How CFOs Pick a New CPA Firm

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August 7, 2008
by Rick Telberg/For the Finance Executive

Let's face it: A big part of public accountancy is a matter of marketing. If you don't have clients, you aren't an accountant.

Having clients means looking for clients, and the official term for that kind of looking is "marketing."

Effective marketing takes time and costs money — two things few CPAs have both of simultaneously, and two things no CPA ever wants to waste.

So we came right out and asked CPAs which marketing tactics they planned to use in the next 12 months, and we asked CFOs and other corporate accountants at client companies which marketing tactics were likely to ring their chimes. The results are reported in the free PDF download, "What Do Clients Really Want?"

The results from CPAs and CFOs were similar, but far from identical. The gap between the two implies that a lot of CPAs could be spending their time and money better.

CPAs and CFOs agreed on one thing: Referrals. If you can get them, they are the way to go. Three out of four CPAs (77%) intend to try and generate referrals, and 83 percent of CFOs said referrals work.

But did you know that clients may be increasingly less likely to recommend their CPA as the years go by? In fact, CPAs are half again more likely to find a client who's happy to refer them in the very first year of service — the honeymoon year — than in any subsequent year.

Nevertheless, the two groups agreed on the importance of networking events; 43 percent of CPAs planned to attend more events, while one-third (34%) of the CFOs indicated that networking might be effective. Seminars were the third most popular and effective marketing tactic, with CPAs and CFOs mentioning them 28 percent and 29 percent, respectively.

But, on the other 20 tactics we asked about, opinions diverged. Both camps saw some effectiveness in CPAs serving on boards and in civic organizations, but while one-third of CPAs (30 percent) saw value in it, only 15 percent of CFOs could be convinced by it.

Keys to Professional Service Marketing

To be sure, no one wants to be hit in the face with a commercial, ad or uninvited sales pitch. The key to professional services marketing is all about gaining trust and demonstrating superior understanding. So anything a prospect says about the effectiveness of marketing strategies should be taken with a grain or two of salt. And "What Do Clients Really Want?" shouldn't substitute for a CPA organization's own initiatives and testing. As they say: Your results may vary.

That being said, the discrepancies between what CPAs are planning and what clients say may move them are startling.

Now look at these stats:

  • CPAs planning to expand a Web site: 41 percent
  • Clients who could be hooked in by a Web site: nine percent
  • CPAs planning to send out e-mail newsletters: 21 percent
  • Clients who could be convinced by an e-mail newsletter: nine percent
  • CPAs planning to use public relations: 19 percent
  • Clients who could be lured by public relations: seven percent
  • CPAs planning to use telemarketing: eight percent
  • Clients who want to hear from a telemarketer: zero
  • Clients who respond to an e-mail promotion: none
  • Clients who are captured by a radio spot: nil
  • Clients susceptible to billboards: zip
  • Clients cruising the blogs: squat

And here's what some of the CPAs had to say:

Mike Chaffee, who runs Customized Payroll Corporation in Troy, Mich., has an idea: "Broadcast fax promotion campaign."

Mackey McNeill, of The Advisory Team, LLC, in Covington, Ky., plans to hold "client events," which we wish we knew a little more about.

Another partner in a small CPA firm gave us one word, all upper case, a word we like to see pop up in the auditing business: "TRUST."

Trust, schmust — the CFO of a pretty big company in Salisbury, N.C., wants "direct contact; entertainment." And an anonymous senior staffer at a medium-sized company somewhere out there in America could be won over by one of the world's most powerful marketing media: "Golf."

A few other key words came up: Reputation. Relationships. Personal chemistry. Skills. And referrals, referrals, referrals.

Now that we've got that worked out, we hope CPAs can start sending the right messages in the right media to the right companies, the ones that can use a good accounting firm. They're always looking.

Good professionals make sure they're seen, heard and understood.

COMMENTS: Questions, rants, raves idle thoughts or questions? Contact Rick Telberg or Watch him.

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About Rick Telberg

Rick Telberg is editor at large/director of online content.

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Disclaimer: Any views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of the AICPA or CPA2Biz. Official AICPA positions are determined through certain specific committee procedures, due process and deliberation.