Business development tips to boost a firm’s reach
Creative new tactics focus on providing value to clients.
By Katherine Raz
When Stephanie Gandsey started as marketing director at DHJJ, the Illinois CPA firm had a strategic goal in mind: to expand its client base well beyond its Naperville headquarters and make a dent in the competitive Chicago market.
Prior to Gandsey's 2015 arrival, DHJJ was drumming up new business the way many accounting firms do, by attending chamber of commerce events and hosting seminars at their offices. While those tactics attracted local clients, DHJJ had to differentiate itself to compete with firms in Chicago.
"We had services to offer clients throughout Chicagoland and beyond," Gandsey said. "The way to do that was to take it digitally, to take our marketing online." So Gandsey turned to content marketing — a form of online marketing that uses original published content — to broaden the firm's presence.
Three years later, Gandsey credits this new approach for an 83% increase in traffic to the firm's website and estimates online content brings in 15% of new business leads.
Like DHJJ, many CPA firms are looking to supplement long-established business development practices, such as sponsoring local events and attending networking luncheons, with fresh marketing approaches. From digital marketing to app development to local business leadership, forward-thinking firms are coming up with new ways to market services to new and existing clients while keeping better track of their returns on investment.
Here's a closer look at some of those tactics and ways other accounting firms can incorporate them.
Pick an area of expertise and publish online content
"Chicago has a lot of CPA firms," Gandsey said of DHJJ's efforts to expand its client base geographically. "The way to set yourself apart is to niche — to have expertise — in an area"
To do this, Gandsey worked with DHJJ's CPAs to form practice groups that pooled expertise and published online content showcasing their know-how on a number of small business accounting issues. One such group, DHJJ's state and local tax (SALT) practice group, consists of seven CPAs at varying levels in the firm with the most state and local tax experience. The SALT group publishes blog posts and hosts webinars on topics such as tax reform, which can attract anywhere from 20 to 50 attendees, most of them new business leads outside of Naperville.
Meaghan Wingbermuehle, CPA, a senior manager at DHJJ, leads the SALT practice group. She credits Gandsey with helping the firm identify strengths and communicate them to new potential clients.
"We already had these skills," Wingbermuehle said. "We just weren't packaging them."
Use basic search engine optimization (SEO) tactics
For DHJJ, publishing content was just one part of the equation. Potential clients still had to discover that content online. So how did the firm ensure that the content it spent so much time creating would ultimately be found?
"We put it on our website with landing pages using specific phrases," Wingbermuehle said. By publishing content about highly specific topics, DHJJ increases its odds of appearing in search results for terms their target clients use to findinformation.
"We know when somebody Googles 'Chicago tax' or 'nexus questionnaire Chicago,' we're going to pop up organically," Wingbermuehle said.
And it's working. Organic searches — website traffic originating from people plugging search terms into Google or other search engines — are now responsible for 56% of DHJJ's website traffic, up from 46% two years ago. The more content the firm publishes on new and evolving tax law, the more it will dominate those search rankings.
"We've had over two years' worth of articles now written," Wingbermuehle said. "As long as the states change their laws, which is every day, we're building on it."
Gandsey noted that DHJJ surpassed its new work goal by 29% this year. "This is where I say that marketing's role is truly creating a culture of bringing in new business," she said, "using the library of information to share knowledge with prospects."
Don't just attend networking events; be an expert at them
CPAs should still use time-tested networking opportunities like Chamber of Commerce events to meet new business prospects, said Salim Omar, CPA, founder of CPA Marketing Genius, a New Jersey-based consultancy that assists CPAs in streamlining their practices in part by engaging in more effective marketing.
But instead of attending networking events and chatting up potential new clients about services offered, he recommends CPAs showcase their expertise by appearing as guest speakers and leading events. Omar calls this "entering the conversation with value."
"When we share expertise," he said, "we have to think about it from the standpoint of the prospect. What are the things they face in their business? What are the things they want a solution for?"
The answers to these business issues, Omar suggested, make great topics for speaking events and panels. Appearing as the expert who can solve these issues can have a greater impact on business development than merely networking. Omar credits his 2004 book, Straight Talk About Small Business Success in New Jersey, and the appearances he made in support of it, with directly leading to new business for his firm.
"Many of my clients came from seeing the book," he said, noting that a few even picked up copies at his local chamber.
Foster client loyalty
You can also build your business by giving back to clients, said Nicole Gantz, a partner at Honkamp Krueger & Co., based in Dubuque, Iowa, and the 2018 recipient of the Association for Accounting Marketing's Marketer of the Year award. She oversaw the development of a client patronage mobile app that encourages the firm's 500 employees to shop at client businesses. The app has tracked $7.1 million in spending the past 18 months, and the firm rewards the two top spenders and two random participants (all Honkamp Krueger & Co. employees) with $100 gift cards to the client business of their choice.
Gantz credits the program for attracting new clients who want to participate, as well as for retaining businesses that see the referral business value in being a client.
"We've been able to attract new clients," she said. Some of these businesses have engaged the firm on a nontraditional service, such as retirement plan management, just to get the exposure to their 500 captive shoppers. "Our sales people use it as a tool," Gantz said.
As for the return on investment? "Two years ago, it had already paid for itself and then some," she said.
Market to current clients, not just new ones
While Gantz credits her firm's client patronage app for attracting and retaining clients, she also believes one of its most effective marketing tasks is a simple, systematic method of following up with current clients to cross-sell services.
"I actually spend just as much time on current client retention and adding on services as I do attracting new clients," Gantz said. Her marketing team includes a client experience specialist whose focus is on making current Honkamp Krueger & Co. clients "raving fans of the firm." After an engagement, she follows up with clients to ask a simple series of questions, like "How did we do?" and "Did we address all your pain points?" This client satisfaction survey, Gantz said, often results in cross-selling opportunities.
For example, clients may respond that they need new software or help with a human resources issue, services that Honkamp Krueger & Co. provides but that a client engaged with the firm in a different capacity may not be aware of. This follow-up phone conversation provides the opportunity to sell a client these services.
"Her job position creates a lot of value for our current client base," Gantz said about the client experience specialist. "It doesn't really seem like cross-selling to them because she's just helping them solve a problem that they already had."
Regardless of the approach, the focus of any new marketing approach should be about providing clients with value by showcasing your expertise, Wingbermuehle said.
"This whole career is about helping our clients better their companies and better themselves," she said. "And we can't do that unless we better our knowledge and let them know about it."