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Ask Lacerte: Branding Your CPA Firm

November 30, 2009

This post previously appeared in the CPA Technology Advisor.

Please join me in a thought experiment.  Think of the name of your favorite restaurant.  Just think of the name.  Try not to think about the food, the service, the ambiance or the desert.  For me it is impossible to keep it just to the name.  As soon as I think of the “Flea Street Café”, I can’t help but think of all the attributes (tasty, organic, caring service, friendly) that make it a great place to eat and my favorite in the bay area. 

A brand is not about logos and colors; it’s about what people think about when they think of a company name. Marketing professionals try to influence that with colors, logos and other techniques but ultimately the brand is considerably more complex and is built over time.  And in the case of accounting firms, the brand of the company is the brand of you.  So with that in mind, what is your brand?  What would customers say if I asked them what you stood for?  And how would you like them to answer that question?  And finally, what is the best way to go about building the brand of you?

You may not be asking or know the answers to these questions but you should.  In the absence of you directing and influencing your customers and prospects they will determine your brand attributes.  You cannot afford this.  In the age of technology and outsourcing, your biggest advantage is you.

Every interaction with a customer informs and affects your brand image.  When the customer visits your office, they soak in all the details of your office without even knowing it.  For example, a messy desk full of papers may make them wonder about your organization skills.  An empty office, may make them wonder why you aren’t more busy.  Your degrees and certifications on the wall may help them get comfortable with your credentials.  The list is endless and my guess is that you don’t want your customers wondering about such attributes. Without purpose or context you are giving away your brand.

Accounting firms today are at a cross roads… Not about their image, but how they are perceived in the minds of their clients and market.  Are they a place for businesses to drop off their shoebox of receipts and papers and get back reports/forms, or are they relevant to their clients day-to-day finances/operations?  Ultimately, this is your choice.  Whatever your choice, though, you must communicate your brand consistently to ensure your customers think of you as just taxes and forms or all of that coupled with sage advice, or something else all together.  Whatever image you pick, you probably want it to do what all brands do – create customer loyalty and as a result greater revenue.   And we all would like more revenue and less attrition.  As someone who uses accountants for personal and business here are the things that matter most to me:

Responsiveness  We are in the information age and for better or worse, information moves much faster now.  We all expect more sooner.  If I can get an answer on Google in 1 sec that would have taken me several hours 20 years ago, why shouldn’t my accountant respond to my question in less than a few business hours?  It may not be fair, but we all are being trained to expect this.  My advice, if you can’t respond quickly, tell your customer when you will respond.  That only takes a few seconds and will reset the expectations.

Communication- Communication is an essential tool in business.  While most firms communicate the positive, one of my pet peeves is communicating the negatives/mistakes. Failure is a unique opportunity to say something about who you are and what you stand for.  If you make a mistake, acknowledging and fixing it can and will enhance your brand.  We all know that we all make mistakes.  Yet it is rare for someone to acknowledge and to proactively make it better.  These are the people we trust and ultimately that is one of the most important brand attributes an accountant can have!

Completeness – Let’s face it, your job is all about completeness.  You have to know all the tax and accounting laws that may affect your clients.  That’s a huge burden but if you don’t then your clients will look elsewhere.  Maybe not today but when they learn that something was not done completely, they’ll move.  So if you are a small firm that may not be familiar with ISO’s and AMT or Family partnerships or some other arcane law, refer the client to someone who does or better yet consult that person and let your client know that you consulted with an expert.  

Efficient Technology– As a technology entrepreneur, it should come as no surprise that this is an important brand attribute for me.  It is the way I manage my life and given what it has enabled me to do, I wonder when someone I work with is not leveraging technology.  Technology can act like a wrapper around your product and services.  You can use it to track important client details and communications, do your work more efficiently, and become more proactive (more on that later).  For me, someone who leverages technology to the fullest has probably done it to get more time and better perspective. 

Proactive advice – Finally, all of the above attributes come together in this attribute.  Going above and beyond the call of duty is the holy grail in servicing clients in any business.  Combining technology and the complete knowledge of your client will allow you to reach the ultimate responsiveness – proactive advice.  Understanding the big picture for your client, timing on retirement, portfolio and investments,  shifts in jobs, business financings, etc is an opportunity for real value add.  After all, as my mentor at Price Waterhouse told me, “the language of business is accounting”.  Make sure you read between the lines. 

Accountants are in a unique position to be consigliore for their clients.  If you can position/brand yourself as such the rewards are strong.  Good luck and happy branding.

René

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