The Ultimate Guide to Business Development for Accounting Firms: 19 Tips, Tactics, & Trends

Accountant Stacking Blocks to Represent GrowthRetention and acquisition. Two must-have goals in order to grow any accounting firm. But with 72% of firms struggling to win new business and a third of existing clients considering a switch to a competitor, current retention and acquisition strategies aren’t working. It’s time to develop new strategies for gaining new business and holding onto existing clients.

To give you some food for thought and actionable advice, we sought out advice from business development experts like Ramon Ray, Lauren Clemmer, Charlie Burns, and more to gather 19 tips, tactics, and trends that can help your firm have a record year.

Section Guide:

  1. Tips on How to Differentiate Your Accounting Firm
  2. Tips on How to Retain More Clients
  3. Trends Every Accounting Firm Needs to Know

Tips on How to Differentiate Your Accounting Firm

In this section, accounting firm marketing experts Ramon Ray, Lauren Clemmer, Gregory LaFollette, Roshan Ramlukan, and Jennifer Wilson offer their advice on how to differentiate your firm.

1. Build a Brand

The accounting service market has become saturated with 1.25 million accountants and auditors in the United States. And that makes it difficult to stand out.

Remember: It’s a given that accounting firms are experts at what they do. But the question becomes: What sets one apart from another?

Branding is a visual and conceptual way to get a firm recognized and remembered, ideally by helping clients and prospects perceive the company in a favorable way. While many elements contribute to a brand — including the company name, logo, slogan, and design — the main focus is encouraging people to view the company as the right and best choice in the market.

According to best-selling author and business development expert Ramon Ray, branding gives clients a reason to choose one firm over another by conveying what is special about the firm.

“The best test of how well the firm’s branding is working — do potential clients feel they need what the firm offers? Better yet, does the branding bring a smile to their face?,” Ramon says.

In other words, branding should evoke an emotional response that motivates someone to sign on as a client. Even better, branding should make clients want to remain with the firm over the long haul.

business development playbook for professional services

2. Engage Clients Before They Sign On

Business development professionals can and should take steps to advance the brand with each interaction — even before working with a client. Keeping in mind that the experience with the brand is often what determines the client’s perception, it’s essential to focus on making that experience as enjoyable and valuable as possible. Some ways that top accounting firms create a great pre-engagement client experience are by:

  • Automating appointment scheduling by taking advantage of technology and web options that put more control in the hands of clients.
  • Preparing the client for the interaction, such as by sending an email with a photo of the assigned accountant or by inviting the client to a free pre-tax webinar.

3. Nurture Client Relationships

After you’ve won the business, the real work begins. According to Ramon, “Firms should not ignore clients that return year after year. Those clients are not locked in because it’s quite easy to switch accounting firms. Rather than get lackadaisical, it’s critical that business development professionals commit to staying top of mind with clients.”

Simply put, to encourage return business and loyalty, business development professionals must continue nurturing those client relationships. Ramon suggests doing something as simple as sending a box of chocolates on April 1 (or even earlier) with a reminder that tax time is right around the corner.

4. Develop Deeper Relationships With New Service Offerings

A third of your clients are thinking about switching to a competitor. Holding onto those clients is imperative for your bottom line in more ways than one as it’s far more cost effective to keep a client than to acquire a new one. Additionally, firms with satisfied clients can forecast an average of 7% higher revenues in the coming year.

Most accounting firms leave revenue on the table when clients aren’t utilizing the breadth of the firm’s service offering. Progressive firms will segment customers by services to identify opportunities to cross-sell or upsell more services.

New Service Offerings: Accounting Today Chart
Source: Accounting Today

Adding new service offerings is a sure-fire way to increase revenue with existing client accounts. And as you continue to add value through additional offerings, they’re less likely to shop elsewhere for accounting services. So, ask yourself: What new services can your firm offer now and in the future with some upfront planning?

5. Personalize Client Engagements

Business development professionals need to ensure that pre- and post-interaction engagement feels personalized. To personalize interactions at scale, it helps to call upon a customer relationships management (CRM) solution that makes it possible to segment the customer database. Then it’s a matter of designing and executing relevant campaigns for each segment.

To keep it manageable and effective, Ramon advises following these best practices:

  • Define the strategic branding goals and then select a technology that can help achieve those.
  • Test messages and offers to see what resonates with clients both pre- and post-engagement.
  • Segment the customer database to align with relevant messages and offers.
  • Start small by sending these messages to a subsection of the database.
  • Equip and train staff to deliver an experience that wows clients.

