Marketing for accountants: Is now the right time?
As this is such an unprecedented time, I am not going to pretend that I have all the answers right now. (I wish I did though!) But having been one of those who lost their corporate roles after the financial crisis brought on by the credit crunch in 2008 (those pesky banks…), there is plenty to learn from what was learnt then. And what is likely to work now when it comes to marketing for accountants. After all, you've got bills to pay, and gaps to address in your revenue from clients going out of business. And this is the purpose for this post.
What's the reality for most small accountancy firms right now?
Before I get started into the main guts of the article, it is worth taking a moment to understand what is going on around us. After all, the first rule of marketing for accountants is to truly understand the context and what clients are going to be going through and feeling. When we speak to our members, we are hearing the following:
- I am spending all my time in back-to-back calls with clients and staff members
- I am struggling to focus on the cash flow forecasts, loan applications and deep-thinking stuff my clients need right now (and are prepared to pay for) because of constant interruptions and queries from my clients, staff members and members of my household.
- We are losing some clients as they wouldn’t survive the crisis (particularly those firms with lots of clients from the hospitality, retail and leisure sectors.)
- My clients would not accept a price increase right now (and yep, that is definitely not the right way to go…)
- I know there are lots of opportunities right now, but I am struggling to have the thinking time to focus on WHAT to do to realise those opportunities.
- Their website traffic has significantly increased, and I mean doubled, tripled type increase (which means business owners are searching for help online right now)
I don’t have a crystal ball, but my sense is that we are not going to ping back to normal in the next few weeks. You only have to look at the government nationalising all the UK train companies for the next 6 months to realise that at the very least we have more of the same until October.
Of course, the great thing about being an accountant is that there will always be clients needing our help. For every client who is struggling with demand right now, there will be another client who is thriving right now because their service or product is in high demand right now. From what I learnt from being one of the many people being forcibly (but thankfully happily) ejected from corporate life after the 2008 credit crunch, there will be an increasing number of people setting up their own business. And whether your client’s businesses are growing, plateauing, nose-diving or just getting started, they still need a huge amount of help from an accountant. And for many of our clients they need us right now. We are their 4th emergency service - and often this is the only bill they will pay when money is tight.
However, now is NOT the right time to go in with a strong sales message. Most clients are not ready to buy. And let’s be honest the raft of new business owners which will appear hasn’t yet started. So this means that we have to be really mindful of the messages we put out and how we are in these messages. For example, I’ve switched off from all the organisations I normally listen to who are wanting to sell to me right now. I’ve heard of people getting really upset by having to supply an email address or call to get the real help after reading a taster of something which could be really useful for them.
I’ve also seen a few accountants offer webinars about ‘business continuity planning’ which I know has a particular intent to upsell paid business continuity planning. Let’s be honest, the timing for this type of session is probably at least a month too late. Most small business owners I know are not in the right frame of mind to attend a session (where they know there will be an upsell) on business continuity planning. They are either battening down the hatches wondering when they can reopen their doors right now, panicking about the future, deciding on whether they need to make redundancies or just furlough staff or worrying about their own health or the health of their families right now.
As a business owner who has seen their workload go through the roof, the last thing I want to do right now is attend a webinar where I know I am going to be sold too. Nor do I have time at the moment to do much more than read a few articles and recharge my batteries by switching right off from work. (Not sure I am going to make much headway on my intentions to read up lots of great business books while self-isolating at home.)
Only when your audience of business owners has come through the highly emotionally charged phase of the crisis, will they be in a rational enough state to think about the future. So, let’s forget trying to sell Business Continuity Planning sessions right now. Or profiteering from sky-high pricing for cash flow forecasting. Or wondering whether you should value price your advisory services. Your aim right now is to just be there for your clients. To be the advisor they always thought they were paying for. The reality is that the small accountancy firm owners who do the right thing by their clients will be the ones who see their business soar.
How to increase my revenue right now
The traditional way for small accountancy firms to quickly increase their revenue was to put in place a fee increase. Doing this now, or for the next few months will be commercial suicide. So, what other options do you have to increase your revenue right now? Particularly if you have already lost clients or having to give a large portion of your clients payment holidays? After all, you still have work to do and bills to pay. For the rest of this article I am going to take you through a 4-step revenue recovery plan.
Step 1: Triage your clients
In last week’s article “5 ways small accountancy firm owners can survive and thrive the tsunami of work brought on by the COVID-19 crisis” I talked about triaging your clients and this part is key to your revenue recovery plan. So, here is how you triage your clients, segment them into the following populations:
- Really important clients to the firm
- Highly vulnerable to going bust
- Vulnerable to going bust
- Will take a knock but will survive
- No impact
- Demand for their services or products has gone through the roof
Each of these populations will need to be handled differently, because they have different anxieties and requirements. At a minimum all of your clients need to have some contact from your firm. This contact doesn’t need to be a phone call from you personally.
Step 2: Decide on what each population needs right now
Despite what it may feel like, you don’t need to do everything for free right now. Remember you have a duty to put food on the table for both your family and your employee’s families. And you wouldn’t be helping your clients in their hour of need by going bust or radically having to reduce your firm’s service levels as you can’t afford to pay your staff.
Regardless of which population your clients fall into, they will need these as a minimum from your firm:
- Regular updates on the financial help available to them and their business
- A time to speak with a member of your firm to help them put in place a plan for them and their business
But the key question is how do you provide this minimum service without being welded to your phone right now? Many of our members are telling us that they are massively overwhelmed by the sheer amount of client contact time they are needing to give to their client base. In our article: The ultimate guide to dealing with overwhelm caused by constant client calls due to the Coronavirus Crisis we give some simple tips to dealing with this overwhelm. But the key to solving this time vs need issue is to provide different options for your clients. For example, this is what our members have been doing:
- Emailing a regular, sometimes daily, update to clients on the financial help available to them. (The club is often providing the copy for these emails). This regular update helps to cut down on the inevitable client calls after every government financial update.
