Elevate your Elevator Pitch

“So what do you do?”

As an accountant, I used to dread that question. If I answered by simply saying “I’m an accountant,” I generally received one of two responses. The most common response was a glazed eyes stare, quickly followed by a mumbled “Oh, how interesting,” while my partner made furtive glances around the room seeking a quick escape.

The other response I got — which was especially annoying on ski lifts — was a request for free tax advice, generally based on a complicated situation or a series of hypothetical what-if scenarios. Or questions about tax brackets or how much they could make before their Social Security got taxed.

Except for the year I took the CPA exam, all those numbers — standard deduction amounts, tax rates and bracket cut-offs — just slide past my brain. Since they change every year, I can’t keep them all straight. Besides, my tax software does a fine job of tracking those numbers and calculating the tax due.

Instead of just answering with your job title, a better approach is  to pull out your elevator pitch. But what I mean by an elevator pitch isn’t that memorized string of words you came up with when they brought a business coach into the office, and you crafted that perfect pitch.

Most likely, you composed a long sentence that tried to pack everything you do into a few big words. It sounded great at the meeting.

But when you try it out in an actual conversation, it falls flat. It ends up sounding like meaningless jargon. And your conversation partner still has no idea what you do.

The intention behind an elevator pitch isn’t to win a new client, but simply to start a conversation. The best elevator pitches aren’t  memorized strings of words, but spontaneous responses to your conversation partner. If you can find out something about the other person first, you can tailor your response to their situation.

Your objective is to say something memorable as a first step to building a relationship with the other person. As Josh Bernoff recently wrote, the best conversation starters are open-ended with an invitation for a response.

Last October, I heard Ilise Benun describe four approaches to memorable elevator pitches for professional copywriters. Here I’ll adapt her approaches for accountants and bookkeepers.

  1. Emphasize their pain.

What are the pain points of your clients? What are their struggles? When you talk about their pain, and how you help, that can immediately spark interest if they have that particular pain.

I work with small business owners who hate doing their own bookkeeping and payroll.

I work with owners of closely-held businesses to help them lower their tax bills.

I help non-profit organizations with the maze of regulations they need to comply with.

  1. Emphasize their perceived need.

What do your clients need help with? This can be a need your clients ask you for help with, or something you’ve noticed your clients struggling with, but they haven’t asked you for help with this yet.

I help small business owners manage their cash flow.

I work with owners of closely-held businesses to find ways to pass those businesses on to the next generation.

I help non-profit organizations get audit-ready by building streamlined accounting systems.

  1. Emphasize the outcome or results or benefit

When clients work with you, what outcomes or results do they achieve? What benefits do your services offer?

I help small businesses make better business decisions.

I help people grow their long-term wealth.

I work with non-profit organizations to help them do more of what they’re passionate about.

  1. The “you know how” angle.

Here you paint a picture of what your work looks like, of the benefits to a client.

You know how stories can help you understand complicated ideas? I do that with numbers. I help people understand what the financials for their businesses mean, and how they can build on those numbers to create the business of their dreams. 

Did you notice how none of those mentioned the word “accountant” or “bookkeeper”? Did you also notice how they all focused on the benefits that a client receives by working with you? And they’re all pretty simple, mainly focusing on just one thing that you do. Plus, they’re all more interesting than simply saying “I’m an accountant.”

So the next time you’re at a gathering and someone asks you what you do, try out one of these ideas out and see if you can make yourself sound interesting and helpful.

The idea is to start a conversation. That’s all your elevator pitch has to do.

How Your Blog Posts Can Help You Stay Top of Mind with Your Market

“Why didn’t you hire me? I live just over there!”

I looked up as a young man yelled at me from the window of his pickup truck, which had just screeched to a sideways stop at the end of my driveway. I recognized the driver as a neighbor who lived a block away with his father. I had been talking to the foreman of the the crew I’d hired to re-stucco my house.

“I started a new stucco business. I gave you a flyer and all,” he whined. I vaguely remembered receiving a primitive black and white flyer advertising his services, but that was months ago. Maybe even a year ago. When he gave me that flyer, I wasn’t even thinking about a new stucco job, so I tossed it out.

Then when I was collecting estimates for our stucco job, I had completely forgotten about that  xeroxed sheet of paper. And I didn’t have his contact information anymore. Now, with the chosen crew busily setting up, it was too late to even give him a chance. And his attitude wasn’t helping matters.

If he had made sure that everyone in our neighborhood knew about his business, I would have at least asked for an estimate. And I might have hired him.

If you don’t keep your name in front of prospects, then you risk making the same mistake this young man made. A mistake that may have cost him a nice paycheck.

Most advertising falls on deaf ears and blind eyes if the audience isn’t ready to buy. Or they’re not concerned about the problem this product or service is supposed to solve. Unless that bit of marketing catches your attention, you probably won’t remember the name of the company if you ever need their solution.

There are many ways an accounting firm can stay top of mind for prospects and clients, from attending networking events to speaking at local business meetings. But if you’re like many of the accountants I know, those activities are waaay outside your comfort zone. Some accountants are terrific at speaking — and I truly love hearing them at conferences or when I attend courses.

But for those who don’t like speaking, what are some good ways to stay top of mind for your prospects and clients? In this blog post, I’m going to suggest ways you can leverage your blog to get your message out to more people who need your services.

Writing a blog positions you as an expert

Sharing your knowledge with the world shows that you know your field. This isn’t giving away the keys to the kingdom — your best prospects will be wowed by what you give away for free. And they’ll be eager to learn what you’re not  sharing. They’re looking for someone who can guide them to fulfilling their dreams, and by sharing what you know, you’re showing them that you’re the one to help them.

Raise your search engine ranking without tricks

Google is continually revising its search algorithm with the goal of helping users find the information they’re looking for quickly and easily. Adding content to your website on a regular basis tells Google that this is a website with useful and current information.

How do I know this works? I’ve done almost nothing to optimize my website in the search results, but I’ve been told by accountants looking for a writer that my site appears high in the rankings, sometimes as high as #1 or #2, depending on exactly what the search terms were. When I first launched, I couldn’t find myself on Google. Now I’m consistently on the first page.

