Category: Accounting Practice Management

Lead Generation, Part 1: Your Foundation

by Ken Berry, CBI

It’s time I developed the next portion of a blog I posted back on January 21st.  The blog, Three Keys to Successful Accounting Practice Development, outlined that three key elements of any successful practice development plan are: client experience; lead generation; and lead conversion.  In February and March, I posted blogs on client experience and now would like to revisit this series with thoughts on lead generation.

Lead Generation.  How will you find new prospective clients?  Develop a strong referral network, telemarketing, direct mail, advertising, etc?  What are the avenues and components you use or need to develop to generate leads?

For the sake of digestible, short blogs, I will break my thoughts into four blogs:

  • Your lead generation foundation (today’s blog)
  • Passive Marketing
  • Active Marketing
  • Referrals

Let’s talk about your lead generation foundation.  What are the basic underlying components to support all of your lead generation efforts?

Understand the Value You Provide.  If you do not, the customer never will.  You need to able to communicate it effectively and concisely.  I will give you a hint, if you compete on price and are always trying to stay below the competition’s price, you do not understand your value.  What do you do for clients better than anyone else in your market?  Why should they come to you instead of a competitor?  Get away from price and try to express your value in the eyes of the prospective client.  If you don’t do anything better, start today and communicate it.

Communicate What You Stand For.  This is both the personal “you” as a practitioner and the collective “you” of your practice.  Can you make any guarantees to your clients?  What pledges or promises can you make?  For reference, you may look at the Our Commitment to You page on our website.

Remember, Benefits Instead of Features.  Okay, welcome to marketing 101.  Can you communicate your value from the client’s perspective? The difference is often platitudes, “We’re #1”, versus resonating with the client, “We understand what you are struggling with and can solve your problem.”  Instead of talking about whom you are or what you do, can you speak of the benefits a client will receive by working with you.

For example, “Our clients come to us because they are frustrated with monthly, quarterly and annual tax filings.  We take their headache away by…”

As you define these components, can you document them? Again, try to write these from a perspective of how the client will experience them rather than how you deliver them.  If you can document your value to clients and what you stand for, then developing your lead generation initiatives is going to be a piece of cake.

Comments (1) • Posted August 3rd, 2011 at 10:36am

Perception Translates into Revenue

by Rick Harrison

I’ve been looking at the April 2011 Journal of Accountancy and the article “Survey Highlighs: Emerging Tools for Firms of All Sizes” interested the “broker in me”. Surveying a bit over 2,900 firms, the top three technology uses were: 1) Time and Billing Software, 76%, 2) Use multiple computer screens, 71%, and 3) Have an active/maintained website, 66%.

Here’s where the Perception part comes in. If you’re selling your firm (or just promoting it to potential clients), how do you think you’ll be perceived if you don’t have these in place?  Let me set aside the geek in me for a moment, and not address how many monitors litter your desktop. Let’s just concentrate on items 1 and 3.

The last, an active/maintained website is probably more important to potential clients. Remember too, the key word here is maintained. If you haven’t updated your website it will show…and not favorably. Potential buyers will also get a “sense of you” by looking at your website. Wouldn’t you rather they perceive you as on top of the technology issues? That’s the sort of thing that helps support any type of premium you might be asking for your practice.

I’ve saved the best for last, Time and Billing Software. You may be surprised how many practitioners we come across who expect to sell their practice for a premium, yet are unable to extract the most rudimentary data about their practice. In short, they aren’t very good at running a business…just telling others how to run theirs, I suppose.  It’s not necessary to be on the bleeding edge of technology. However, a well run, efficient practice that employs and uses technology will be able to command more of a premium when it comes time to sell.

Comments (0) • Posted May 11th, 2011 at 8:06am

The Accounting Client Experience, Part 3:  The Office Visit

by Ken Berry, CBI

Continuing with our third and final part of The Accounting Client Experience, let’s put ourselves in your clients’ shoes.  How are clients treated when they visit your office?

