For Sale: Professional Services

Julie Shenkman
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Professional services: they're invisible, seemingly generic and weigh down the debit side of the client's ledger. Standard advertising claims -- "new and improved," "we beat the competition," "have it your way" -- simply don't apply. Accounting firms face a difficult challenge in today's highly competitive marketplace as they seek to differentiate themselves, increase name recognition, win new business and retain their current clientele.

Marketing and its communication tools, such as advertising and public relations, remain relatively new disciplines within accounting practices. And just when the profession started adapting and adopting modern marketing techniques, along came the Internet transforming the playing field and, perhaps, changing all the rules once again.

There aren't any quick, easy answers to questions about how to market professional services in the year 2000. Every firm or individual practitioner has to evolve a personal approach. Yet good ideas can be drawn from the experience of others. Following is a series of personal perspectives on marketing CPA services from several firm partners who are shaping the marketing programs of their practices.

Perspective 1: Marketing Concepts are Much The Same -- But Faster

Alfonse M. Mattia, CPA, Amper, Politziner & Mattia P.A. www.amper.com.

"Marketing professional services hasn't changed that much," says Alfonse M. Mattia, CPA, of Amper, Politziner & Mattia P.A., with offices throughout New Jersey. "It's providing a consistent flow of informative and educated information to the business community."

The speed of marketing has changed, however, according to Mattia. He uses a garden analogy to explain.

"We're planting seeds with our marketing. Having patience. Nurturing the seeds with sunshine and water -- TLC. For us, it's still the basic marketing philosophy," says Mattia. "The change is the speed at which the seeds sometimes grow. The Internet, email -- the new forms of communication are like a new form of sunshine. It has forced us to look at our methods of marketing."

The decisive moments in gaining new business still require face-to-face meetings, Mattia says, but the time required for the evaluation process that leads to the crucial meeting can sometimes be shorter.

"Electronic commerce has changed the marketing time frame," Mattia says. Describing one important new engagement for his firm, he notes that much of the communication was electronic. "We had an important face-to-face meeting, but much of the communication that followed was electronic. We received an email message from the CFO advising us that we were selected," Mattia says. "Every day that goes by, electronic communication becomes more important. Unless CPA firms understand this, they'll fall behind the curve --they must be progressive in budgeting the firm capital needed to be at the cutting-edge."

Professional services: they're invisible, seemingly generic and weigh down the debit side of the client's ledger. Standard advertising claims -- "new and improved," "we beat the competition," "have it your way" -- simply don't apply. Accounting firms face a difficult challenge in today's highly competitive marketplace as they seek to differentiate themselves, increase name recognition, win new business and retain their current clientele.

Perspective 2: Hitting for a High Average

Peter A. Weitsen CPA, Mendlowitz Weitsen, LLP www.mwllp.com.

"There's no one thing we rely on in marketing the firm. It's a cumulative process," says Peter A. Weitsen, CPA, of Mendlowitz Weitsen, LLP, in East Brunswick. "We see marketing as any one of the tools we use to develop name recognition and build relationships."

The firm takes a broad-minded approach. "We're willing to try just about anything," Weitsen says, describing the wide range of marketing activities the firm undertakes, including newsletters, employing a salesman, an annual CPE program, an annual stock-picking contest and "a fair amount of advertising."

Public relations -- serving as a news source for the media, speaking and writing -- is also extremely important. "My partner, Ed Mendlowitz, is very visible in the media," Weitsen notes.

"We publish and sell a new business kit," he adds, citing another marketing program. "It has every form a business needs to start operating in New Jersey. We use it as a selling tool, giving it to all the bankers in the area. We offer it to other accounting firms -- they can print their firm's name on it," explains Weitsen.

"It's not a home run," he says. "But we get some singles out of it."

Essential to the firm's development has been its ability to adapt to change. "We've evolved. As things change, we have to change," says Weitsen. "We've become Quickbooks ® consultants, for example. You have to understand the program, but you also have to understand accounting. When you're on-site with a client, that can provide an entrée." He cites an example of one call the firm received for Quickbooks ® support that didn't produce any soft ware consulting business. "It resulted in a mid-five figure engagement to help sell the business, instead," says Weitsen.

Professional services: they're invisible, seemingly generic and weigh down the debit side of the client's ledger. Standard advertising claims -- "new and improved," "we beat the competition," "have it your way" -- simply don't apply. Accounting firms face a difficult challenge in today's highly competitive marketplace as they seek to differentiate themselves, increase name recognition, win new business and retain their current clientele.