This takes time and patience. Despite what some SEO experts say, there are no magical ways to significantly raise your search rankings. There are some things you can do that will enhance your profile over time, but don’t believe anyone who says they can get you on the first page with just a few tweaks to your website. If they’re using tricks to game the system, Google will eventually punish you for that.

Build the foundation for your newsletter

Reuse your blog posts in your newsletter. You can copy the whole post into your newsletter, or include a link that takes readers back to your website.

The wonderful thing about email newsletters is that they can be forwarded to others. A newsletter coming from your firm adds a personal connection that a canned newsletter from your software provider can’t.

Communicating with your clients on a regular basis is a great way to tell them about services your firm offers that they may not be aware of. If they don’t know you offer these other services, they may go elsewhere if they need them. And it can remind them of tax-saving ideas they need to talk to you about.

Spread to other social media channels

Where do your ideal customers hang out? Scope out the different social media channels and search for your clients. Where do they hang out? Where are they most engaged? If you work with young entrepreneurs, you’re more likely to find them on Twitter or FaceBook than on LinkedIn.

Every social media channel has some means of sharing content. LinkedIn has its own publishing platform where you can simply copy and paste your blog post. Add an image at the top and you’re done. Or you can just add a link back to your blog in a regular post.

Use as a helpful followup after networking events

If you’re like most accountants, you’ve got a stash of business cards collected at various networking events, I’ve got scads of them myself. And if you’re like most networking event attendees, you’ll add your latest fistful to that growing pile.

Here’s a way that you’ll really stand out from the crowd: pick out your favorites — these are the people or businesses you’d like to work with most of all — and send them a short email. Thank them for meeting you and send them a link to a blog post you think might be helpful.

I hope this has given you some ideas for getting more mileage out of your blog posts. And if you’re not already blogging, you can see that the many ways you can re-use your blogs makes this activity a worthwhile investment! And if you need help getting your blog written in the first place, send me an email at liz@farrcommunications.com!

78 Ideas for Your Tax Blog

“I don’t know what to write about.”

This is a common excuse I’ve heard from tax practitioners for not keeping up a regular blog on their website. As tax practitioners, we deal with the tax code every day. It’s easy to forget that our clients and prospective clients don’t share our depth of knowledge. What seems obvious to us may be completely unknown to them.

A regular blog on a variety of topics will never take the place of your guidance as a trusted accountant who knows the intimate details of your clients’ financial matters. But it can enhance your practice by educating your clients about methods for reducing taxes and building long-term wealth. It can also save you time by providing you with posts you can simply point your clients to when they ask a question you’ve heard over and over.

Adding fresh content to your website on a regular basis is one of the criteria used by Google for search engine rankings. Google is continually revising its search ranking algorithm in an attempt to make the search experience a positive one for users. The emphasis is on quality and quantity, not on tricks designed to increase ranking at the expense of providing useful information to the searcher.

Here are 78 topic suggestions for your tax blog. These should keep you busy for a while — and serve as a starting point for additional topics to write about!

  1. Are you on track with your retirement saving?
  2. Roth vs. Traditional IRA — how to choose
  3. Rules for taking distributions from Roth and Traditional IRAs
  4. What happens when the IRA owner dies — why your beneficiary choice is critical
  5. Rules for borrowing from your IRA
  6. Qualified charitable distributions from IRAs — how to do this and what are the tax benefits
  7. Rules for rolling over a retirement account into another account
  8. Time value of money — how a little invested early can beat large sums invested later
  9. Retirement plans for self-employed and small business
  10. Defined benefit plans — why this may be a great choice for some small businesses
  11. What the new repair regulations mean for your business
  12. Taking advantage of the safe harbor de minimis election for purchases of small items
  13. Repair regulations — when is it a repair that you can expense and when do you have to capitalize it
  14. Business use of vehicles — when is your drive a commute, personal or business use?
  15. What kinds of vehicles are eligible for a 100% write-off in the year you buy them
  16. Documentation requirements for business use of vehicles and how to make it easy
  17. Estimated payments and how to calculate safe harbor amounts
  18. Nexus for income tax — what are the rules overall and what are the rules for your state and those nearby
  19. Nexus for sales tax — how is ecommerce changing this, and how can you monitor this
  20. Domestic Production Activities Deduction: What businesses are eligible and how to calculate it
  21. Research & Development credit — what are the potential tax savings and what businesses are eligible
  22. When does it make sense to do a cost-segregation study for the building you use for your business
  23. Qualified leasehold improvement rules — what improvements qualify for 15-year depreciation
  24. Vacation home rental rules
  25. Selling your personal home — Timelines for excluding gain for personal use
  26. Depreciation recapture from business use of your personal home
  27. Converting your home to or from a rental property
  28. Step-up in basis of your home at death of spouse — how this works in a community property state vs. a separate property state
  29. Choice of entity — Advantages and disadvantages of each type
  30. Agreements and contracts for your business — why you need a formal agreement and why your CPA needs to see it
  31. S-corporations — overview of this entity type and how this can save on self-employment tax
  32. Reasonable compensation for an S-corporation owner
  33. Formation and dissolution of a business
  34. Late election relief for an S-corporation
  35. Distribution issues for S-corporations — must be proportionate and when they can become taxable
  36. Shareholder loans — what you need to do to avoid reclassifying these as capital contributions or distributions
  37. Basis issues for S-corporations
  38. Accumulated Adjustments Account (AAA) — what this is and how transactions affect it
  39. Partnerships — overview of this entity type and benefits of complete flexibility in agreements
  40. What partnership income is subject to self-employment tax — recent IRS cases
  41. Partner loans, partnership debt, and basis issues
  42. Section 704(b) allocations in partnerships
  43. C-corporations — overview of this entity type and when this is an appropriate choice
  44. Best ways to get cash out of a C-corp and avoid double-taxation
  45. Like-kind exchanges — how to structure and execute these for maximum tax savings
  46. Mortgage interest deduction rules — how to calculate allowable amount when your mortgage is over $1.1 million
  47. How a recent IRS decision on mortgage interest is a bonus for unmarried couples
  48. Estate tax — how the portability rules can affect you and your spouse
  49. Charitable deductions of non-cash items — when do you need an appraisal
  50. How to document donations to charities
  51. Household employees — reporting and tax issues
  52. Taxability of barter transactions
  53. Stock options — how to decide when to exercise and when to sell
  54. How investing in muni bonds can save you taxes
  55. Harvesting losses in your portfolio to save capital gains tax
  56. Passive activity loss rules — what you need to know before investing in a passive activity
  57. Rules for qualified real estate professionals — how to meet them and the tax benefits this classification accords
  58. How to structure gifts to maximize the benefits for all parties
  59. Section 1202 stock — gains on sale are tax exempt
  60. Setting up an accountable plan to reimburse an S-corporation shareholder for expenses
  61. Section 179 limits explained
  62. Gambling income and losses — what you can deduct and what records you need to keep
  63. Hobby loss rules and your small business — how to protect yourself in case of an IRS audit
  64. What to do in case of tax identity theft
  65. Tax breaks for higher education expenses
  66. What expenses qualify for the childcare tax credit and what documents you need from your provider
  67. Rules for claiming someone as a dependent on your tax return
  68. Avoid underpayment penalties by increasing tax withholding from salaries
  69. Cash vs. accrual basis on tax returns
  70. Dependency exemptions for children of divorced parents
  71. Lease accounting rules — how the GAAP rules differ from tax rules
  72. When does it pay to outsource your bookkeeping
  73. How hiring a remote CFO can help you grow your business
  74. Changing from cash-basis accounting to accrual (or vice versa)
  75. How to correct mistakes in depreciation
  76. What to do when you receive a letter from the IRS or your state tax authority
  77. Ways to structure the sale of a business to save on taxes
  78. What is AMT and how to reduce your exposure