6. Pursue Innovation

According to a survey by the American Institute of CPAs and its subsidiary, CPA.com, most CPA firms are taking steps to become more innovative in practice management. Examples include using value or fixed pricing instead of hourly billing. Your firm can do the same by offering set packages of services, or taking a more consultative, value-add approach to client engagements.

CPA.com strategic advisor Gregory LaFollette predicts that a growing number of firms will offer boutique-style, value-priced “packages” to clients. He shares these examples for tiered tax services:

  • Silver: basic preparation with a 15-minute consultation after preparation
  • Gold: adds a one-hour tax and overall financial planning consultation
  • Platinum: adds unlimited, year-round phone/email access and representation before the IRS for any issues concerning this return

7. Adopt the Latest Technologies

With so many technologies available to help improve processes, deliver data insights, and open up new revenue streams, your accounting firm would be foolish not to take advantage.

While tools like tax prep software and document management systems are useful across firms of any size, larger firms are embracing other new technologies — such as CRM automation and workflow management — at a higher rate to improve operational efficiencies, identify high probability opportunities, and gain relevant client insights that help craft their business development strategy.

8. Get Data Smart

Lauren Clemmer, Executive Director of the Association for Accounting Marketing, believes accounting firms need to become more data-informed in order to make more sophisticated business decisions.

“Smart firms dig into their data and analyze the source of their business. By understanding what their most profitable and loyal clients value, they can strategically focus on developing new product lines and new business based on their strengths,” Lauren says.

Your firm can do the same by reviewing client billings and engagements to date as it will surface which practice areas or product lines have led to greater client retention, loyalty, or profitability.

9. Skill Up

Hand in hand with getting data smart, many CPA firms are finding the need to develop deeper data analytic skills to gain a better understanding of the business and market. According to the Journal of Accountancy, “Mastery of data analytics can help businesses generate a higher profit margin and gain a meaningful competitive advantage. Some experts even predict that companies ignoring data analytics may be forced out of business in the long run.”

To gain a better understanding of your client data, your firm needs to hire and train the right people to analyze the data. As Roshan Ramlukan, EY partner of global accounts, says, “The human element of data analytics is the most critical factor in building a successful program.”

By becoming more proficient in data analysis, accounting firms are able to derive better insights that enable them to customize their business development strategies, proactively support clients, and easily identify client buying patterns.  

10. Tap Into New Social Networks

An impressive 94% of B2B buyers today perform online research before making a purchasing decision. According to LaFollette of CPA.com, this trend will continue.

“Clients will increasingly shop and screen professionals based solely on that professional’s digital presence, making your ‘digital brand’ and ‘digital footprint’ more and more important,” he says. “If your firm isn’t on par with or ahead of the industry — 57% are on LinkedIn, 50% are on Facebook, 22% are on Twitter, and 15% are blogging — it’s time to establish a presence. The key is to be active, helpful, and genuine.”

Read: 6 Social Selling Tools to Power Up Your Sales Pipeline

11. Pave the Way for Successors

As the seasoned generation of accountants approaches retirement age, it’s essential for firms to make plans for the future of your business, staff, and industry.

“The most important thing [leaders] can do is to find ways to pass their wisdom and knowledge on to the next-gen leaders in your firm,” Boomer Consulting president Sandra Wiley advises. “If they can adjust their focus from the day-to-day client work to focus on mentoring, teaching, and protecting, our profession will thrive.”

ConvergenceCoaching co-founder Jennifer Wilson echoes this sentiment.

“Make the changes needed to be a next-gen firm and retain your future leaders,” she says. “Put together a next-gen advisory board and have them prioritize the changes they most want to see — then work with them to implement these changes. They are bright enough to generate solutions and implement them. Empower them and get out of the way!”

Tips on How to Retain More Clients

Don’t let your clients leave for your competitors or take their accounting needs in-house. Use the client retention best practices below to improve your firm’s retention rate and grow existing client revenue.

12. Make Room for More Profitable Clients

Unresponsive clients — those who are less likely to respond to requests for information without multiple contacts — drain resources. It takes longer to serve them than responsive clients, taking your business development team away from cultivating more profitable clients and prospects.

To avoid spending too much time on clients with a low ROI, prioritize your clients based on the quality of the relationship. Relationship analytics software that analyzes your entire firm’s network to identify mutual connections, measure relationship strength, and monitor activity can give you insights that can help accelerate sales velocity by leveraging the right relationships.