The Front Desk
First, what is the demeanor of the person manning your front desk?  Is the person naturally engaging and welcoming or is he/she naturally confrontational and off putting?  Putting the right person in this role should be the first part of your policy.

Once you have the right person, what should the welcoming procedure be? This may differ depending on whether you have drop offs or appointments.  Perhaps drop offs are warmly greeted, asked if they have any questions, asked if all the paperwork is in order and then they are informed they will be contacted with follow up questions.  Finally, they are thanked by name and wished a good day.

An appointment client might be asked to have a seat and asked whether they would like coffee, tea or water.  The accountant they are meeting is notified the client has arrived and the client is informed how long the wait will be if any.  Upon leaving the office the appointment client is thanked (by name if possible) and wished a good day by the front desk staff.

A pleasant, well structured, and consistent front desk procedure will provide the clients with comfort and familiarity every time they visit the office and will go a long way to creating a great first impression and setting up a productive meeting.  The opposite is true as well and I will confess that I no longer am a client of a very nice optometrist, who was highly referred and highly regarded, because I grew tired of how rude her front desk staff was to me and everybody else.

Greeting Clients
How does your staff greet clients?  Is there a smile, a hello and a handshake?  Is it a policy in your firm?  It should be.  Again, consistency assures that the clients expectations are in alignment with the experience.  If I work for you and I have a great, warm greeting with the clients for six years and then leave the firm, what happens with those clients when they come in the next time and are given an indifferent greeting? It may not happen right away, but in time the relationship will deteriorate.

On a few occasions, I have been in firms where every person I passed in the hallway would offer me a hello or at least a smile.  They didn't know me or why I was even in the office, but that made no difference. Talk about a welcoming environment.

Meeting with Clients
This is a substantial topic and there are many resources in the market for how to have a successful meeting, so I will again keep it very short and simple.  I am always surprised when a practitioner complains that their meetings go too long because the client talks too much about personal stuff.  This indicates one of two things to me, either the practitioner doesn’t value the relationship with their clients enough or they do not manage the meeting well.  So, two fixes:

1) Control the meeting.  Have an agenda for your meeting.  I use a simple bullet pointed list of five items we are going to go over with the first being “Why am I here?”  Your list should start with “Why are you here?” for new clients and “What has happened since our last meeting?” with returning clients.  This is where you will catch up on the personal stuff.

2) Remember, the personal stuff is critical and listening to it tells the client you care.  First, some of it will direct your work with them and, second, without it you are likely no different to them than any other practitioner they have worked with in the past.  The use of an agenda will help you manage the time spent on personal stuff and empower you to move to other items without risking any offense.

Clarifying Next Steps
Every meeting or important conversation should end with discussing next steps.  We call this providing a clear future.  If it is a tax appointment, is anything else needed and if so when, when will the return be complete and filed, what else is required of the client and when will the next appointment take place.  Finally, what will the next communication be (email, phone, appointment) and when will it occur?

Some of these might seem obvious, but policies and procedures for your front desk, for how to greet clients, for how to meet with them, and for how to determine next steps are critical in defining how your firm treats clients. Remember, how much a client likes your firm may have as much influence on them as the level of competence your firm demonstrates.  It is often the difference in client retention and client referrals and can turn a short term client (2-3 years) that worked with a single preparer into a client with a 20 year relationship with several different preparers in your firm.

Comments (0) • Posted March 10th, 2011 at 9:15am

3 Ways Mentoring Can Improve Your Practice

by Ken Berry, CBI

Sooner or later nearly all tax or accounting professionals reach a point in their careers where they decide if they will make a move to ownership or partnership of a firm. Sometimes it is an easy transition. They pick up the skills essential to generate business and service clients, while developing the leadership abilities necessary to run a firm. Usually it is a challenge to master the skills while juggling the delivery of services. 

