Thursday, April 15, 2010

Want Some Effective Marketing Ideas For After 4/15?

My last post was an explanation of the simple but highly effective 3M “stickie” marketing technique you can use to leverage off your tax season efforts. This is a form of personal marketing that studies and personal experience have affirmed is the most effective way to “sell” personal services, i.e. those of accountants, lawyers, engineering firms, architects, etc.

We’ve examined personal marketing techniques, i.e. how you actually go about converting your prospect into a client, many times throughout the life of this blog and the topic is covered in detail in my CPA Practice Builder manual, so we’re not going to get into conversion techniques now.

Today’s blog is about addressing the question of how do you meet the prospects in the first place?

Personally involving yourself in marketing does require you to carve out the time to engage prospects. That typically means you select a few activities that will give you access to a population of desirable potential clients.

When thinking about which activities/organizations to get involved with, first pause and consider the competitive landscape. For example, a well-established hypothetical group with the name, “Greater Dallas Business Owner’s Association,” would be a magnate for lawyers, accountants, consultants and related service providers wishing to join.

This leads to the observation that there are some organizations that are such obvious business development opportunities that their membership is skewed by the number of ancillary networkers wishing to fish in that particular pool. This is a challenging scenario for even the most skilled anglers. As someone relatively inexperienced with personal marketing, is this an environment that lends itself to your success?

If experience is any guide, the most effective approach is to mix your choices up a bit so that you include some mainstream choices (Elks, Merchant’s Associations, Rotary, et al) with others that are less traditional.

As the first example, let’s assume your practice focuses upon small to medium businesses. Go ahead and join one or two local service clubs. Pick those whose mission you believe in … sure, you want to create opportunities for yourself but it is always good to give something back and be a positive force in the community.

Now, how about something a bit more creative. Two examples jump into mind. The first one from an accountant in Pennsylvania who describes herself as a “fanatic” about keeping her practice’s costs under control. Her office is in a large complex of small businesses, both retail and service. In 2006 she went around to all the local businesses and promoted a mutual or joint purchase group to pool their buying power and thereby obtain paper, toner, office equipment, etc. at lower prices. She would, she told them, cut a good deal with a local supplier and they’d all save. Because she was an accountant, she wound up becoming the coordinator of the control process. A few people signed up and the program limped along for a couple years … successful in saving the members money, but in a minor way.

Then the present recession hit and many more of the local merchants joined. She quietly demonstrated her competence and built trust by handling the details and without really any specific intent on her part began to acquire more and more of the businesses as clients (Blogger’s note: personal marketing without even trying!). Contrary to the gloomy national experience, she estimates that her practice has grown more than 30% in the past two years, virtually all of the growth attributable to members and referrals she’s received from them.

The second example is a CPA whose sister owned an independent (non-chain or franchise) restaurant. He handled the accounting needs for her and a couple of her friends who also owned diners. He became conversant with their issues and wondered how he could attract business from other, similar owners. There was no association, club or group, so instead he created a highly focused newsletter that addressed specifically their relevant tax and financial issues. He wrote his first newsletter and sent it out to about 30 local eateries. Each three months thereafter he sent another, and the list began growing. After the second and third issues he began getting calls. A year and a half later he obtained 9 new clients, and he’s getting one more approximately every month. [NOTE: this example has been an inspiration to me to create the same sort of focused newsletter for my clients. We’re just getting this going and once we have some results I’ll report back to you. This may turn out to be a low cost form of effective personal marketing that works for everyone.]

Does your practice focus upon high wealth individuals and estate planning? An obvious choice is the local symphony support organization. As a group they’ll generally be older and reasonably affluent. Sounds like a perfect opportunity. Want something less obvious … how about the CPA who suggested his mother join her country club’s “women’s investment group?” When they had a capital gains question, he attended a luncheon meeting, was as charming as he could be, answered their inquiries and became the de facto “go to” technical source for the group. Within a year he was handling the accounting service requirements for virtually all the ladies in the group. I’m told subsequent referrals led to a total of over 20 new and very high quality clients.

Do you have a high volume 1040-based practice? Another CPA is a gun fancier and enjoys target shooting. He joined a local gun club and from that met a lot of law enforcement personnel and firefighters. Both groups have steady work, decent incomes and tend to hang out with their “own.” Taking a further step to fit in, he then became an associate member in local police and firefighter groups. After some time he was fully accepted and eventually leveraged his presence within these two populations into dozens of new clients.

As you can see from the foregoing, there are no rules – the essence of your search is to determine the best ways to reach “your” type of prospects. Do these examples provide some inspiration for how you can create an effective personal marketing campaign of your own?

