Alexandra DeFelice
Alexandra DeFelice

What's Your Specialty?

How and why you should develop a niche practice.

December 17, 2009
by Alexandra DeFelice

What types of clients do you have and how can you target the types you would like to work with more? These are just a couple of questions accountants should ask themselves when developing a niche practice.

Developing a niche doesn’t necessarily mean starting a new business. Many accountants may already have formed a niche without realizing it, according to Michelle L. Long, CPA, MBA, owner of Long for Success LLC and author of Successful QuickBooks Consulting. She gave a presentation during The Sleeter Group’s 2009 Next Generation Accounting Solutions Conference in November outlining the advantages of niche specialization and how to move your practice in that direction.

Make a chart of your current clients broken down by industry (construction, nonprofit, retail, etc.) and list the number of clients in each. Then break each of those industries into the type/stage of business (start-up, growing, mature, family, struggling) and the breakdown of those numbers. You may have a specialty developing already that you just didn’t see before.

The most common niche by industry and specialty in 2008 was small business, according to the Accounting Office Management & Administration Report’s 2008 CPA Firm Practice Management Survey. That was followed by construction, business valuation, estate planning, healthcare, litigation support, personal financial planning, government and technology consulting.

Cost segregation is also becoming a popular specialty area as more accountants are helping struggling businesses deal with things like bankruptcy or insolvency or turnaround services to help them get back on their feet, according to Long. “You could help them manage their cash-flow, but they may not be able to pay you right now,” she cautioned.

Legal or regulatory changes can make a certain industry need help from accountants, but it could also come to haunt you if the law changes and they don’t need you anymore.

Finding the Right Clients

Many methods exist to reach out to potential clients once you determine your niche, and the Yellow Pages certainly don’t rank high, according to Long.

The most common way respondents in the CPA Firm Practice Management Survey reached their target markets was through their Web site (74.5%), followed by cross-marketing to existing clients (68.4%) and networking with other professional firms (61.2%).

Long acknowledged that most accountants don’t think of themselves as salespeople, but said it is possible to let people know what you can offer without sounding like an advertisement. “You’re not selling, you’re helping them. Listen to their problems and make them aware [that] you have solutions if they want them,” she said.

Develop relationships with peers and others in the industry/community you want to target. “Most of our business is from referrals, work on that,” Long said. “You can call on attorneys, bankers and insurance agents, so when someone needs something they’ll think of you. Let people know you want referrals, but specify the type of work you’re looking for.” Those relationships may also serve for you to pass on work you don’t want to do, she suggested.

Social media can help get your name recognized when you post interesting articles or answer others’ questions on a particular topic, but be sure to include a link to your Web site on the end of your signature in case readers want to call on you in the future.

“Don’t just keep saying I sell X. You don’t have to be pushy about sales. Remember you’re not selling if you’re providing consistent useful information,” Long said, adding that accountants don’t need to commit loads of time to social media efforts, either.  “Spend 15 minutes to 30 minutes in the morning and in the afternoon. Participate in little bits and pieces and you get a lot of activity throughout the week.”

Another way to build referrals? Long connected with an old classmate on LinkedIn who happens to be an attorney and now they refer clients to one another.

Targeted lists of potential clients don’t necessarily have to be purchased from a third party. Long pointed to the ReferenceUSA database — which can be accessed by almost anyone with a library card for free –as well as from their home computers should their libraries offer remote access. It provides information on about 14 million businesses including data such as sales volume, executive names and titles and competitors’ reports.

ReferenceUSA users can target businesses by industry and geography and drill down more to target based on details such as number of employees. Residential database searches are also available for accountants looking to target certain neighborhoods.

Users can download up to 50 results per search into a CSV file that they can pull into Excel or create a mail merge into Word.

Be careful of laws that prohibit e-mailing non-clients sales pitches. Instead, Long suggested informing them about changes in the industry and sharing information (for example, residents of a new neighborhood may want to know about the new homebuyer’s credit).

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES: For information on AICPA resources supporting niche practices visit aicpacommunities.org.

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Alexandra DeFelice is a Journal of Accountancy senior editor and an AICPA CPA Insider™ columnist. To comment on this story or suggest future technology column ideas, e-mail her or call (212) 596-6122.