Marketing your – digital – firm

Your marketing will not work until you have a clearly articulated vision of who you are. So, do you?

Most accountants are keen to grow their firms. Understandable really. It is certainly one of the drivers for the firms I work with in my mentoring group and, particularly so, the firm owners I work with one to one. I often say to firms it is very easy to grow an accounting firm but it is much harder to scale one!

In this article, I will set out the differences between growth and scale (for clarity) and discuss some of the steps I took in my own firm and the challenges I see with firms I work with and how we tackle these to better position them to utilise marketing effectively.

The previous articles have all been about setting the foundations for your digital firm. Developing your strategy, getting pricing right, building the right technology stack, setting up effective and efficient process and looking at advisory and the services you can offer. Once this is all done we should have created capacity and capability to scale our firm effectively and therefore we need to look at marketing to generate leads and desire from clients that want to engage with us.

Let me first point out I am not a marketing expert! There are plenty of those servicing the accountancy sector. This latest article, as with the previous six, are focused around my own learning whilst growing my own firm at 30% plus year on year together with the work I do with other firms in helping them grow profitable practices.

Growth vs scale

I stated in the introduction it is easy to grow a firm but much harder to scale. So, what’s the difference? Growth from a revenue perspective is easy. Take on more clients than you lose, and you grow. From a marketing perspective if you have a good message and communicate it effectively growth is easy. This of course relies on you keeping the clients you have, and this is exactly where the scale challenges kick in.

I proudly wear my heart on my sleeve and much of what I talk about, and write about, comes from real first-hand experiences. This is no different. 2015/16 was a tough couple of years in my own firm. We had been growing at 40%-60% revenue growth and profitability was suffering as was client experience. We were growing but we were scaling very badly. We were hamsters on a wheel running really fast to try and keep the growing client base happy. We were growing well because we had a clear message and proposition, and we did a good job communicating it.

To scale we have to make the same investments into our team, our processes, our system and our culture. Without the internal effort you simply cannot scale, and you start to see the clients leaving through the back door as the new ones come in the front door. This article isn’t about that of course and we have covered some of this in the earlier articles. The key, however, is making sure you don’t undo all the great work you do in marketing.

Step one to effective marketing

This one, for me, is easy. If I look at why we grew the way we did as a firm it was down to a clear and unique proposition. We had a clear vision that we communicated well and a set of values that underpinned our proposition.

In today’s competitive marketplace this is even more important today than it was for me back in 2007. Back then we were doing business in a way other accountants simply were not so it was made easier. That said, even today we all have something that makes us unique and the challenge is understanding what that is and communicating it well.

Of course, this is not something that comes naturally to many accountants. In almost every case with the firms I work with, whilst the thing they want to talk about is process and technology, we always end up building out a vision and a set of values before we even start on tech and process.

This start point of a clear vision is critical in attracting not only clients but also team members. If you as the business owner do not know why you get out of bed in the morning, your team certainly won’t. If your team don’t your clients have no hope. So many buying decisions today, particularly amongst millennial and Gen Z business owners, are made based on the values of the organisation they buy from. If you accept this to be true then if you are not communicating them, you won’t attract these clients to your firm.

Step one is simply know why you do what you do. So many firms throw money at marketing before they know the answer to this question. The message is then lost in translation and the marketing spend return is low, or no, ROI.

Spend time thinking about what it is you do, why did you set up a firm, what did you want to change, who do you want to help and how do you want to help them. Your own unique vision lies in the answer to these questions.

Step 2 to effective marketing

Guess what, this one is easy too! Take the answer to step one, what is the vision? Shout this from the rooftops! You have to begin to use this vision to provide consistent and deliberate messaging around your vision. Work with your team to build a set of values to drive your vision. Again, communicate your values. Make sure your team know them and live them. These values should define your brand.

A brand, just in case you didn’t know, is more than just a logo and some colours. It is intended to define who you are and what your clients can expect from your business, your brand values. Personally, I believe we have to go beyond a brand which can be somewhat static. We need to develop a firm personality. A personality that can be shared can adapt and truly reflect who you are and who you want to be. It may be you work in a multi-partner firm which I often describe as schizophrenic firms as they have multiple personalities creating a hugely confusing experience for clients. It is for this reason we have to build a single firm personality so our clients know clearly who and what they are buying and what they can expect.

Step 3 to effective marketing

I am not going to go into the specifics of where and how to build a pipeline of prospects or the ways you can go and find new clients. Step 3 is really about putting your newly defined and clarified messaging to work. So many firms I talk to have things that make them unique but they don’t talk about them. Once you know your why, your vision, take a look at your website. Does the website communicate it well?

Revisit your networking 60 second pitch, does that communicate who you are and who you want to be? Do the local village newsletter adverts portray the right message? How about your direct emails, your social media messaging, your brochures, the tone of voice you use in your firm’s communication? Do these communicate your vision and purpose effectively?

I am prepared to hazard a guess to the answer to these questions and the answer is no. If you have not taken that step back and really thought about who you are and who are the ideal clients for you there will be confusion in your messaging and any return on marketing investment will be lower than you would like and can expect.

Next steps

I set out at the beginning that I am an accountant and not a marketeer. I enjoy marketing and therefore follow the subject closely and look at what accounting firms and other industries are doing to make marketing work. I also have the benefit of talking to lots of accounting firms and seeing where things are not working, my own experience included. The whole purpose of this article was to clarify one key point:

Your marketing will not work until you have a clearly articulated vision of who you are.

If you take one thing away from this article it is that point above. If you only take one action then define your vision.

If you are happy to take more actions then I will revisit the steps:

  1. Define your vision
  2. Build a set of values with your team that underpin your vision
  3. Live and breathe your firm brand (personality)
  4. Ensure everything you do is consistent to your vision in all your messaging
  5. Take a look at everything you do currently under the banner of marketing and ensure you update the messaging.

Will Farnell, founder and director, Farnell Clarke