I hope this list give you plenty of ideas for your tax blog. Your client base, your practice and your team are all unique. Your blog will be most successful if it reflects that uniqueness.

11 Advantages of Choosing a Specialty Niche for Your Accounting Firm

When I began my career in public accounting, I was fascinated by the great variety of businesses I worked with. Every project taught me something new, and as an eager new accountant, I was ready to apply what I’d learned in the classroom to real life.

But with the quick rotation from plumber to manufacturer to attorney to restaurant, I felt that I was never able to truly understand these businesses. Some clients were the only ones in that industry I worked on. Many had unique tax and accounting rules and regulations that were tricky to understand and apply. And some required a steep learning curve when I worked on them the first time.

No problem for Liz and her big brain, as one of the partners frequently told me. So I eagerly dove in and learned.

After several years of endless cycles of learning new industries, I was exhausted. My big brain was full. All the businesses blurred into each other. I didn’t feel I was able to offer much in the way of specific advice to really help those clients grow their businesses.

A different way forward

When I began exploring the idea of freelance writing, my teachers and coaches almost universally advocated choosing a specific niche to focus on. The best niche would be one that combined my passions, past experiences and talents to work in a field where my writing skills would be valued and well compensated.

For me, the obvious field to work in is accounting. I’ve discovered that being a CPA who can write and who understands marketing makes me pretty unique.

As I’ve worked with accountants and have studied high-performing firms, I’ve learned that choosing a niche can be a great plan for accountants and bookkeepers as well. Here are some reasons you might consider developing either a niche for your entire practice, or a specialty niche within your practice.

1.  An end to being a jack-of-all trades, and a master of none

As a generalist, you must be agile so you can quickly pivot from working with an electrician to a realtor to a manufacturer. This flexibility can be a wonderful asset because it means that almost every business is a potential client.

But as I experienced, this incredible flexibility makes it difficult to gain the specialized knowledge and skills needed to serve clients at a higher level. Serving clients at a higher level means you’re in tune with the changes in their field.

You read the same trade publications. You’ve got your ears tuned for new laws and regulations that impact their industry.

As a generalist with the entire world as your potential client, how can you decide what news to pay attention to and what will help your clients the most?

2.  Serve your clients better because you know more

When you know more about your clients’ industry, you’re able to help them in a more proactive manner. Your clients will benefit from your expertise. You’ll be tuned into the regulatory changes that impact them, and you’ll have ideas on how to mitigate the impact..

You’ll develop a keen awareness of what their financials should look like. When something looks odd, you’ll spot it immediately. You’ll ask  better questions because you understand how their business works.

You can recommend software tools that will simplify their back-office operations. You’ll be able to design streamlined processes for getting their work done.

You’ll be more than just the CPA who does their tax return every year — you’ll be a trusted advisor who helps them succeed.

3.  A faster path to becoming the expert in your field

Now that you’ve learned more about this field and have worked with clients to successfully help them grow their businesses, you’re on your way to becoming an expert in your field.

You can capitalize on this by writing articles and blog posts on this industry on your website and on social media. You can speak about this at local events or on podcasts.

When you specialize in one area, you have the advantage of being able to focus your time on honing your expertise.

4.  Specialists get higher fees

A general medical practitioner doesn’t earn as much as a cardiologist or a neurologist. This is true for accountants as well. When you become an expert in a field, you can charge higher fees for your expertise. Clients who need that expertise would rather pay you more when they know they’ll get precision advice, and they’re not paying for you and your staff to get up to speed on their industry.

If you were a business owner, would you rather work with an accountant who serves small and medium enterprises, or an accountant with expertise in their industry? Your specialty will separate your firm from the thousands of other accountants who don’t have a specialty.

5.  Familiarity leads to efficiency

When you understand an industry well, you’ll be able to leverage your experience to become more efficient. Efficiency means getting more work done in less time. It means you and your staff can have a life beyond work.

You’ll learn which key predictive indicators are the most relevant for a business. Maybe you’ll develop a spreadsheet tool that gets you an answer quickly when you just enter a few key numbers and let the formulas do their magic.

When they need to implement a software tool, you’ll be able to help them integrate it into their systems painlessly.

6.  Specialization helps your prospects find you

When you become an expert in an industry, and your marketing messages reflect that, the prospects you can help most will have an easier time finding you. Sure, your pool of prospects has now shrunk from “anyone with a business” to “owners of restaurants” or “HVAC contractors” but there are still thousands of potential clients out there.

The internet and cloud accounting make geography less relevant. You’re no longer limited to serving only the businesses in your community. You can work with clients across the country, and even around the world.

