Finding Your Comfort Zone: How to Bring the Modern CPA Firm to Market
This article was originally published in the May/June 2005 issue of Disclosures magazine.
Why do so many CPA firms shy away from marketing? Marketing is a necessary part of commerce, after all, one that demonstrably can help the bottom line. Yet traditionally, accountants have been reluctant to toot their horns, as if self promotion were an assault on their dignity and a disservice to their clientele. By conforming to an accepted standard of behavior, many CPAs believe they look more credible and reassuring to their customers. The result, of course, is that thousands of independent CPAs and accounting firms look and behave exactly alike, competing for a base of customers who stand bewildered before them.
What's going on? Most people are very protective of their money, so accounting is considered a serious business. Few people would entrust their finances to an individual or company that comes across as self-interested and frivolous. A CPA firm can't appear artificial or self-serving, or its business would dry up.
On the other hand, a firm that takes itself too seriously may be perceived as stuffy and impersonal, turning off many customers who actually want to get to know the folks who are handling their finances. Beers & Cutler, the largest Washington-based CPA firm, prides themselves on their friendly, personable style. Some of the area’s largest closely-held companies are attracted to Beers & Cutler because they like the honest, jargon-free, personal service they receive — a level of service that belies the firm’s size. “We’re different,” they proclaim.* And in many ways, they truly are.
There is no denying that marketing has developed a reputation for stretching the truth. In the accounting profession, however, there is absolutely no room for fuzzy honesty. Customers trust their accountants to provide scrupulously honest tax and business advice. Without this trust, a CPA firm cannot exist.
But this doesn't mean that CPA firms can't promote themselves. In fact, self-promotion provides a valuable service to customers, who need a way to distinguish amongst a baffling array of options. The CPA marketplace is so homogeneous that many people have trouble finding a firm that fits their particular needs. This is not to say that all CPA firms are alike — they vary considerably in their approach and personality — but the average customer on the outside has no way of seeing these differences. CPA firms (and sole proprietors, too) will do themselves a tremendous favor by addressing this need for transparency. By doing so, firms will attract customers that are best for them: those who fit their particular strengths, style and expertise.
So how do you go about communicating your strengths to the community — without bragging or diminishing your reputation? How do you find that comfort zone in which your firm stands apart without threatening the sacred trust you have established with your clients? The answer lies in your brand, that secret sauce that makes your product or service truly special. In a service industry, a brand is simply the way a company distinguishes itself from its competitors through the coordinated use of words, imagery and what we’ll call “follow through.” A carefully crafted brand will heavily influence how people perceive your organization and its services.
Before you shout “Aha!” try to understand that while branding is a sort of manipulation, it is not gratuitous or dishonest. Branding only works when it reflects reality; it is a very effective way of expressing who you are, but is doomed to failure if you try to portray yourself as something you are not. If you can’t live up to the promises you make to your customers, they’ll never come back.
There are many components to a brand. While we don’t have space here to discuss each of them, I’d like to discuss a few of the more important components.
What attributes do you want to convey to your customers? (Credibility? Confidence? Trust?) In what ways does your firm differ from others? (Your personality? Your approach? Your specialty? Do you go out of your way to help your best customers?) If you are honest with yourselves, the list should include things that don’t necessarily jibe with the traditional view of an accountant. If, on the other hand, your list is filled with generalities such as “quality” and “excellence,” you’ll need to keep trying. These words say nothing specific about your organization and they are so ubiquitous in the business world that they have no value as differentiators.
Once you understand what your organization is about and what qualities make it unique, you will need to research your competitors and find out what differentiators they are invoking. At this point, you are ready to “position” your services, to develop a strategy that contrasts your firm against competitors and emphasizes the freshest, most unusual aspects of your business. Effective positioning is already clearly defined and memorable.
Just because you have uncovered your positioning doesn’t mean you know how to express it. You will need to take the time to precisely articulate it. Often this exercise results in a corporate tagline. Remember, a tagline is not an empty boast. It is a painstakingly conceived distillation of your firm’s purpose. It should be designed to help people understand you better, highlighting a specific trait, specialty, or other attribute that sets you apart or defines you. Many firms discover that they have a number of secondary key messages that they want to convey to their audiences. These messages can be used to bring focus and consistency to your marketing collateral and campaigns.
With your positioning and key messages squared away, you are ready to tackle the most obvious manifestation of your brand, your visual identity — your trademark, color palette, imagery, and other components that create the visual expression of your brand. People are visual creatures, so it is critical that you take your identity in a different direction from your competitors; in this way you avoid potential confusion and put a recognizable, memorable face to your firm. As custodians of your brand, you want to ensure that you apply your visual identity consistently across the spectrum of your corporate communications, from your business cards to your firm brochure to your website.
Your brand is worthless if you can’t follow through on its promise. That means if you position yourselves as the overnight tax specialists, you better deliver in 24 hours or less. But following through also means that your employees must provide the kind of customer interaction and experience that is implied in your brand’s promise. If your employees aren’t ready to embrace your brand, neither will your customers. So choose your promises carefully. If you can meet customers’ expectations and on occasion exceed them, your brand will take root and thrive.
Why invest in branding? Perhaps the best reason is that brand leaders enjoy 30% higher profits than the average firm. When customers grasp a firm’s positioning they know what to expect; if the firm lives up to the brand’s promise those customers often become fiercely loyal and turn into active sources of referrals. A powerful brand also attracts customers who don’t shop for price—they’re willing to pay for what you have to offer.
Building a brand for your CPA business that conveys who you are and how you differ from other firms isn’t difficult. But you must have the courage to step away from the herd and be yourself. When it comes to marketing your accounting services, there is no safety in numbers.
*Editor's note: In late 2009, Beers & Cutler merged with Baker Tilly.