Practices today face four major marketing challenges. First, we sell the invisible. While buyers like to see and touch products, in professional services we sell a promise of future benefits that are largely intangible.
Second, there is broad parity in what we sell. Services are driven largely by regulatory demands. A holistic, high-standard and fairly priced offering is pretty much the price of entry.
One area I wouldn’t waste energy on is improving client retention
Third, this is a low-churn market. Nobody wakes up on a cold Tuesday morning and thinks: ‘I fancy changing my accountant today.’ A client may only change their incumbent firm roughly every 10 years.
Finally, we’re up against plenty of competitors. In the UK alone, for example, there are around 40,000 accountancy practices.
Consider the options
So, what are our options? There are four areas of potential growth. I imagine you’ll already be working on at least two – and probably all – of these right now:
- Gain new clients.
- Sell more to existing clients.
- Charge higher fees.
- Increase client retention.
Upselling to existing clients may well yield new revenue streams, but it should be largely driven by key client reviews. You’ll need to do a structured deep dive into their businesses to collect insights into what else your clients need. What are the trends? What’s keeping them up at night? Where do your services overlap with their needs?
Your greatest threat is not to alienate a section of the market; it’s to be ignored by all of it
As for upping fees, the least risky approach is to do this one new client at a time. Fees are largely a consequence of brand and reputation. Bigger, better-known firms, and those that are more niche or lower risk, can generally charge more.
One area I wouldn’t waste energy on is improving client retention. This may sound like heresy but retention, defection and churn are largely a factor of market share. Research shows that brands with lower market share have fewer customers who are also less loyal. Conversely, brands with higher market share have more customers who are in turn more loyal. So, to drive greater loyalty, you’ll need to become a larger firm. But how?
The right foundations
First, get the right foundations in place:
- Create a marketing strategy that connects with your business strategy. If your goals aren’t aligned, the firm’s leaders will quite rightly question why you’re allocating budget for marketing.
- Have a clear idea of what a good-fit client looks like. This enables you to focus the resources you have on people most likely to become clients.
- Understand what clients are actually looking for. This is usually a solution to a specific problem or they’d be sticking with their incumbent.
- Have a budget earmarked from the outset. This will give the marketing team or agency a good idea of what they have to work with.
The brutal truth is that not many clients are ‘in market’ to buy at any point in time. For example, in the UK there are around 5.3 million businesses with fewer than 10 staff, and 254,000 with 10-250 staff. Based on the estimate that clients change firms every decade, this means there are only around 530,000 micro-businesses in market this year, 132,000 this quarter or 44,000 this month. And only around 25,400 10–250 person businesses are in market this year, 6,350 this quarter or 2,116 this month.
What this means is you need to be consistent rather than stop/start in your marketing, and you need to avoid relying only on pure in-market ‘lead-generating’ activity. It simply isn’t enough. Too many practices are chasing too few opportunities.
Going niche means you can become a sought-after expert who truly understands what clients need
So, how should we divide our efforts? The split should look something like this:
Here are some tips for best practice in marketing.
- There is no one-size-fits-all marketing strategy. But if there was, it would be this: ‘Be the firm that’s closest to the client’. Remind yourself often that no potential client cares about your firm; they only care about themselves and their own businesses. Your job is to spend time understanding what really matters to them and show it in your marketing.
- Be as niche as you dare. The competition for a practice specialising in serving high-growth biotech businesses is far less than for a generalist firm serving small businesses. Going niche will afford you the ability to become a sought-after expert who truly understands what clients need.
- Have a distinctive brand positioning. Your greatest threat is not to alienate a section of the market; it’s to be ignored by all of it.
- Create client-focused content and tie it to each stage in the sales cycle. This needs to include those who don’t think they have a problem with their incumbent firm all the way through to those poised to make a switch. Limited budget? Create less but better content.
- Be visible where it matters with content that clients value. Useful tools like SparkToro can help figure out what audiences follow, read, visit and engage with online (and therefore where to place content), though it doesn’t hurt to ask existing clients, either.
Earn CPD units by listening on demand to Jason Ball’s webinar on marketing your practice’s services