7.  Only those you can help with seek you out

Having a specialty doesn’t just help your ideal clients find you — it also screens out those who aren’t suited to working with you. If you specialize in restaurants, you’ll likely get very few calls from construction contractors.

Having an advertised specialty also announces to the world that your services come with a premium price. You might scare away the ones who are especially price-sensitive, but as my late father used to say, “You’re not doing this for your health.”

8.  Marketing just got easier

Choosing a niche means your marketing can be focused like a laser instead of taking a scattershot approach. As you work with more clients, you become aware of their particular pain points and can address those in your marketing. You’ll also figure out what advertising media work best for them. You’ll find out which social media channels they spend time in, and you’ll be able to focus your attention there.

9.  More of the work you love

An argument I’ve heard against choosing a specialty is that the lack of variety will become boring. I agree that it was pretty exciting at first to learn about plumbers last week, then microbrewers this week, and food manufacturers next week.

But if you’ve chosen a field that’s interesting to you, then the constant jumping around will be replaced by a deep dive into a field. Every business within an industry will have its quirks and unique facets simply because they are led by unique people. This keeps a niche exciting.

One of my writing clients is a CPA who specializes in dentists. I have had a blast learning about the business and accounting issues unique to dentists. Every week I learn something new about the industry, something I had no idea about.

10.  Greater confidence in your knowledge and abilities

When you focus on a particular industry, you develop a keen understanding of how their business works. You learn what the cost drivers are, and which financial ratios are early signs of success or failure. You learn what measures will help boost a sagging bottom line, and which will be a waste of time and money.

Think of the confidence you’ll have when a glance at a set of financials will be all you’ll need to determine what this business owner needs to do.

11.  Create a firm that suits you

A recent newsletter from copywriting guru John Carlton discussed two successful models for building a successful writing business. At one end of the spectrum are the writers who truly love their craft and spend long hours at work, achieving financial success partly by the sheer volume of their work. These writers don’t tend to have much of a life beyond writing, but they’re spending their days doing what they love most.

At the other end of the spectrum are the slacker writers, who spend very little time writing, but that little time is focused and high quality. This short time spent on writing allows them to do other things in their free time. The money they earn writing buys them the freedom to do other things they love. John Carlton places himself in this camp.

Most accountants I know spend long hours at their work. But I’ve learned about a few radical and revolutionary accountants who spend much less time working and who focus their time on a handful of clients. They can do this because of the value their expertise brings to the relationship.

What does your perfect firm look like?

What’s your vision of a perfect work-life balance? Choosing a specialty can help you find the right balance. Imagine working fewer hours but for the same income. There’s no one answer for everyone. There are just as many ways to run an accounting firm as there are accountants running accounting firms. My hope is that you create a firm that’s just as unique as you are.

Is the Customer Always Right? A Look at a Recent Marketing Sherpa Study on Customer-Focused Marketing

A recent discussion in one of my LinkedIn groups for accountants asked this question as a provocative intro to a study released this past December by Marketing Sherpa. This study posed a series of questions to 2400 individuals, half of whom were queried on companies they were highly satisfied with, and the other half on companies they were highly dissatisfied with.

But first, let’s take a look at the evolution of marketing.

The most basic is product-centric marketing which focuses only on the attributes of a product, without relating those attributes to the needs or desires of the customer.

The next step up is customer-centric marketing, where marketers put themselves in the shoes of a customer in order to sell to them better. Empathy is used to evoke an emotional response.

Next in evolution is customer-focused marketing, where the company is an ally in the customer’s pursuit of their goals, and the long-term interest of the customer is placed above short-term goals of making the sale. The focus is on serving the needs of the customer above all.

To make this concrete, let’s look at how cars might be sold under these three models.

Product-centric — Here are the cars on our lot today. Here are the prices and the models. Do you want to buy one? I can make you a great deal if you decide today!

Customer-centric — I see you have small children. Their safety is your priority. This car has anti-lock brakes, air bags and accident avoidance technology. The traction control means you won’t have trouble driving in winter. You’ll feel safe and confident driving this car. Your children will be safe.

Customer-focused — Our website has a tool that lets you choose the features you care most about so you can compare across all car makes. It also lets you compare costs of owning all the cars. This lets you select the car that’s best for you, even if it’s not ours. And there’s a link that finds all the dealers in town who have that car, so you can pick the one that gives you the best deal, and is closest to where you are.

Which dealer would you rather buy your car from?

Put your customer’s needs first

The Marketing Sherpa study found that “highly satisfied customers say the company’s marketing puts their needs before the company’s business goals more often.” Highly dissatisfied customers said the opposite. Highly satisfied customers also said:

  • I consistently have good experiences with this company
  • It’s easy to do business with this company
  • The company doesn’t always try to sell me but tries to provide value
  • I feel like I have a relationship with this company

Happy customers refer more, and come back more

Keeping customers satisfied leads to more business. The study found that satisfied customers were eight times more likely to refer friends and family, and seven times more likely to continue using a company’s services than dissatisfied customers. Satisfied customers give 8x the referrals

That’s a lot of new and repeat business you didn’t have to spend marketing dollars to get.

Customer-first marketing is a part of everything you do

Customer-first marketing isn’t just about the messaging on your website or in your brochures or in your elevator speech.

It’s about the entire way you interact with clients.

Do you make it easy and enjoyable to do business with you?

Do you provide value that exceeds their expectations?

And, most important, how are you helping them achieve their long-term goals?

The customer isn’t always right

Customer-first marketing is more nuanced than “the customer is always right.” When your firm is committed to helping your clients reach their goals, you’ll help them make decisions that are in their best interest.

You may even call them on poor decisions. You certainly won’t encourage them to indulge in unethical behavior that could get them in trouble down the road. And you’ll help them to be pro-active so that those last minute requests for financials or copies of tax returns don’t happen as often.

A product-centered firm provides a tax return for a client. A customer-centered firm helps the client pay less in taxes this year, and maybe in years to come.

But a customer-first firm looks at the client’s entire financial picture and their long-term goals to help them with business and investing strategies to achieve those goals. Such a firm focuses on educating their clients and prospective clients to empower them to make the best decisions.

Even if the best decision means using a different firm.