Perspective 3: Gain Exposure to the Right People

Diahann W. Lassus, CPA, Lassus Wherley & Associates www.lassuswherley.com.

"It's tough, getting your name 'out there,'" says Diahann W. Lassus, CPA, of Lassus Wherley & Associates, P.C. in New Providence, NJ. "There are so many people competing for the consumer's attention."

Her 15-year-old firm specializes in "wealth management" and benefited tremendously from media recognition of the need for fee-only financial planning, she says. Her media "breakthrough" came in 1987.

"I was involved in the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors," Lassus says. "My involvement led to an invitation to participate in a Money magazine roundtable. That led to an appearance on CNN that ultimately led to regular appearances on CNBC's Power Lunch and other media exposure such as coverage in USA Today.

"You need to be a good communicator and that happens to be one of my strengths. You have to learn to think in sound bites, and compress an hour's worth of information into five minutes or less. It is well worth your time and money to get media training, including videotaping yourself and focusing on areas for improvement," says Lassus.

While national publicity is great, local involvement is essential. "Get out in the community," advises Lassus. "Get connected to local organizations. Write for the weekly newspaper. Contribute to the community. We recently sponsored a young woman for the Paralympics. It was fun for our firm, made a contribution and got our name out."

In discussing marketing, Lassus offers a reminder. "Don't forget about sales. Most of us aren't very good at sales, but marketing and sales must go hand-in-hand."

Professional services: they're invisible, seemingly generic and weigh down the debit side of the client's ledger. Standard advertising claims -- "new and improved," "we beat the competition," "have it your way" -- simply don't apply. Accounting firms face a difficult challenge in today's highly competitive marketplace as they seek to differentiate themselves, increase name recognition, win new business and retain their current clientele.

Perspective 4: Experts Who Communicate with Experts

Edward W. O'Connell, CPA, Wiss & Company, LLP www.wiss.com.

The attitude of accounting professionals toward marketing has changed over the last decade, according to Edward W. O'Connell, CPA, of Wiss & Company, LLP, with offices in Livingston and Red Bank, NJ. His firm has relied on top-flight experts to expedite the process.

"Looking back at the attitudes toward marketing, the older CPAs were saying, 'I guess we have to do it.' The younger ones were saying, 'That's part of what we do,'" says O'Connell.

"The most important element of your marketing, as we see it, is the quality of your work," O'Connell says. "From the numbers on the balance sheet to the way you treat the client's staff -- everything you do contributes to the firm's image."

Over the last decade, O'Connell's firm has also engaged marketing consultants to help focus its energy and sharpen its image.

"We've had several, changing every two or three years," says O'Connell. "First we brought in a consultant out of Chicago with expertise in marketing for CPA firms. When, after a couple of years, his schedule was too full, we started working with another member of his firm."

The firm subsequently engaged a noted author and financial services expert to share his expertise. More recently, the firm hired an in-house marketing director, but continued to invest in outside expertise, retaining a consultant who was involved in the American Institute of CPAs Vision Project.

"We've benefited by being able to work with top people, people who know the field very well and allow us to pick their brains," O'Connell says.

"We've changed the way we use our marketing tools, but the essential advantage the CPA offers remains the same," he adds. "Trust. That's the marketing advantage a CPA has."

Professional services: they're invisible, seemingly generic and weigh down the debit side of the client's ledger. Standard advertising claims -- "new and improved," "we beat the competition," "have it your way" -- simply don't apply. Accounting firms face a difficult challenge in today's highly competitive marketplace as they seek to differentiate themselves, increase name recognition, win new business and retain their current clientele.

Perspective 5: Show How Much You Care

Ira S. Rosenbloom, CPA, Mintz Rosenfeld & Company LLC www.mintzrosenfeld.com.

"I don't think marketing has changed significantly," says Ira S. Rosenbloom, CPA, of Mintz Rosenfeld & Company LLC in Fairfield, NJ. "The tools have changed, but the message is still the same as it was 40 years ago. We break it down. Caring. Concern. Creativity."

Marketing is the outward and visible expression of the firm's business model. "We're very entrepreneurial, very proactive. We encourage clients to think outside the box. We're not for everybody, but it's the approach we've taken since 1957," Rosenbloom says.

"Our approach to marketing has been tweaked. Massaged. We've added new buzzwords because the marketing world says you have to label things. But it comes down to this: 'Look at it as if it was your own business."

While today's communication technology may not have changed marketing, as Rosenbloom defines it, the new technology does play a role in the sales process.