The typical path has been Darwinian in nature; where the strongest survive. Not much effort has gone to developing capable talent. Instead there was an expectation from those who made it that others should do as they had. Consequently, some great potential is not realized.  This may be in a multiple partner firm, where a young CPA is beginning a career, or it could be an owner of a solo practice. One is competing inside a firm while the other is fighting competition in the marketplace. Either way, some do not make it and remain on the delivery end.

One solution to this challenge is mentoring. In a larger firm, it may be a partner or someone in management grooming a junior. For an entrepreneur it may be someone in their network, mastermind group or perhaps a professional coach. It should always be someone who can play a role in overcoming obstacles and challenges.

Here are 3 roles a mentor may undertake:

  • Role Model: This person sets an example for the mentee to follow. The role model may establish trust, listen to challenges, counsel and provide guidance as necessary.
  • Guide: This person helps navigate and understand organizations and situations. They often refer and make introductions to persons or opportunities that will enhance the mentee’s career. They may open doors, help the mentee network and stay in touch for professional purposes. They can also sponsor, creating challenging and instructive opportunities that may not be available.
  • Coach: This person takes an active role in observation, assessing capabilities and providing feedback and instruction. They teach, advise and motivate. They help cultivate professional interests and set career goals. They often help to keep focused on the performance and pushing through tough times, while developing, self respect and a sense of self-worth. Mentoring is an intentional process, with both parties sharing responsibility. 

Along the way, the person being mentored can slide into one of the roles and begin mentoring others. For the mentee the benefits are obvious. There are benefits to the mentor as well that we’ll address later.

Where in your business can you use help? Where can you give help? What value would you find with a mentor? Being a mentor?

Take a few minutes and respond below.

 

Comments (0) • Posted October 20th, 2010 at 10:37am

5 Reasons Joining a Practice Development Group will Improve your Firm

by Ken Berry, CBI

A friend of mine ran a global consulting practice for a Big 4 firm in the 1990s. Eventually his firm spun off the consulting group and went public. After the IPO, he left to start his firm.

When he was with the larger firm in the 1990s, he frequently lost consultants who were finding work for more money. When he surveyed the independent consultants, he found most were leaving for lifestyle reasons.  They loved the autonomy and freedom to choose their projects and they liked having the ability to control their travel situations.  It was the dislikes that he found interesting.  Some of those issues were:

  • Isolation and loneliness
  • No career development
  • No role in a larger venture

The feelings of isolation and loneliness catch many newly self employed by surprise.  The inability to test ideas and having a mentor is often a challenge. Some even miss the day to day chatter and camaraderie.

Many independent professional services consultants combat isolation through networking or mastermind groups or other practice networks. This would work with tax and accounting professionals too.

Why should you consider this? Five immediate reasons come to mind:

Moral Support: Even if they have differing goals, members are there for support. 

Inspiration and Motivation: Active participation in the right group will challenge and inspire you through tough times.  It is easier to maintain a positive attitude when you have someone with whom to talk through issues.  

Differing Viewpoints:  Discussing different viewpoints with group members gives you varied perspectives on challenges and problems. This is your opportunity to test ideas. Even while disagreeing with others’ points of view, you can gain a better perspective and enhance your ideas.

Peer Accountability: Group members will hold you accountable for your actions helping to achieve your goals and objectives. Realizing you will be held accountable to your peers will also drive growth and development. The fear of letting down the group can be advantageous to your desires.

Wisdom and Experience: You can rely on the experience and wisdom of the entire group. Many heads are collectively smarter than one.

Whether a solo practitioner or a member of a larger firm which is compartmentalized, you can benefit from the right network or group. Many people find that they can stay on the right career track.  Others find that they are building a firm, rather than just creating a job for themselves. They are more likely to overcome marketing and business development challenges through the motivation, feedback and accountability from the group.

Have you ever felt isolated while building your firm?  What are some of the ways that you overcame those feelings? What would you add to this list?

Leave your comments below.

