upon two tactics. The first is to write a number of relatively brief (300 – 600 word) articles about the subject that will be suitable for local newspapers, accounting trade publications, web sites, meeting handouts, etc. The second is to look for public speaking opportunities. These can be with real estate, business, “green” organizations, investment groups, etc. The list is almost without limit.

How will she benefit from this exposure?

She will become recognized as a local expert. This can lead to media exposure - appearances on radio, television and interviews for various publications.

Her expertise will be valued by a population who not only desires her services; they can afford them.

Her efforts will frequently produce immediate results. In other words, if she speaks at a gathering of, for example, general contractors, she may have members of the audience request appointments as soon as her presentation is concluded. Or, if someone reads one of her articles, her contact information will appear adjacent to the article.

What she is doing is MUCH more persuasive and targeted than any form of typical commercial advertising and should be quite inexpensive. Designing and printing a thousand handouts isn’t very costly.

Finally, her efforts have spin-off possibilities. For example, the research, article preparation, presentation materials, etc. all have potential to be recycled into a book, online course, or an audio/video program she could sell to other accountants wishing to replicate her success in their area.

Is her “green” idea the only one? Absolutely not. Topics are only limited by your imagination and areas of interest. Scanning the articles in accounting-specific web sites, various trade journals and a host of other media will give you ideas about what’s hot and what’s not.

Pick a niche. Do your homework. Become an expert. Let everyone know you are that expert. Create opportunities to write and speak.

As stated so succinctly in the movie Field of Dreams, “Build it and they will come.”