How do clients go about choosing a new accounting firm? Are there common elements or patterns in the ways organizations make these decisions?

Our research has shown that there are predictable stages in a buyer’s choice. And if you understand those choices, you’ll be better prepared to speak to prospects’ needs and expectations at every stage of the process.

This contextual awareness is a key to success in accounting marketing, because what’s important at one stage isn’t necessarily as important at the next — but many firms don’t know that. If you do, you’ll have a competitive edge.

So what do these common stages look like, and what do you need to know about them?

How Do Clients Choose an Accounting Firm

Stage 1: Recognizing a need or opportunity.

In this first stage, the client recognizes they have a need for a new firm, or a new solution to a new problem. They might be dissatisfied with the work of their current firm, or they may find themselves with a new need that their current firm can’t address.

What kind of needs? These can take many forms. A client might require help with a merger or acquisition, for example, but find that their current firm doesn’t do that kind of work. Or they may need someone to help them with IT security, but that isn’t their existing firm’s area of specialty.

Buyers don’t always discover needs on their own, though. Sometimes, they might be approached with a new opportunity. For example, a firm might come to them with information on a tax credit they weren’t aware of.

What you should do:

Your accounting marketing strategy can use educational content and a thoughtful business development approach to create need or shape a need that clients don’t recognize. They may be vaguely aware that they face IT security issues, for example, but they might not see how that relates to industry regulations or requirements.

At this stage, it’s important for your content to frame clients’ issues.  Prospective buyers may notice that their margins are being squeezed, for example. This is an issue that might be approached from a number of angles: doing a financial analysis, hiring sales consultant, or hiring for product development. The way clients frame their problems will shape the solutions they pursue.

By owning the narrative – discussing how you would analyze a challenge in the most fruitful way – you can frame the issue and showcase your services relative to clients’ challenges.

Stage 2: Seeking alternatives.

Now, even if you bring prospective clients a new opportunity, they may want to have a look around and check out a variety of firms with the expertise necessary to help them. How do they go about finding expert service providers?

Figure 1. How Purchasers Find Expert Service Providers

How Purchasers Find Expert Service Providers

On average, buyers used 4.8 techniques in their searches – so the average client is searching in several different ways these days, rather than simply relying on recommendations. It’s important to note, too, that “online” consists of a number of different sources: from search to social media to online reviews.

What you should do:

There are two major lessons here. Clients are looking online more often than they seek out recommendations — and they’re looking in a variety of places. In order to be found, you have to be online, and you should try to be visible in as many channels as possible.

Make sure you’re accessible through a variety of the online methods mentioned above, placing special priority on your website and LinkedIn.

SEE ALSO: Talking LinkedIn Strategy With Mark Amtower

Stage 3: Picking the contenders.

At this stage, a prospective client qualifies you for consideration while ruling out others. Here, they’ll disqualify firms with the wrong culture, that offer the wrong services, or that have a reputation for being too expensive. Essentially, they’re ruling out obviously poor fits. Yet our research has found that buyers and sellers have different ideas about which characteristics make you a poor fit:

Figure 2. Top Disqualification Criteria for Service Providers

Top Disqualification Criteria for Service Providers

What you should do:

Clients care a lot more about your reputation for follow-through than your cost. There are a variety of reasons why a firm might not make the cut at this stage, but the ultimate result is the same: you don’t get to submit a proposal. For this stage, it’s important to make sure your brand communicates both your ability to follow through and the qualities that make you unique.

Stage 4: Finding the top experts.

At this second-to-last stage, the competition gets more formal. The client solicits proposals from serious contenders and sits down for discussions about the project. They also look to learn as much about a service provider as possible, from every source available.

Figure 3. How Clients “Check Out” Experts

How Clients “Check Out” Experts

Our research has shown that the professional services marketplace is changing dramatically. Today, references and referrals aren’t enough to maintain your profile — and in fact, they’ve been eclipsed by online information sources. For prospective clients to understand your expertise, your firm has to be visible across multiple channels such as search engines, LinkedIn, and more. Indeed, buyers used an average of 3.2 methods.

What you should do:

Clients need to be able to check you out in all of these different venues. Your website, your search engine visibility, and your overall visibility and reputation in the industry are all crucial to a successful accounting marketing effort. Building an effectively search-optimized website with educational content that drives and supports your standing in the marketplace is an important way to make your expertise visible.

Every firm that gets through this phase will be seen as fully qualified. Now, it’s a matter of who offers the most in the final selection.

Stage 5: Tipping the scale.

At the end of the road, there’s one big question: what tips the scale in the favor of the winner? Buyers and sellers’ answers are more or less in line, with some notable disparities:

Expertise in Accounting

In the accounting marketplace, a better reputation for expertise and stronger familiarity with a firm wins the day. Sellers don’t quite recognize just how important building that relationship can be.

What you should do:

It’s essential to keep in mind that both your reputation and a sense of familiarity can be cultivated before you ever work with a prospective client, by providing quality educational content and even free consultations that help firms solve problems. And if you recall the first stage of a buyer’s search, you’ll remember that it’s within your power to frame the problem. By bolstering your reputation and boosting your visibility, you’ll be prepared to win at every stage.

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