Customer-first firms don’t just provide a service. They solve problems for their customers.

As I work with accountants around the world, I’ve had the opportunity to peer inside a broad spectrum of firms.

The product-centered firms can only compete on price. A customer-centered firm can charge more, and may have  long-established relationships with many clients.

But the firms that excite me the most, and make me the most optimistic about the future of accounting against the onslaught of technology, artificial intelligence and off-shoring are the customer-first firms.

Many of these firms embrace technology and create amazing integrated accounting and back-office solutions for their clients. They take the time to truly understand their clients’ businesses, families and dreams for the future.

Some of these firms have scrappy bookkeepers who keep their fingers tight on the pulse of their client’s businesses. And these scrappy bookkeepers don’t hesitate to contact the client when they see something out of the ordinary. Or when they notice an opportunity that might be missed.

But all of them focus on keeping their clients happy and providing exceptional service. They take the time to explain the numbers to their clients. They look at the big picture and consider each business decision in light of their clients’ long-term goals.

Sure, this takes time and extra work. But the study from Marketing Sherpa shows that it can pay off hugely. And wouldn’t you rather be known as a problem-solver than a service provider?

Connect with your Clients to Keep Them Coming Back for More

“These Americans don’t know anything about saunas. This isn’t nearly warm enough to be a sauna in Switzerland.”

I opened my eyes and recognized Kurt Wüthrich, who had just entered the sauna with his wife and daughter. Dr. Wüthrich had been the keynote speaker for the symposium we were both attending at Keystone Resort in Colorado. The topic was nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy (NMR) of proteins. The symposium was conveniently scheduled in mid February, with ample time between sessions to hit the slopes, which was why I was warming my bones in the sauna.

The three continued to chat in Swiss German, and I could get the gist of what they were saying but not the details. Feeling it was rude to eavesdrop without alerting them that I spoke German, I introduced myself.

“Hello, my name is Liz Farr, and I work in John Markley’s lab at the University of Wisconsin,” I began in German. “I’ve been writing you letters about your research articles, asking for information we need for our database of protein NMR data.” Surprised to hear a German speaker in the US, Dr. Wüthrich swiveled his head and stared at me. He scrutinized me carefully, then broke into a friendly smile.

“Ah, yes of course. Now I remember your name. I will answer those letters immediately on my return to Zürich.” Dr. Wüthrich was a pioneer and perhaps the most revered and respected researcher in the field of protein NMR. A decade after our meeting in the sauna, he won the Nobel prize in chemistry.

Seizing the opportunity for a personal connection with a leader in the field was the beginning of a dramatic shift in his cooperation with the project. After that, he answered my queries for missing information promptly. Winning support from the great Kurt Wüthrich for the project was huge.

Client relationships = job security

For accountants, the need for connection with clients and prospects is crucial. As technology evolves, many of our services are becoming automated. This automation removes the tedium of data entry from our work, but it also can turn our work product into a commodity, if that’s all we offer our clients. But as Blake Oliver noted, contrary to the fears of many that this increasing automation will bring Uberization to accounting, it’s our connections to our clients that prevent this from happening.

Here are some ways to develop and deepen the relationships you have with your clients.

Start with your website

Your website is the first filter a prospect will typically apply when seeking a new accountant. Does your personality shine through? Or is your website like that of most accountants — inoffensive, bland and focused on your team’s experience and qualifications?  Does your Home page or your About Us page extol your firm’s values of professionalism, quality and responsiveness? As Hitendra Patil noted in August 2015, so do the websites of  over 462,000 other CPA firms .

If you’re not much different from your competitors, then your prospects may judge you solely on cost — which may be the only variable they’re aware of. Most non-accountants have only a vague notion of what it takes to become a CPA, CA, CGMA, CVA, or any of the other alphabet soup certifications you’ve earned. And they may have only a vague idea of the additional services that accountants can provide.

The most successful marketing focuses on the needs and desires of your prospects. Your prospects don’t really care about the letters behind your names, the awards you’ve won, or how many years of experience you have unless those attributes have a tangible benefit to them. Too many websites for accounting firms just focus on the accomplishments of the owners and ignore the needs of their potential clients.

Instead of focusing on your years of experience, describe how those years of working with a variety of industries and situations have given you insights to help your clients navigate through challenges. Case studies and testimonials from happy clients are golden here.

Who is your ideal client?

Remember that you don’t need to be attractive to everyone seeking a new accountant. You  only need to get the attention of the prospects that you want to work with. Do you prefer working with startups and entrepreneurs? Or with high-net worth real estate investors? What services does your firm provide? What do your ideal prospects need from their accountant? What keeps them up at night?

Can you save a business owner on taxes? Do you have the expertise to guide a company from kitchen table start-up to millions in sales? Can you help them find and plug the leaks in their cash flow? Can you help with succession planning and estate planning? Do you know how to get the IRS off their back? Can you bring a business owner peace of mind that their taxes are done right? These are the types of questions a prospect wants answers to.

If you can articulate answers to those questions, those answers should be the first thing a prospect sees on your website. Use those answers as the starting point for the text on your website. You want that text to resonate with the people you want to work with.

Website visitors generally land on your website because they’re seeking answers to questions, and they won’t stick around if those questions aren’t addressed quickly. They’re less impressed with how much an accountant says they know than with how much an accountant is willing to share with them.

What sets your firm apart from your competitors?

Every accounting firm has something that makes them unique. Maybe it’s a unique expertise. Maybe you’ve found ways to leverage technology to get the work done faster. Maybe you only do tax returns. Maybe you don’t do tax returns at all.

But most likely what keeps clients coming back year after year, and what gets them to rave about your firm is the experience they have with you. If you don’t (yet) have any raving fans, then consider how you interact with your clients.

Communicate with your clients and prospects

The power of the internet means we now have the information of the world at our fingertips. We’re used to getting loads of information for free. Keeping top of mind is crucial. Customer loyalty goes to those who provide the most and best information in easily digestible bits. Every firm should have a blog where they post helpful ideas and answers to the questions they’re asked most frequently.

That blog can be repurposed as a newsletter. Or assembled as an ebook of tax and accounting tips offered as a free download in exchange for their email address.

Do you ask the questions that can change their lives?