"When you walk into a room with databases, charts, graphics -- that helps communicate your concern. It also shows that you have good research capabilities and the resources to support and satisfy the client," says Rosenbloom.

"To succeed, you have to show a discernable difference," he adds. "You do that by asking probing questions -- questions that their current accountants aren't asking. You do it by showing your knowledge, showing your interest and showing how much you care."

Technology also impacts the process of delivering services. But Rosenbloom feels that it can't dominate the process. "Clients are about building relationships with people," he stresses. "Underlying the relationship is the question: How much do we really care?"

Professional services: they’re invisible, seemingly generic and weigh down the debit side of the client’s ledger. Standard advertising claims -- "new and improved," "we beat the competition," "have it your way" -- simply don’t apply. Accounting firms face a difficult challenge in today’s highly competitive marketplace as they seek to differentiate themselves, increase name recognition, win new business and retain their current clientele.

Perspective 6: Building from Within

Harris A. Rothstein, CPA, Rothstein, Kass & Company P.C. www.rkco.com.

"I believe your most important opportunities are generated by your own clients," says Harris A. Rothstein, CPA, of Rothstein, Kass & Company P.C. in Roseland, NJ. "Maintaining the quality of your service produces the best marketing results."

As a firm with a national reputation, Rothstein, Kass & Company has focused on branding. "We have institutionalized our name as our brand in many areas where we specialize. The market looks to the firm and not to individual partners," says Rothstein.

"Marketing is the accretion of name awareness, in the media, one-on-one with the principals, in conferences and through other means," he adds. "It’s difficult to measure cause and effect.

"The goal is be stronger and more cohesive. Over the last 10 or 15 years, we’ve developed a culture that consciously avoided an ‘eat what you kill’ mentality," Rothstein says. "To be successful, make other people successful."

While the firm’s overall objective is to create a unified identity in the marketplace, developing personal relationships with clients remains central to its marketing strategy. In fact, that is the specific job of the firm’s marketing department.

"We have a marketing department, but it’s more of a production department that concentrates on supporting the marketing efforts of the principals of the firm," says Rothstein.

Playing a strong role in the firm’s marketing is the Internet. Maintaining a fresh, interactive website is important. "We know when we make a proposal that potential clients will look at our website," says Rothstein. "It’s also important for potential employees and students."

Digital communication in the form of CD-ROMs also is replacing printed brochures for marketing and recruiting, too. "We can customize them, so they are not only better, but less expensive as well. We can burn CDs in lots of 20 or 30. They don’t get stale," explains Rothstein.

Professional services: they’re invisible, seemingly generic and weigh down the debit side of the client’s ledger. Standard advertising claims -- "new and improved," "we beat the competition," "have it your way" -- simply don’t apply. Accounting firms face a difficult challenge in today’s highly competitive marketplace as they seek to differentiate themselves, increase name recognition, win new business and retain their current clientele.

Perspective 7: Follow Your Partners’ Passions

Barry R. Sharer, CPA, Wagner, Sharer, Murtaugh, & Petree.

After testing many of the traditional marketing methods, Barry R. Sharer, CPA, of Wagner, Sharer, Murtaugh, & Petree in Voorhees, NJ, has one word of advice on the subject: "Specialize."

"We tried telemarketing, advertising, other programs. They didn’t work for us," says Sharer.

"By specializing in narrow fields, we’ve become well-known and the work has followed." In bankruptcies, one of the firm’s established specialties, Sharer says, "we’re one of two firms that do the bulk of the bankruptcy accounting work in South Jersey."

The firm’s specialties have emerged from the interests of its partners. "Individuals got involved in work that they enjoyed. They wanted to develop it and we encouraged them," Sharer says.

It’s not, however, a quick fix approach to marketing. Specialization requires commitment and adjustments. "Our practice in bankruptcy took 15 years to develop," Sharer says. "I headed our litigation group, but I scaled back to head bankruptcy. I got involved in groups that dealt with bankruptcy, including the New Jersey Society of CPAs Insolvency and Reorganization Committee," he adds.

"Identify the specialty and learn all about it," he says. "Write articles. Become a recognized expert."

Sharer says his firm is now consciously developing staff specialists. "We encourage people to take on a range of responsibilities for their first four or five years to develop a well-rounded background. Then we allow anyone in the firm with a strong interest area to specialize. We provide job enhancements and bonuses," he says. "The approach comes from the partners’ experience in developing our own niches," Sharer explains. "We find it provides us with a steady flow of leads and referrals."

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