Saturday, April 3, 2010

A Modest Post-Tax Season Marketing Suggestion

I have extolled the virtues of personalized marketing on numerous prior posts. I define “personalized marketing” as an approach that is focused upon an individual prospect instead of, for example, a print ad in the Elks Club newsletter, a radio spot or post cards to a given zip code.

So, here’s a simple process with proven effectiveness that is both easy to do and very appropriate right after tax season. To set the scene – it’s just after April 15th you will have just been involved in prep work for dozens of client returns. Now that they are fresh in your mind, the first step is to think about which of these clients you could be doing more work for.

Are you doing a business return for someone but not their personal returns? How about the flip side: the owner of a business who only has you doing their personal returns? Or, the client who has the temp help business, but you don’t do any work at all for his wife who is a doctor with a thriving medical group just down the street? And maybe you’re doing the returns for the owner of the local theater who is close to retirement … what are his plans for funding his retirement, etc.? Is he taking advantage of all the options available to set aside pre-tax money for later years? How might he minimize his tax exposure if he wants to get rid of the theater? The potential examples are endless.

There are a lot of billable hours hiding in the files of your present clients.

Your present clients are your easiest source of additive business. There’s an existing relationship; they like you, they have nothing but good will for you, they trust you and believe you are competent. There’s no reason why you shouldn’t be doing all their work.

The second step is a simple procedure. First, scan through your files and set aside all those that fall into the, “there might be more business in here” category. The third step is to grab the file on top of the pile, open it and look for some opportunity to, a) increase their income, b) cut their expenses/costs or, c) reduce tax liability.

Opportunities are everywhere. If they have a business it usually is not difficult to scan the numbers and pick up something, e.g. the client has a reasonable amount of AR but too much of it is 90+ days out, while at the same time he is experiencing a cash squeeze. Or, a client’s business is profitable but his bank line that was put in place years ago is now too small … maybe he’d better raise the limit while he still can. Or, a client mentioned she wanted to expand her warehouse and storage area … what’s the best way for her to do this? Lease? Purchase? Sublet? And, what about taking title … should she, for example, acquire it personally and then lease it to her business?

Another way to isolate issues is to look at one or more prior years and look for trends. Perhaps the pretax percentage has been declining, or certain cost categories have risen faster than expected.

If you are only preparing personal returns for a client the opportunities are fewer, but if a client mentions that they are looking into the possibility of starting a business, buying a franchise, selling a major asset, etc. there is certainly the suggestion that some planning or “what-if” projection would be in order.

Here’s the fourth step: You have selected a file (“Laura’s), found the a), b) or c) hot spot, and now, e.g. you make a copy of her Schedule C’s from TY 2008 and 2009 and put yellow highlight on lines 7 and 28. You then take a regular 3M stickie and hand write, “Laura, check out the highlighted lines. Your expenses have risen much faster than your revenue. I think you are leaving some money on the table. Let’s talk. Please give me a call.” And, you sign it with your first name. The fifth step is to tri-fold the two Schedule C’s with your stickie affixed so she sees it when she unfolds the envelope’s contents, and then mail it.

What’s her reaction when she sees what you’ve sent? First of all, the two copies are highlighted, so she knows immediately what to look at. She reads the stickie and has several conscious and unconscious impressions. They include noting the personal touch communicated by the handwritten note, that you have a personal interest in her situation, that you didn’t treat her like a number and instead noticed – and took the time – to put this together and write her, that you care about her success and welfare, that you have taken the time to make it simple for her to understand the issue, that your note conveys concern, that you are trying to help her, etc. etc. Even if Laura never calls you, she will retain all these positive impressions. If nothing else, the likelihood of her referring you to a prospective client is higher than it has ever been. As my son says, “It’s all good.”

My clients who have taken these steps report they get calls back from about half of the clients. Each one represents a marvelous business opportunity for more billable hours. Planning, project work (e.g. running what-if projections for the client contemplating acquiring more warehouse/storage space), advice, consulting are all on the table.

The percentage of responders you convert into additional work will be maximized if you meet with them personally, but if you have a strong relationship with the client you can do well on the telephone. The positive result isn’t just more short term billings. For example, it is axiomatic that the more different things you work on for a given client, the greater the probability they’ll remain loyal, less fee sensitive and stay with you long term. Another bonus is the more proactive you are for a client, the more apt they are to refer business to you.

Elliot told me that in 2008 he spent part of the Saturday following April 15th reviewing files and writing stickies. He put together 22 that afternoon; had 13 return calls and he converted 7 to project or consulting work.

Not bad for an afternoon’s work.