13. Embrace Your Role as a Client Advisor

While most accountants aren’t keen on selling, being a client advisor isn’t really about that. It’s about building relationships with clients by making a concerted effort to understand their business and how you can help them make it better. It takes firms beyond the CPAs who handle the taxes to trusted advisors. When you or your business development team meet with clients, leave selling at the door and instead focus on asking questions that help you identify their accounting needs and how you can help.

14. Know Your Clients and Their Preferences

Use the rich data you have to learn about clients and discover where there may be opportunities to cross-sell. For instance, are there tax clients who work for organizations that may also benefit from your accounting and auditing services?

Charlie Burns, a CPA and partner at Reid, Hanna, Johnson, grew her firm’s revenue 33% in 18 months with half of that growth being attributed to existing clients. They achieved this by creating client profiles and making them accessible to the entire firm. This means anyone could easily serve any client, not just the CPA assigned to their account.

“Everyone has their client base where they do the same thing over and over,” explained Charlie in her Accounting Today webinar. “However, each client is growing and changing every day. We try to look at existing clients, not just run them through the mill, and have conversations about what they are doing and the services we provide them. We couldn’t have done that without a deep understanding of the information we hold about our clients.”

The key to their success? Charlie credits easily sharing information across the firm. She used an example that if a partner manages 300 clients, it would be hard for them to effectively serve and manage all of them on their own. And if they aren’t sharing information with their colleagues, it becomes next to impossible for the firm to provide quality, proactive service to each client as relevant client insights stay with the partner or relationship owner.

Trends Every Accounting Firm Needs to Know

Lauren Clemmer, executive director of the Association for Accounting Marketing, has been immersed in accounting marketing and business development for more than a decade, and was named one of the most powerful women in accounting. Below, we share Lauren’s most pressing accounting firm business development trends that firms need to keep in mind to stay relevant with their clients and prospects.

15. Customer Experience Rises in Importance

The customer experience is more important than ever with 72% of businesses saying they switched CPA firms due to poor, reactive service. Firms must commit to completely embracing and prioritizing the customer experience if they want to retain clients.

“The more immersed firms are in their clients’ businesses and the more focused they are on truly serving them, the better their chances are of keeping and expanding business with those clients. To succeed in this area, firms must listen to the marketplace and their clients,” explains Lauren.

16. Firms Must Specialize to Differentiate

Lauren also believes firms need to embrace change by expanding beyond compliance and traditional services. For example, a firm might find greater success specializing in international tax or by exclusively serving a specific industry.

“The more focused a firm, the better it can grow its business. In fact, a small firm can compete quite effectively against larger firms by specializing,” Lauren says.

17. Staffing Up for Business Development

Lauren is also seeing firms employ different approaches to staffing up for business development. Some have hired experienced professionals from outside the industry, while others have trained their existing staff. Regardless of the approach, the ones that stick with it, and strategically plan around it, are more likely to see greater success.

Lauren encourages all accounting firms to develop and embrace a business development strategy. However, she notes, it’s important to recognize that business development doesn’t come naturally to everyone. In her experience, the professionals who are more likely to excel at business development tend to be highly driven, goal-oriented extroverts.

18. The Team Approach Prevails

Successful firms make business development a part of the client management team approach. Why? To minimize disruption to the client experience if someone should leave the firm.

Smaller and medium size organizations can get started by identifying existing staff members with solid sales skills and training them on business development. This person can then train the rest of the firm. Some firms, Lauren says, will train everyone in business development to promote a cultural evolution throughout the firm.

19. Technology Is the Foundation of New Business

Just as it has impacted every other industry, technology continues to make inroads in accounting.

“Technology won’t replace people and relationships. In fact, it will make people’s jobs more important because they need to translate the data that technology can calculate, helping their clients understand how those numbers apply to their business. The key is to identify opportunities and articulate how the firm can help the client embrace those opportunities,” Lauren says.

Lauren recommends that firms embrace the right technology for their needs, and in particular, get web savvy and understand the role of social media.

“Technology is the No. 1 investment for accounting firms because a new generation of clients is looking for services online. And they aren’t afraid to change accounting firms. In today’s world, location matters less than the right services. Firms need a strong website to drive people to their business,” concludes Lauren.

It’s Time to Level-Up

Business Development PlaybookAttracting new business. Retaining clients. Growing existing revenue. These are all goals that should drive your accounting firm’s growth goals. To hit those goals, you need to improve your customer data, expand into new service offerings, and develop stronger relationships by taking advantage of the business development advice above.

For a complete guide loaded with expert insights on how to scale your accounting firm, download a copy of our business development playbook. In it you’ll find advice and best practices on winning new business, strengthening relationships, capitalizing on cross-selling opportunities, and more.