As accountants, we’re more comfortable with questions with quantifiable answers. But those questions don’t always lead to the insights that can help a business owner transform their life and their business. It’s in asking those kinds of questions that we can help a client the most.

If you’re not quite sure how to come up with those questions, Paul Shrimpling has a brief report  you can download to help you formulate powerful questions for your clients.

Seize the opportunity for a connection

These ideas should serve as a starting point to help you find ways to connect more deeply with your clients. Without that connection, your firm’s services run the risk of becoming a commodity, and you’ll be competing solely on price. There’s always someone else willing to go broke faster, so nurture those relationships!

Does Your Website Kick Arse?

Think, Learn, Grow, Kick Arse

Does your website stand out from the crowd? Does it clearly articulate what makes your firm unique among all the others out there? The website for Growthwise, an Australian accounting firm, sure does, and serves as an example of a great website for accountants.

This firm’s website is a startling contrast with most accounting and bookkeeping firms — Think, Learn, Grow, Kick Arse! in lime green and tangerine — not exactly what you expect from accountants.  Blue seems to be a popular color for accountants. I love the colorful cartoony images that carry through the entire website and the pronouncement that “We’re not your average nerdy, pen-pushing, number-crunching sit-behind-a-desk small business accountants.”

Steph Hinds and her crew at Growthwise understand that they can’t be all things to all clients, so they don’t try to appeal to everyone. They’re not afraid that their approach might turn some prospects off. Those people wouldn’t make great clients, so this saves everyone time. The clients they want to work with are those who are willing to learn and grow. Growthwise is gleefully challenging the status quo of accounting firms.

What does your About Us page say?

Websites of many accounting firms tout their commitment to quality, professionalism and service. That’s the minimum of what our clients expect. And that’s what we’ve been trained to do and what our professional standards demand of us. Profiles of partners generally describe their education, professional certifications  and experience.

As accountants, we like to quantify things. We take pride in spreadsheets and financials that foot and are mathematically sound. Certifications and experience are important — don’t get me wrong — my training and education that earned me my CPA and my decade-plus of experience are a part of the package that I can offer as myself.

Experience and certifications are comforting to our prospects, even if they haven’t a clue what the letters mean. But what else are prospects looking for when they peruse our websites? Henry Ford was onto something when he said, “If I had listened to what people were asking for, I would have given them faster horses.”

The profiles of the team of Ninjas at Growthwise give us a hint. Their descriptions omit the usual listing of education, qualifications and professional designations and instead are a series of questions and answers that give a feeling for the substance of the person. Serious questions such as “What do you do?” and “Why do you do what you do?” And fun questions  like “Who is your favorite superhero?”

These questions give the reader an idea of what it would be like to work with this person. All of us have worked with clients whose personalities simply did not mesh with ours. And those don’t work too well. Forever butting heads, we struggle to get the minimum information required so we can complete the tax return or the financials.

We’ve also worked with people who felt in synch with us. Where we experienced the sense of being part of something bigger than us, and where we learned as much about ourselves as we contributed to the other person’s success.

It’s scary to put yourself out there as a real person. Much easier to hide behind a wall of college degrees and certifications. But now and then, magic happens when you leave the numbers behind and understand what’s really happening. If you want that magic, then you’re going to have to bring more to the relationship than your technical expertise. Your questions will be harder than “Why did your rent expense increase compared to last year?” Your questions will probe deeply into the big Why of what they’re trying to do with their business. Into the messy realm of feelings, which causes many of us analytical accountants to squirm.

One of the first concepts I learned in my studies of copywriting is that people make decisions for emotional reasons, and then seek out logic and reason later to justify their decisions. This was hard for me to believe. I spent decades in science and accounting, all rational and logical disciplines. Emotions and feelings weren’t part of my studies.

Yet it’s true. It’s intangibles that we commit to, not the rational facts.

Can you explain in facts and rational statistics why you fell in love with your spouse? Or the fierce loyalty you feel for your favorite sports team? Or why Mac users are such fanatics for their overpriced and sometimes underperforming devices? No, it’s hard to put into words. It’s just a gut feeling.

So how does this apply to your website?

As I’ve worked with accountants around the world over the last year, I’ve learned that there are as many ways to run an accounting firm as there are accounting firms. Every firm has something unique that sets that firm apart from all others. It’s not in the number of highly qualified accountants a firm has on staff nor is it the cumulative years of experience — though those can be important logical reasons that a prospect may use as rational justification for their decision to choose a firm.

Be proud of your differences

Be bold and find ways to express that uniqueness in your marketing. One of the masters of copywriting, John Carlton, puts it simply: “Let your freak flag fly.” Sure, that may be off-putting to some prospects. But the ones who will be attracted to what you offer are the ones who will become your raving fans and who will be willing to pay a premium for what you offer. Think of the prices of MacBooks compared to HP laptops.

The accountants at Growthwise are on a mission to help their clients grow and prosper and no website visitor can miss that. They convey energy, enthusiasm and a commitment to their clients. They express this on their website with artwork and the language they use. The text is focused on the reader and the benefits a business can enjoy by working with them.

Case studies are magic

We’re hard-wired to love stories. They help us remember life lessons. Learning about the experiences that others have had helps us make purchasing decisions. When you buy something at Amazon, you read the reviews before making your final choice. The experiences that others had with the thing you’re buying help you choose and give you confidence that you’re making the right choice.

Growthwise wisely includes case studies on their website. These are real stories of a diverse group of businesses — designers, plumbers, surveyors and a scaffolding company — who describe their experiences with Growthwise. Their positive experiences resonate emotionally with readers and provide proof that this is a good firm to check out.

Blog to share your knowledge

Growthwise also has a blog on their website. The posts are short and are mainly useful tips on getting the most out of Xero. They generously share their insights with users, teaching their audience how to do things for themselves. Many accountants are afraid of sharing too much of their knowledge. Afraid that if they give it away for free, no one will want to pay for it. It’s true that do-it-yourselfers will happily take what you offer for free, but that crowd isn’t very profitable. Keep in mind that the readers you really want to reach are the ones who might try your suggestions themselves, but who will gladly turn the number crunching and tax strategy over to someone else so they can run their business. If you can address their pain points, you’ll win them over.