Comments (17) • Posted September 29th, 2010 at 11:32am

Making Partner Retreats Effective

by Ken Berry, CBI

In a recent article on WebCPA, Make This Year’s Partner Retreat More Productive, Steve Erickson highlights the value of partner retreats. 

“Firms must be able to make strategic decisions and then execute quickly and efficiently,” Erickson writes. “Unfortunately . . . many partners spend a significant amount of their time at retreats talking about the past and issues that cannot be changed.”

Erickson goes on to describe the unproductive use of time many partners experience on retreat and how many partners find it difficult to engage in authentic dialogue on the topics that matter most.   

This may be because partners lack training in group process.  They rise based on their technical ability or their business development skills rather than their ability to manage human capital. 

We also find many firms are partnerships in name only.  They consist of four or five independent silos.  Each partner works alone supported by common staff members.  Partners share an office, a coffee pot and a Christmas party.  But, sometimes that is about all.

Attempts to create economies of scale, synergy between specialties and shared goals – all of which increase profitability – have been frustrated by an inability to engage with one another in authentic dialogue. 

So they meet for a partner’s retreat.  They adopt many elements of a plan recommended by Erickson:

  • Focus on the future
  • Prepare in advance
  • Have an agenda
  • Adopt and enforce ground rules
  • Remember their conversations define their relationship.

The first three of the five recommendations are easy enough.  It is the last two that frustrate real progress. 

They may adopt ground rules but enforcement is problematic.  And although they try to remember that their conversations defined their relationships, when they get into the meat of a critical issue, relational habits kick in. 

Despite everyone’s best intentions, a cycle of domination and avoidance results that undermines their agenda. Dialogue breaks down.   

It starts simply enough.  An item has been placed on the agenda.  It could be anything -- partner’s compensation, marketing strategy, staff roles. At some point in the discussion, someone becomes anxious. 

It may be that the issue is particularly sensitive.  It may simply be that someone feels frustrated at the pace of the discussion.  Whatever the reason, a partner begins to push.  In reaction to the push, one of two things can happen depending upon the relational styles in the room.  

1)      Someone pushes back.  The energy of the dialog escalates.  It reaches a point of risk.  Both partners withdraw rather than jeopardize the relationship.  2)      No one pushes back.  The energy of the dialogue fades.  The result is the same in both cases.  Real issues are not addressed. 

Partners will experience this cycle only a few times before determining that there is no value in a partner’s retreat.  But the deeper truth is this:  truth is, there is no value in a partner’s retreat that lacks process discipline. 

Just as a CPA would never dream of attempting a complex audit without having first planned an appropriate strategy or process for the audit, neither should partners gather for an important meeting without first defining their process. 

If the partners lack the skills, the experience, or the training to do it right, it is time to look for a process facilitator.  A business sometimes needs to hire an accountant to keep its books straight.  An accounting firm sometimes needs to hire a facilitator to keep their partnership straight.    

What is your experience with partner retreats?

Leave us a comment, or contact Kevin.

 

 

 

Comments (0) • Posted June 1st, 2010 at 5:35am

Humor Can Reframe Your Thinking

by Ken Berry, CBI

I coach youth soccer and have worked with a team for several years now.  They have become a very good team, ranked in the top 50 of all Northern California teams in the age group, and the games have become incredibly competitive.  Last season I implemented something that helped push them to the next level.

See as a coach, like a business manager, you are striving to get the best from all your players all the time.  What a lot of us do is focus on the technical stuff, in soccer this is touch and control, vision, moving the ball, moving off the ball, passing and finishing among dozens of other skills and techniques.  In an accounting firm, this might be answering the phone, greeting visitors, running client meetings, processing returns, balancing ledgers, filing, reviewing, auditing and dozens of other critical functions.

Last season my boys were in the championship game of a tournament.  They had dominated their bracket winning all three games and outscoring the opponents 15-0.  They were playing in top form when we went into the final game.  In this final game they came out flat, were out of sync, were not moving well, were not passing well and were not creating chances.  They gave up two great chances to the opponent, one resulting in an opposition goal.  It was 97 degrees on a Sunday afternoon in September when they came off the field at halftime down 0-1.

