Consultant Advises Marketers to Focus on Relationships, Not ‘Packaging’

hiring a cpa firm business developer

By: Christina Camara / INSIDE Public Accounting


With accounting firm growth hovering around 5-6%, consultant Jeff Pawlow urges marketers to get back to basics.

Pawlow, managing shareholder of The Growth Partnership and CEO of ABLE, asserts that accounting firm marketers can get too caught up in SEO, websites, social media and e-newsletters, or the “packaging” of marketing. While those things are important, he says, improving how everyone interacts with clients and referral sources will bring a higher return on investment. At the same time, it will move the firm from concentrating on lower-priced, less valued compliance activities to in-demand, highly valued advisory services.

He believes marketers can play a key role in guiding managers and partners to allocate five or six hours every week to business development. While time can easily be spent on billable hours and other activities, focusing efforts on top clients, specifically those who generate 80% of business for the firm, can pay off in a big way. “One of our most important jobs is not letting those hours evaporate,” he says.

Pawlow suggests marketers assign partners and managers certain key clients and prospects with the goal of developing what he calls “professional intimacy,” or learning more about client businesses and helping them achieve their goals.

According to an Accounting Today study, Pawlow says the main reasons clients quit their accounting firm is because it’s not proactive, not responsive to their business needs and lacks new ideas. Additionally, 67% cite referrals as the way they found their CPA firm, yet marketing efforts are often not focused on referrals.

When developing growth plans – Pawlow does not call them marketing plans – he advised thinking about CROPS, or Clients, Referral Opportunities, Prospects and Support. Build the plan around the first three. Support, the last item on the list, is “the bottomless pit of great ideas” – ads, sponsorships, PR, website, collateral, branding, giveaways, etc. “Most of the time, we fill the majority of our days with this stuff.”

Activities Pawlow suggests for firm leaders:

  • Get a copy of the strategic plan for top clients. Read them and match your services to their needs. “Play a role, don’t just be a vendor.”
  • If clients don’t have a strategic plan, ask about their one-, two- or three-year goals and help them achieve them.
  • Meet with clients face-to-face and more than once a year if necessary. Firm leaders often focus on being “liked” rather than deepening the business relationship through what he terms “major growth interactions.”
  • Consider the small niceties as well. Share an article, send a birthday card or leave an after-hours message regarding a promotion. Pawlow says he keeps a separate, small LinkedIn account that serves as a daily newspaper on news surrounding his key clients.

Pawlow gave an example of the kind of service accounting firms can aspire to. On a work trip, he recently climbed into a cab in Denver just before midnight for a 45-minute ride to his hotel. The driver handed him his business card – complete with mission statement on the back – offered him his choice of a cold soda, snack, newspaper and radio station (from many options). He turned on a reading light and offered to discuss points of interest along the way.

The fare of $51 was about what Pawlow expected, but the service was not. And his $49 tip did not seem to surprise the driver. “This illustrates what we need to do,” Pawlow says. “Otherwise, we’re just another cab in line.”

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About Christina Camara

Christina Camara is the managing editor of INSIDE Public Accounting, which publishes two award-winning publications: the IPA newsletter and the annual IPA National Benchmarking Report, along with in-depth reports focused on IT, HR, and firm administration.

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