Be yourself

Having an unconventional website doesn’t appear to have harmed Growthwise at all. It certainly expresses the personality of the team members, and it may even serve to cement their identity as a firm. It probably also screens out prospective employees who simply wouldn’t fit in.

But most likely, lime green and tangerine are not you. Maybe a little less cartoony and a little more serious are your style. But if Steph Hinds can build a successful business with cartoon characters, this should encourage you to show a bit of your personality.

Remember that you’re not designing a website that you and your team will like, but you’re designing a website that your best prospects will like. Your website is your online calling card. It can only help you if it appeals to the clients you want to attract.

Thanks to Steve Major and his Pricing Power Podcast, where I learned about Growthwise. 

Become a Trusted Advisor by Out Teaching Your Competition

We’re told that we as accountants need to become trusted advisors, but how do we do that? Jason Fried and David Heinemeyer Hansson’s book Rework puts it most simply: Out teach your competition.

Your best marketing tool is in your head. You don’t need to spend tons of money on flashy ads or fancy graphics for your website. You just need to share what you know with the world.

Most accountants don’t do this. They worry that they’ll give away all their secrets and thus lose business.

The reality is that the clients you want to work with — the ones who value your expertise and are willing to pay for that expertise — will respect you more and see you as an expert if you’re willing to share your knowledge.

By sharing your knowledge freely, your audience will view you as someone they can rely on to do the hard, complex work of figuring out how the tax laws and the financial rules apply to their situation. Being a fount of useful information will increase the loyalty that prospects and clients feel for you.

It’s true that some readers will take what you put out there and use it themselves. But those aren’t the ones you should be pursuing. The do-it-yourselfers are rarely a profitable bunch. However, they may refer you to their friends and family. Research from Hinge Marketing shows that up to 81.5% of referrals can come from people who have never worked directly with your firm.

That 81.5% comes from people who know enough about you to send their friends and colleagues to you. How do they find out about you to inspire that kind of trust? Put enough information out there for free, and those referrers will find you with Google.

Google loves websites that are constantly updated with fresh information. Your search engine rankings will rise as you add new information.

Google is constantly updating its algorithm to punish those who try SEO tricks to increase ranking and to reward those who provide the most useful information. This can best be accomplished by providing quality content that provides readers with valuable information they can use — by teaching them.

Think of yourself as a conduit for ideas. Your prospects and clients know their businesses, but they aren’t experts in tax and accounting.

That’s where you can shine.

By translating opaque IRS regulations and accounting standards into simple ideas that non-accountants can understand, you’re providing value to your audience.

If you explain complex concepts simply and clearly enough, many of your delighted readers may even be fellow accountants who willingly refer you to friends or clients who need help in that area of your expertise. Or they may invite you to collaborate on some interesting (and profitable!) projects.

Sharing your expertise is a way to differentiate yourself from the competition. Most accountants keep their knowledge a secret, and just state that they’re experts.

My late brother Geoff was fond of saying, “If you don’t believe me, just ask me!” This is the approach many accountants take on their website. They simply state that they’re experts in tax or GAAP without demonstrating it.

Showing is more powerful than telling. By demonstrating your unique skills and knowledge you can attract your target market. You can reassure skittish prospects. And your clearly demonstrated expertise justifies higher fees for your services.

Providing information builds reciprocity. When you provide useful information to others, they feel obliged to return the favor. We’re wired that way. We can’t help it.

Master marketer Dan Kennedy uses this technique to justify his stratospheric fees for personal consultations (starting at about $20,000 for a day with him). He intentionally delays the sale by providing loads of useful information to prospects.

This stream of information builds trust that he’s an expert in marketing. As more and more useful information is provided, his prospects become insensitive to his high fees. And they want to work with him more as they learn more.

Sharing information is a way to show your personality. It’s true that this may turn some prospects off. But if they don’t like what you share with the world, then it’s likely you won’t like them in person.

Wouldn’t you rather work with clients who like you, who already have formed a favorable relationship with you through your teaching? As Dan Kennedy wrote in his book, No B.S. Trust Based Marketing, the higher up the income ladder you climb, the more you’ll find that people get higher fees for their services because of who they are, not for what they do.

One of the easiest methods for teaching your audience is by adding blog posts or articles to your website. If you find yourself answering the same question over and over, write down the answer and post it on your website. Then you can point all queries to that article whenever the question comes up.

You’ll get the most benefit from your blog posts if you don’t just put them on your website and forget about them. They can be the foundation of your newsletter (as this one is). You can post them to social media. You can compile a group into a short ebook or special report that you can post on your website. You can even read them aloud and use the recording as a podcast. They can be the basis of a video posted on your website.

If you want to do this yourself, there are excellent resources to help you improve your business writing. My colleague Helen Wilkie has a book and a new video course geared for accountants to help with their writing.

But many accountants have neither the time nor the desire to improve their writing. A freelance writer (like me!) can help you by writing blog posts, articles, ebooks, white papers or special reports for you.

However you decide to teach your audience, keep it up consistently. And get started today!

Need help figuring out the best teaching strategy for your firm? Call me at 505-440-3317 or email me at liz@farrcommunications.com and I’ll help you find a way that works for you!

Does the Website for Your Accounting Firm Make this Mistake?

This morning I flipped through the pages of our local paper’s Entertainment section, and came across an article about the season finale of a show on Showtime, “Penny Dreadful.” Even though this was its third season, I had never heard of it. So I scanned the article to see if I’d like to watch it, looking for at least a summary of the series so far, or some reason to catch the last episode.

Alas, I was disappointed. I learned that the cast was full of great stars, that many people involved in the show had worked on other well-known shows and movies.  The theme was horror, and it was “well-done.” The set was beautiful and that the show had won all sorts of awards.

But not a word about why I should watch this show. What was it about? What made this “well-done” horror? Was it funny? Scary? What about the main characters — were they engaging? Did they have any secrets? Were there ongoing conflicts between them? Was the season finale anticipated to be a cliffhanger, or the resolution of earlier conflicts?

Just lots of features, but not a hint of any benefits I could personally reap from watching the show. I suppose the mass of awards associated with the show should have sufficed to let me know that this was a show worth watching, but this article gave me no reason to watch it.

