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Our practice is twenty-one years old this year and to celebrate …. well, we’re just working as normal. That’s not to say we’re not pleased, because we are, and though we’ve had our ups and downs, overall it’s been a good experience.
Why we, or more to the point, I, went into practice is a story for another day, but I am frequently asked how we got started, and how we secured new clients, so what marketing tips can we pass on to those just starting out or struggling to develop a customer base?
I would not pretend to have any particular marketing expertise, so all I can do is pass on some things that have, and have not, worked for us, and hope that it might help others as they take their first steps into what might be a very alien environment.
1. Advertising in local press and Yellow Pages: yes, we did pick up some early work from both these sources (remember this was early 1990s) but generally this was low value and poor quality work and certainly did not warrant the expenditure, so after a few years we stopped advertising. I guess this route to market is largely redundant in today’s digital era so it would be interesting to hear from other MiPs whether this type of advertising does indeed still generate any new business.
2. Direct mailing: we took advice from a marketing consultant and spent a small fortune, or so it seemed at the time, on brochures, mailing lists, and postage, and dutifully followed up every mailing with a telephone call to ensure that the brochure had been received and enquire whether they would be interested in meeting …. they were not.
3. Recruitment agencies: thinking that I really would need to step back into the world of paid employment after just a few months of ‘independence’, I reluctantly started contacting agencies, and found to my surprise that there was quite a demand for temporary, part-time, and interim, accountants.
At the time I had no idea what the latter term meant, but it paid well and I soon had a number of short-term projects under my belt and suddenly agencies were approaching me rather than the other way around. This gave me the confidence to continue, and one of these short-term assignments turned into a one-or-two-day-per-week marathon over eighteen months which provided a platform from which to build the practice.
4. Networking: I think I need to distinguish here between networking which occurs in the normal course of business where say, I have been discussing a client’s affairs with a bank manager and he or she asks for a card and then contacts me later to see whether I can also help with another of their customers, because this has lead to some good, long lasting client engagements, and the type of staged events which now proliferate and are promoted by various business and trade groups: as a colleague once remarked, “too many predators, too little prey”; I have to agree with the latter sentiment.
5. Referrals: similarly I have picked up new work from existing clients who have a brother, sister, uncle, good friend, customer, supplier, etcetera who has “… a problem you might be able to help them with”. Some have turned out to be headaches we could really have done without, but some have turned into good, long term clients, and indeed almost all new clients now come via this route – I have just learned to be a little more adept at asking the right questions to work out which I should pursue, and which I should avoid.
Yes I still find myself taking on things I probably shouldn’t when I see someone in need of help but I guess that it at least earns some goodwill with the client who has made the referral, or is that just wishful thinking?
6. Training: I have been delivering ‘Finance for non-financial managers’ courses via Chambers of Commerce and the former Business Links since 1997 (and still do via one such Chamber). Over the years it has proven to be a useful marketing tool in that inevitably a proportion of participants will approach me afterwards for more specific advice and some will then invite me to meet and to review their business requirements – it is one reason why a small practice based in South East Wales has clients from Birmingham, to Bristol, to Cardiff, and various points between.
In short I have been paid to market my business! How often does that happen?
A few year ago my colleagues and I put this online for our own clients at http://centralaccounting.co.uk/home/documentation/accounting-basics/ and I have already made an offer to other members of the local area MiP group that if they wished to do likewise with local Chambers, FSB, and similar organisations, then I have no problem with them using this ‘online workshop’ to deliver training provided the appropriate acknowledgements are made – it will be for them to bring it to life in a classroom situation with their own anecdotes and personal experiences.
I’m very happy to make the same offer to MiPs generally: we have had a very good return on the work I undertook to develop the course so it owes us nothing, and we’re not looking for anything in return beyond brand awareness for the award winning cloud/ SaaS ERP software in which we have had some involvement over the past several years, and on which website the workshop sits.
7. Website: we have one at www.centralaccounting.ltd.uk and yes, we do get occasional enquires from prospective clients who have found it via search engine, but it’s much the same as the early advertising and Yellow Pages experience – nothing to get too excited about. We also get quite a number of sole traders in particular who are just looking for some free advice.
That said, it’s proven useful as an electronic brochure that can be ‘left with’ a prospective client, so it is worthwhile in my view, and it can act to both encourage the type of clients we are looking for, and discourage those we are not.
It might also be worth mentioning that the other question that often crops up in conversation with new MiPs is “how do I price for the work?” and over the years we have developed a formula that gives us a good starting point and which we use in discussion with the client in a question and answer session so that (a). we get clarity on what we are being asked to do, and (b). they understand the cost implications for their business.
If you think it might be useful and want to use it it’s at http://www.centralaccounting.ltd.uk/cost.html but remember not to send it to us when you’ve completed the form with the client as that will generate a good deal of confusion.
8. Social media: yes, we are active on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter, and have been for a few years, and the received wisdom is that this is the future for marketing. To date I cannot think of a single client that has been generated via this route, so for me the jury is still out. Clearly others may have had a more fruitful experience and there is no guarantee that we are using this tool to best effect so it would be interesting to learn of other MiPs experiences in using this.
I should also note that we have used pay-per-click advertising in another business in which I am involved, and this has delivered new customers, but I think the critical difference here is that that business has a well defined product, rather than a service that needs to tailored around the client’s wants and needs.
For our practice, there is nothing quite like face-to-face engagement with a prospective client to initially listen to what it is they want and need, and then deliver a response to address those needs, and if those prospects are there because of a referral and/ or recommendation from an existing satisfied client, it makes life all the easier.
As I write this I have no idea whether this very personal experience is similar in any way to that of other established MiPs, so it would be very interesting to learn of your experiences, and I’m sure that if you are able to share those experiences it might provide guidance and encouragement to those just starting out, or about to start out, in practice.
Look forward to hearing from you.
Paul Driscoll is a Chartered Management Accountant, a director of Central Accounting Limited, Cura Business Consulting Limited, Hudman Limited, and AJ Tensile Fabrications Limited, and is a board level adviser to a variety of other businesses.