When I talk to CPAs about growing their strategic consulting book of business they often complain about not being able to add new clients. It is important for me to understand where this struggle comes from, because if you cannot add tax and accounting clients it will probably be difficult for you to add consulting clients. In the world of professional services the service may vary, but the rules of the game for business development are the same.
Now, we all know that each of US is good enough, smart enough, and doggone it, people like us. But OTHER CPA's struggle to get clients. We all know one or two that we could pass this along to. So in the interest of helping our fellow brothers and sisters out...here are four reasons they struggle so much. Pass it on.
You (I mean "They") Are Not Visible
This is by far the most common problem. Most CPAs fail to add new business because they have not developed a discipline of being visible. One of the easiest ways to add new business is to follow the 50-in-50 exercise. This is a commitment to have 50 coffee meetings in 50 days. You only need 5 to 10 contacts to get this process started. And the only criteria for these 5 to 10 people is that they are interesting. They don't have to be prospects. They don't have to be business owners. They don't have to be in any certain demographic. When you meet your only agenda is to learn more about them AND find some way to help the person you are meeting with.
Near the end of your time together be completely transparent. Explain your 50-in-50 commitment and ask if they know one or two interesting people that you should invite to coffee. If you follow this formula you can start with as few as five people and you will never run out of future coffee dates.
Even though YOU are not on the agenda, at some point the conversation will invariably turn to you and your business. This gives you a chance to briefly explain what you do and how you stand out. As the network of people you have helped grows, you will begin to receive referrals.
By far the fastest way to grow a network is person-to-person. It can be done online, but it takes longer. The context of real-world interactions and the plethora of information it provides about a person simply means that trust builds faster.
That said some of my best professional relationships started on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, and good old-fashioned blogs and email. The online world makes it much more efficient to broaden your network, but to be effective that network also needs to be deep. There are plenty of CPAs who spend hours upon hours on LinkedIn, Facebook groups, and blog feeds who never add a single client through these methods. If you meet people online you will usually make the most progress by taking those conversations off-line at some point where one-on-one communication happens faster and includes all of the nonverbal queues we've been hardwired to expect.
Lack of Credibility
Let's say you have been getting out there, and you are religious about connecting with other people and helping them achieve their goals. The next area to examine is your credibility. If you do not come off as someone people can trust, if your interpersonal skills are lacking, or if you lack confidence in yourself you should not be surprised that others find it hard to give you their business or send you referrals.
This is most often the case with young CPAs just starting out, especially those who are running their own firms. They have no one to push them into uncomfortable situations where they will find out what they are made of, and gain the confidence they need. It is also common among seasoned professionals who are just starting their own firms. Being thrown into the unstructured world of firm ownership can be unnerving and overwhelming. Desperation can set in as the honeymoon wears off and weeks stretch into months without a new client. There is nothing less attractive to prospects than desperation.
When you are out in the world doing your best to be visible you need to look like someone people can trust. Your wardrobe might need an upgrade. Your old beater Corolla from college might need to be traded in. You might need to polish up your communication skills with Toastmasters or a Dale Carnegie course. Traditionally these are skills and factors that are taught or pointed out by managers and people you work with. But as technology has drastically lowered the barriers for starting one's own firm I see plenty of young professionals with these blind spots.
The same principles hold in the virtual world. If your aim is to add remote clients and your website looks like something from the CompuServe days that might be a problem. Virtual businesses need to represent themselves well on today's standard platforms like LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter and on industry-specific sites where your prospects are going to do a search right after they read your brilliant guest blog post.
Take a hard look in the mirror, literally and virtually. Be honest with yourself and get some third party feedback from people who aren't afraid to hurt your feelings. Your business is too important to only hear the things you want to be told.
Lack of Relevance
Now let's say you not only have the visibility thing down, you also come across as credible and people love to accept your lunch invitations. But no one is sending you business. It is probably because you are not relevant. One of the worst things the CPA can do is attempt to be all things to all people. Over and over at practice development conferences CPAs are told they need to find a niche if they really want to grow and be successful. But this counterintuitive strategy of narrowing your potential market to expand your business development is mostly ignored.
The problem is this. In the world of professional services new business comes most often and most quickly through word-of-mouth referrals. This means that when a referral source is out there in the wild and they hear about a specific problem they need to know enough about you and your specific expertise so that your name is the one and only name that comes to mind at the very moment they are in a position to send you the best kind of prospect: one with a problem and a burning desire to solve it.
Last week a friend of mine asked me if I could recommend a CPA for her growing food wholesale business. I could not think of one, and I know dozens of local CPAs. But none of those CPAs has ever sat down with me over a cup of coffee and told me about their expertise with route salesman, delivery trucks, or wholesale food distributors. If any of those terms had ever been mentioned I would have had a name for her. But almost all of the CPAs that I know describe their services in broadly generalist terms.
I absolutely love the fact that Magen Smith specializes in the self storage industry, and that Jeremiah Kovacs and Jeff DeBolt specialize in Amazon resellers, and that Jason Blumer specializes in creatives, and that Alexis Kimbrough specializes in recording artists and that Chris Farmand serves microbrewers. These CPA and accounting firms are at the forefront of the industry and they are NOT having a problem adding new clients.
Step one in being relevant is to establish an area where you stand out and where your name is the first one that comes to the mind of anyone dealing with a problem even remotely connected to your area of expertise. Those who discipline themselves to constrain their activities to a specific niche find that adding new business costs less over time and takes up a smaller portion of their weekly schedule.
Lack of Competence
If you are doing all of these things and you still cannot add new business, stop! Really think about it, and be honest with yourself. Because the only other option is that you are incompetent.
If you are getting out there and people know you exist and they know what you do, and you have credibility, and you are relevant, and you still can't add business…then it is most likely because you are not very good at what you do. Word has gotten out about you and while the smile to your face no one will touch you with a ten foot pole.
This is hardly ever the case. The world is full of CPAs (and for that matter attorneys and doctors and engineers and architects and insurance professionals and investment advisors) who are not very good at what they do. It could be in the technical details or it could be a lack of service. But these folks tend to find a downmarket niche where people are willing to put up with incompetency for a good discount. Getting customers is not the problem. Charging them a premium price is the problem. But this article is not about pricing.
The reason incompetence is rarely the reason CPAs cannot add new clients is that if you are so bad people are spreading the word about your incompetence, it's highly unlikely you are still in business. But, there are ways to do it, whether it be staying afloat with a second job or relying on the income from a spouse. If this is you, wake up! Get serious about your craft and narrow your area of focus so that you can acquire a deep enough skill set to become competent.
I love running The Consulting CPA program. It is incredibly exciting to see CPAs learn the strategic consulting skill set and build a loyal customer base around it. But anytime a CPA tells me they've always had a hard time adding new clients we hit the brakes, hard! It's important to understand exactly why adding new business has been so difficult. Everyone has to file a tax return and if you've had a hard time making it in that business you need to go back and fix the root of the problem.
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