- Running weekly or multiple online ‘surgery sessions’ for clients (and other local small business owners) to call into to get an update on what is the current situation. Clients then get a chance to pose their questions to a member of the firm. And often they have the same questions, so this online meeting is a great way to give service to your clients in a time efficient manner. (And yes, the club has provided a slide deck for their members to use for these sessions.) Some of our members have been running one of these weekly sessions with an employment law specialist to answer the employment law related questions that many clients have.
- Using all the members of their team to call their clients to see how they are doing, and providing a talk sheet to their team members to be able to answer the common questions.
- Offering high value information for free to their clients, whether via social media, email or their blog. (The club is white labelling high quality content for its members to share freely.)
But what services can you provide for clients at a fee?
This really is the million pound question. It’s also an ethical question. For example, my opinion is answering the clients queries right now should be part of the monthly fee clients pay. But providing a weekly updated cash flow forecast to a client who only pays for a stripped back minimum compliance-only service? Maybe not. It all comes back to the triaging step. If the client is likely to bounce back, able to furlough members of staff and get grants from the government, then charging flexibly for extra services should be something you need to consider.
Here are some ideas for how our members are generating revenue from their client base right now:
- Being very helpful and visible with both their clients and their local business community on social media. Such as opening up their facebook groups and surgery sessions to clients and non-clients. This is leading to a steady-stream of new business enquiries for our members.
- Being paid a success fee for clients they help gain a loan rather than charging for doing the projections, management accounts etc
- Moving their last few clients onto a cloud-based accounting platform such as Xero or Quickbooks in order to give them the regular updated cash flow forecasts they need (and charging to move them onto these cloud-based platforms)
- Charging their clients to get their books up-to-date (for clients that don’t take bookkeeping services) so they have a true and accurate picture of the financial health of their business
- Taking over from a business’s in house or external bookkeeper who is unable to provide the bookkeeping services, e.g. if the business decides to furlough the in-house bookkeeper
But here are some of the ways our members are providing services for clients without the need to charge:
- Providing bookkeeping services for a month or two for free or highly discounted because they have the capacity at the moment and are paid monthly by direct debit - and this is what the client needs help with right now.
- Swapping clients who already take management accounts to cash flow forecasting instead
- Using the extended free trials from cash forecasting software such as Float to be able to provide quick but fairly accurate cash flow forecasts for their bookkeeping clients
Regardless of what you decide to do with charging, it needs to feel morally right for both and the client. And your client needs to value the service they are given. But the one truth in all of this is that you need to lead your client on what services they need and how they are going to pay for them. If you explain the reasons why they need to service and why you need to charge for them and how it will benefit them, they are likely to pay.
Step 3: Remove the distractions on your time so you can implement the revenue recovery plan
This plan is all very well, but what if you are welded to your desk for 12 hours, 7 days a week right now? How are you going to get the time to do all of this great stuff which is recommended in this article? Particularly if you have the responsibility for young children as well as your accountancy practice.
In last week’s article “5 ways small accountancy firm owners can survive and thrive the tsunami of work brought on by the COVID-19 crisis” I talked about self-care. You need to look after yourself so you can have the discipline to do what is needed right now, rather than get carried along by a tidal wave of client phone calls and emails.
Now is the time to delegate. What do you really need to do right now? What can your outsource? What can your team do to help? For example, do you personally have to phone all of your clients? Or just the top clients? How can you give your team a quick training session to do these calls?
If you are trying to work from home AND homeschool your children at the same time. It is time to be realistic. Whilst it is only normal to want your kid to return to school more advanced than if they had been at school, stop thinking this way. It’s just a quick way to parental guilt. In a recent call with a member we helped them structure their day so that they could:
- Get the time with their children AND keep their practice going
- Not end up overwhelmed at the end of the day
If you are glued to rolling news or social media at the moment. It's time to limit your exposure to these. If you don't have the willpower, then use a technology solution such as Freedom (affiliate link) to set times to block access to the most distracting sources on your phone, tablet and computer such as Email, Whatsapp, Slack, Social Media etc
Step 4: Starting thinking about what clients will need next
At the moment our brains are programmed to think that this crisis is never going to end. But as China has shown us, there will be an end in sight. This means your clients’ requirements are going to change. For example, what will become their business as normal? Both now and after the crisis has finished? In your calls and surgery sessions with clients and business owners listen to what they are really saying to you. What are their problems, challenges, hurdles? For example, are they now struggling to motivate their team who is based virtually rather than in the office? Are they finding it difficult to get work done if no-one is in the office?
Our members are seeing their website traffic spike significantly since the Coronavirus has struck. Now is the time to give your website a nip and tuck, and start to think about what content prospective clients would want to see on your website for them to get in touch with you. (Click here to download a website checklist, email required)
In summary, when it comes to marketing for accountants...
From the credit crunch in 2008, I learnt the following:
- People will always have the budget to spend on an accountant, it’s all about timing and getting the right message out there
- Even in a recession there are opportunities, for example, helping businesses get finance or downsize or start up.
- Now is not the time to hunker down and stop your marketing
If your business is going to thrive throughout the crisis your firm needs to be seen to be one step ahead of what your clients require. This is both for the service your firm offers but also the content your firm shares with clients. As one of our very successful members, Graeme Tennick says, you need to lead your clients right now.