Features vs. Benefits

The same can be said about the websites for most accountants. Most accountants’ websites say pretty much the same thing: we give great service, we do quality work, and we are known for our responsiveness and professionalism. And here are how many years we’ve been in business and all the credentials we have: CPA, CA, CGMA, CFE, ABV and more. Where we went to college and all the Big 4 Firms we’ve worked at. All of these are the features — the characteristics of an accounting firm.

But very few websites for accountants describe the benefits of choosing this firm over all the others in town. Nothing about the peace of mind that comes from working with people who have the knowledge and experience to guide a client through difficult business decisions. Nothing about how I as a business owner or successful professional would benefit by handing over my financial information and a wad of cash to you. Will it make my life easier? Will you help me achieve my life and business goals? Will you be available to answer questions about my books and my business? Can you help me make my business more profitable and save tax at the same time? The benefits of a firm are why a prospect might choose you over all the competition.

For us accountants, a feature-filled description is comforting, and we can clearly see the benefits of choosing a firm with lots of credentialed staff, and that having the foundation of working at a Big Four firm can give us a leg up over the competition. And of course, all those benefits are implicit in who we are. That’s just what we do.

Is your website a deal-maker or a deal-breaker?

But try to put yourself in the shoes of a prospect who has no idea what any of these features mean. If they’ve already visited two or three websites in their quest to find a new accountant, their eyes will likely glaze over when they land on yours and see the same language that’s on most accounting firms’ websites. It’s like looking at the facade of a modern high-rise building instead of seeing the warm and inviting spaces within.

Today’s entrepreneurs always check out your website before they commit to you. If they don’t find any real benefit of doing business with you, they may just cross you off their list before they even talk to you. A poorly-done website can be a deal-breaker.

Does your website help visitors find what they need?

A potential client lands on your website because they’re looking for something. Maybe they have a tax question. Maybe they realize they need help with their bookkeeping or that their tax situation is now beyond TurboTax. Maybe they’re unhappy with their current accountant. Whatever they’re seeking, they’re looking for answers. They want to know what’s in it for them to use your services. And they want those answers quick.

You only have a few seconds to grab their attention, so you better put those benefits out there quick. Your website will be more successful as a marketing tool if you emphasize the benefits of working with you rather than just listing the features of your firm.

Features give you the specs of what you’re buying. The benefits are why you buy it. Features appeal to the logical side of your brain. Benefits appeal to the emotional side of your brain, and spell out what those features can do for you. We humans make key decisions based on emotion, then seek out logical reasons to justify those decisions.The features of an accounting firm include your office location, how many partners and how many staff members are on board. The benefits are what those features can mean to a client.

What are the benefits of an accounting firm? 

Here are some examples of translating features into benefits:

Feature: We’ve been in business for 30 years.

Benefits: We’ve been helping businesses and their owners save taxes and improve their businesses for 30 years, so we can help yours too. Our company has been through many changes, so we know what works to keep a business going. We’ll be here to help you today, tomorrow and for years to come.

Feature: We’re responsive.

Benefits: If you call our office with a question, we’ll get back to you that day. If there’s anything you need, or if you have any concerns, we’ll take care of it right away. We won’t leave you dangling, wondering if we got the message.

Feature: Our Tax Partner, John Smith, is a CGMA.

Benefit: John is a Chartered Global Management Accountant (CGMA). People with this designation have specialized knowledge and experience with strategy, management and operations. John can analyze the strengths of your organization to help you with the best business strategy. He understands what it takes to lead a business and can offer you guidance in yours. He can help you streamline the operations of your business so you can take it to the next level.

Feature: We provide bookkeeping services.

Benefit: We’ll take care of your books so you can run your business. We’ll keep you on track so you always know where you stand. With timely, accurate financials, you’ll know how your business is doing.

See how much more inviting it is to hear about the benefits of a firm? Which firm would you choose — the one that just lists all its features, or the one that paints a picture of how those features benefit you?

I’d go with the one that spells out the benefits and explains what they could mean to me. That’s why I still haven’t watched a single episode of “Penny Dreadful.”

If you need help translating the features of your firm into tangible benefits for your clients and prospects, call me at 505-440-3317 or email me at liz@farrcommunications.com. I’ll help you find what makes your firm different from all the others out there. 

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3 Blogging Tips I Learned from Gardening

“In late spring, when your jasmine vine is done blooming, prune it back one-third.” 

I felt like I was destroying this plant that I had coaxed and nurtured from a single cutting. It was lanky, with long leafless vines that produced only a few flowers in early spring. But after the drastic pruning, new growth sprang out and grew all summer. Next spring, I was wowed by the results – instead of a few blooms, a profusion of fragrant white blooms exploded. Now I eagerly wait for the last flowers to drop so I can hack off another third of the plant.

This same principle applies to businesses. When Steve Jobs returned to Apple, he slashed the product line drastically, and the once-struggling company became the one that produced the iPod, the iPhone, the iPad and the iWatch. According to Steve McKee’s book When Growth Stalls, one reason the growth of many companies plateaus or plummets is lack of focus. Narrowing a company’s focus to a small profitable niche can overcome market forces and keep a company growing.

This same principal applies to your blog. Too many ideas and too many words can dilute the one message your readers will grasp from this piece. They’ll be confused, or they may not even finish reading your post.

Here are some ideas to help you keep the unruly vine of your great ideas in check and flourishing:

  1. Choose one idea as the focus of each blog. Before you start to write, pick just one concept to write about. You may have to break that one idea into several pieces if you find your writing branching in too many directions. This can give you several blog posts instead of just one.
  2. Keep it simple. Keep your sentences short and use simple words. Word has built-in review tools that will give you readability statistics, including the grade level. You may need to turn these on under Options. Paying attention to these stats will make your writing easier to understand. Here’s an article that demonstrates that simple writing doesn’t mean the ideas are simple – just easier to read.
  3. Keep your posts short. Your object is not to teach your readers everything you know, but to educate them enough to let them see your expertise. To alert them to issues they may not be aware of. To encourage them to call your office for advice, which is the main reason an accounting firm should have a blog.

Following these ideas will help your blog grow its followers and produce the intended fruit of more and better clients.

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