How to get your first clients
Mark Lee highlights some proven ideas and some preliminary tasks that will ensure those starting up in practice won’t waste time, money and energy.
Is it brave, naive or evidence of a lack of good business sense to set up your own practice before deciding how you will generate your first clients? I must admit I’m surprised by the number of times that this appears to be the case when I’m scanning questions in the Any Answers section of AccountingWEB.
Plenty of good advice has been shared here over the years. However well intentioned, some of the suggestions imply that winning your first new clients is easier than is typically the case.
First things first
Are you looking for bookkeeping work, accounting work, tax returns for private clients, traders, companies or to give advice to businesses and to help them reduce their tax bills? And do you want to be someone’s first accountant or do you want to encourage people to switch from their existing accountant to deal with you in future?
To win your first clients you need to be able to articulate what you can do, who you can do it for and how they will benefit from using you.
Are you going to be “just another accountant”? Or will you be more interesting and attractive than others, perhaps due to a specialist focus or because you will make it more convenient for clients to deal with you rather than their current accountant?
And, most importantly, you need to be clear in your own mind how you are going to price each of your services. What level of fees are you hoping to generate from your first clients? Will you take on just anyone and seek to undercut their current accountant? (NB: This is a short-term approach that leads to all sorts of problems down the line).
Enough about you. What about your target clients? Who are they? Where will you encounter them? What are their problems and issues? How will they benefit from using you as their accountant? It’s not enough to offer personal attention, quality service and home visits. Everyone (almost) highlights these “benefits”.
Can you identify what is genuinely different about working with you and how clients will benefit from this distinction? It’s not easy, I know. But the more effectively you do this the easier you will find it becomes to win those first clients.
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Until you can articulate the issues set out above you will struggle to win new clients, regardless of the methods and routes you pursue.
Those “new to practice” accountants who start out without tackling these issues typically waste money on promotional materials (including website design) that don’t work. They also waste time networking and visiting prospects and referrers to no avail.
Promotional marketing materials and activities will always be more worthwhile when you are able to clearly express what you do, who you do it for, what makes you different and how clients benefit as a result. Your focus should be more on them than on you.
Wayne Morris expressed a similar point last year in his article, Two mistakes that keep accountants poor. He suggested that “the biggest mistake accountants make” is to market themselves as “an accountant”. He explained that “people generally don’t want an accountant, what they want is what an accountant can do”.
Regular readers will know I’m an avid user of various forms of social media. However I remain doubtful that any social media sites are a fast route for new accountants to generate profitable client bases.
Social media is NOT a broadcast medium. It takes time to build relationships and an audience. I would suggest that the new clients you may be most easily able to generate through this medium are themselves new start-up businesses. That’s great if they are your target, but beware some will never become sufficiently profitable to pay decent annual fees.
If new business start-ups are your target audience, do explore Twitter and Facebook in particular. You should also join in with selected online business forums where you can contribute to the discussions and offer advice and help – especially to such businesses.
Linkedin is a very different resource and more about building professional and business connections. As a new practice you need to ensure that your online profile is credible and you need to actively pursue specific prospects. Again, it’s not a quick route to new clients for a new practice. Ignore the hype from marketing people who try to convince you otherwise.
What CAN work for the new practice?
The following top ten list is not exhaustive, but it’s a start. Some options are more costly than others. But one common element is that almost NONE of them will be a worthwhile investment of time, energy and resources until you have addressed the issues referenced above.
1. Telemarketing – interview providers before deciding who you will engage to make calls on your behalf and to identify businesses that you can visit. You then need to be able to close them as new clients – itself a skill you may need to learn.
2. Online directories – get yourself listed on as many worthy directories as you can so that prospects can find you when they are looking for a new accountant online.
3. Your website – ensure that any prospects who look you up online are persuaded to call or email you. Make it easy for them. Include your name on the site – people buy people.
4. Google AdWords – ensure that your online adverts point to specific landing pages on your website that address the issues that prompted the prospects to click on the adverts.
5. Local papers and newsagents’ windows – try to ensure that your adverts stand out from other accountants advertising in the same places.
6. Direct mail – make sure this is personally addressed to specific targets and either indicates that you will be following up with a call or encourages a compelling ‘call to action’.
7. Leaflet drops – like letters, leaflets need a compelling “call to action” such as encouraging a visit to your website to obtain a “free item of value” – and to provide their contact details.
8. Buying a block of fees – remember to do sufficient due diligence to avoid overpaying for these.
9. Regular networking groups – these are more likely to be worthwhile than simply attending ad hoc events where everyone else is doing the same as you – trying to promote their business. No one is there to find a new accountant!
10. Follow up meetings with new contacts – a necessary supplementary activity to make networking worthwhile. You could also try popping into local businesses to introduce yourself. But make sure you have a story that will interest them first.
Three years ago I authored a piece here entitled: HOPE is not a strategy. The key message I shared was that simply “hoping” that everything will work out ok is foolhardy. You need to put strategies in place that go beyond simply hope.
What have you found works when setting up your practice and looking for your first clients?
Mark Lee is consultant practice editor of AccountingWeb and writes the BookMarkLee blog to help accountants have more fun and build more successful practices. He is also Chairman of the Tax Advice Network of independent tax specialists.
These days I describe myself as an 'Immediate Futurist' This reflects my main focus and helps distinguish me from the more general futurologists. Sometimes I am booked to speak after they have highlighted longer term trends and changes.
My own focus involves highlighting what accountants need to do differently to succeed in the...