CPA Growth Trends, Marketing

Seasoned Marketer: Marketing’s Role in the Difficult Conversations

Difficult conversations can be painful. Today more than ever, accounting firms are taking a real hard look at their clients and becoming even more selective on the ones they onboard. Most firms are struggling to maintain enough staff to handle their current client base while still having goals for continued growth. When the day comes to break the news to the clients that are no longer a good fit for your firm, is your team ready? Instead of having the, “it’s not you, it’s me” conversation, or even worse, putting it off or not having the discussion at all, marketing can drive change and enable leadership to be prepared for these situations.

The Client Approval Process

Whether it is a conversation with a current client, potential new client or a referral source, having a client approval process in place creates the foundation for these discussions. The client approval process will help the firm navigate difficult conversations with potential or existing clients who are not a good fit. Read more about marketing’s role in culling clients in this article by Tammy Farrell. By having clear criteria and a standardized process in place, team members can justify the decision to decline a client’s business in a professional and courteous manner.

If you do not have a formal process in place today for onboarding and approving new clients, it is likely because leadership historically did not see the need for one, and/or they just do not have time or know where to start. Take the lead and communicate the importance, along with providing a draft to get things started. This process should include well-defined criteria for evaluating potential clients as well as procedures for communication and documentation. If you already have a process, review it periodically as the economy, staffing levels and accounting industry is constantly evolving.

A client approval process provides a roadmap to help your team evaluate whether a potential client is a good fit for the firm and likely limits the need for uncomfortable conversations down the road. Criteria will vary, but this normally incudes assessing the client’s industry, service needs and size to help determine whether the firm has the appropriate resources and capacity in place to provide good service within a defined profit margin.

While having a process in place is essential, it only works when both leadership and staff are bought in and understand their roles in the process. Tone from the top is critical and will help differentiate between a successful and consistent process versus a mediocre one. Marketing plays a significant role in working with leadership to communicate the expectations. Start internally and communicate what the firm’s ideal clients look like and why. Being transparent and honest will help set the tone and reduce assumptions.

Messages and Direction

Equipped with what your ideal client looks like, you can now prioritize relationships that align with your firm’s values and goals. This will ensure your firm focuses time, energy and resources on the right relationships. Turning down clients is hard regardless of the circumstance. One way to make it less painful is by making a point to build relationships with accounting firms that complement your services. Providing a reliable resource, coupled with the messaging that XYZ Firm is better equipped to serve you and your business, will work much better than dancing around why you cannot take on their work. Sending your referral sources great clients that fit their ideal target is a win for all.

When people are unsure what to say and how to say it, they are easily crippled and do nothing. Work with leadership to develop key messages that are clear, honest and resonate with each audience. For example, craft a variety of messages to explain price increases based on the audience and medium in which it is communicated. Every individual can take the examples and make them their own, but the firm as a whole will still be working from the same playbook, providing consistent messaging that aligns with the firm’s brand and values.

Crucial Conversations

Difficult conversations become easier with planning and research. Marketers can provide valuable market research to guide crucial conversations, including but not limited to information on industry trends, competitor activity and client needs. This information can help leadership better understand the nature of the industry landscape and enable them to make more informed decisions about how to approach a specific situation or opportunity. As a marketing leader, encourage training and coaching to support staff members in holding challenging conversations. This may include role-playing exercises, feedback sessions or other forms of support to build self-confidence and become more proficient in communication skills.

Early in my accounting marketing career, I was encouraged to attend a Crucial Conversations training. This training has served as the foundation in how I interact not only with clients, co-workers and business relationships, but it has also been a beacon in how I communicate in personal relationships. Work with your learning and development team to find programs and activities that help develop emotional intelligence. It is never too early or too late to invest in your own personal development.

Next Steps

Is your firm equipped with the tools and training necessary for difficult conversations? Revisit your client approval process (or start one!) and make certain your firm has sufficient procedures, training and messaging in place to set your team up for success. Hard conversations can be awkward. With the evolving economic landscape, be intentional now to make certain these processes and behaviors are in place as they will help shape the future of your firm.

About Tanya Doescher


Tanya is the Director of Marketing at a Delta Consulting Group. She is responsible for developing and executing the firm’s overall growth goals and objectives, and oversees the development, implementation and execution of Delta’s marketing strategy.

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