As a coach, like a business manager, you have all sorts of choices of how to respond and give direction when your team is not performing the way you desire.  My boys know how to play the game, they know each position, its role and how to execute their jobs in those roles.  They did not need me telling them how to do this again.  I needed to tell them they could do this and put them in a good frame of thought to go get it done.

At halftime we discussed three corrections to make in the play of the game and then… I told the boys two jokes.  After the second joke, they were all laughing and commenting on the jokes to each other.  We huddled up then and, in this new frame of mind, focused on the second half.  The boys went out and scored 5 goals and won the championship game 5-1.

Right now in your office it is likely 97% stress on a Tuesday morning.  Your team is in the final stretch of tax season and they might need you to help them reframe their thinking.  Check in with them regularly, let them all know you are in it together and then have a good laugh.  I suspect the end of the season might go more smoothly, be more enjoyable and everyone will perform a bit better.

Comments (0) • Posted March 23rd, 2010 at 6:17am

5 Tips to Improve Productivity and Increase the Value of Your Practice

by Ken Berry, CBI

Rita Keller, in her recent blog Surroundings Really Do Matter, asks the question "do people perform better work in a neat, clean, organized environment than they do in an environment of disorder?"   She lists points to ponder that relate to staff and management issues, such as how cluttered offices hinder the working environment with loss of productivity and ultimately increased stress.  It is interesting because we often have to address this in the sale of a practice.

Many years ago I went to meet a prospective seller of a CPA practice.  His entire office was a disorganized mess.  From dust and cobwebs to piles and piles of files and other paperwork.  I recommended that he really ought to clean and organize the office before we have a buyer come to meet with him .  After several weeks of preparation he told me he was ready.  So I set up a meeting with a prospective buyer.  After the meeting the buyer said, "John, I would need to spend $50,000 just to get that place organized."

Whether we are working with a firm who is looking to grow or a client who is looking to sell his or her firm one of our main concerns is the office condition.  Remember, there is only one chance to make a first impression to any prospective client or buyer of the firm. 

Here are a few quick tips you might be able to use.

  • Use some type of a contact management system.
  • Establish a routine for incoming mail.
  • Keep your desktop and workspaces available for actual work. One former client had a one file out at a time policy that each person in the office followed.
  • Consider a file system utilizing less paper (or better yet paperless).  You can start by scanning your current year files.
  • Schedule a few minutes each day for planning, clean up and organizing.

For more ideas take a look a Rita’s blog.

Comments (8) • Posted March 3rd, 2010 at 4:38am

De-Stress for Success

by Ken Berry, CBI

I recently got a note from a CPA who said “so far, this year has exceeded my expectations, and its only January!”

I wrote back to say that I was happy the season was going well for her. I asked her to what did she contribute her success and was pleasantly surprised with her response.  She mentioned streamlining work processes and great support from home, by ensuring the following:

  1. Having a routine and sticking to it
  2. Limiting herself to a 12 hour work day, no matter how much energy she may have.
  3. Taking a late lunch and exercising daily
  4. No matter what, taking Sundays off.

Some who read this may shake their heads and disagree. What they will not realize is that this CPA has figured out that the time to recharge her batteries is not when they are totally run down. She realized that it is better to work harder and smarter. Stress is a big part of most people’s lives these days, and a busy tax season will just pile on the stress.  Taking time to recharge and “de-stress” will make your time at work more productive.

I can not wait to speak with her later this spring.  I imagine that, when I do, the same smile will be there.  At the same time, many others will have that tired, worn-out look and will need a while to de-compress before they truly enjoy the fruits of their labors.

I say find some time to recharge your batteries this season and enjoy the journey. What are your thoughts?

Comments (0) • Posted February 17th, 2010 at 5:20am